ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - A warning from Kurdish militants that negotiations with Turkey could be on the verge of collapse has turned parliament into the key battleground in a peace process meant to end a three-decade insurgency.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) warned from their base in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains on Tuesday that Turkey must take concrete steps to advance the process, piling on the pressure ahead of a general election in June.
The signs from parliament overnight were not promising.
Punches flew as deputies debated controversial legislation to boost police powers, legislation which the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - a key player in the peace negotiations - said would legitimize what it called “state terror”.
Hopes had been running high that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, jailed on the island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea, would call an end to an insurgency that has killed 40,000 people and stunted development in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
“The package destroys not just the peace process but all the peace dynamics in society. This is a bid to crush opposition,” said Selahattin Demirtas, joint leader of the HDP, whose deputies shuttle between Imrali and Qandil in pursuit of a deal.
Speaking to reporters before the brawl, in which five opposition MPs were hurt, he riled Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu by saying “the government has homework to do” and accusing it of suppressing details of Ocalan’s peace plans.
“Nobody can give the government homework,” Davutoglu shot back, warning against efforts to block the legislation.
“If they are going to take a filibustering stance, we will not allow parliament to be jammed up and will not bow down to threats,” he said during a visit to Pakistan.
President Tayyip Erdogan, who has boosted Kurdish cultural rights in more than a decade in power, began peace talks with Ocalan in 2012, risking nationalist wrath.
Winning a disarmament pledge from the PKK could boost chances that the AK Party he founded wins enough of a majority in the June election to facilitate his plans to change the constitution and create a stronger presidency.
“The government is insisting on getting a guarantee on disarmament so that it can go into the election solidly, saying ‘we have stopped the mothers’ tears, we are close to peace’,” political commentator Cengiz Candar told Reuters.
Davutoglu said Ankara had the right to expect a PKK pledge to renounce armed struggle. But the PKK’s reaction to the bill on police powers, which it termed “fascist” legislation, has clouded prospects of such a deal.
“It is clear that a mentality so closed to democracy, peace and negotiations will take no steps on Turkey’s democratization and solving the Kurdish problem,” the PKK said in its statement.
The bill boosts police powers to search people and property and increases penalties for carrying petrol bombs, slingshots and fireworks - all commonly used in Kurdish protests. Anyone hiding their face with headscarves at militant protests will face up to five years in jail.
“This package, which will drag Turkey into darkness, must be withdrawn immediately,” HDP deputy Pervin Buldan, a member of the delegation that visits Ocalan, told a news conference.
The AKP has a strong parliamentary majority and Erdogan has signaled there will be no backing down.
“It is not a process of bargaining or give-and-take. The peace process is not about giving concessions. We will not allow any step which would hurt the memories of our martyrs,” he said in a speech addressing nationalist concerns.
Davutoglu has defended the legislation as necessary after Kurdish unrest in which dozens died last October, sparked by anger over Turkey’s reluctance to intervene against Islamic State militants besieging the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
That violence was seen by some observers as evidence that the PKK, despite the peace overtures, was seeking to consolidate its power in southeastern towns. The group launched a separatist armed struggle in 1984 before moderating its goal to boosting rights of Turkey’s roughly 12 million Kurds.
“By putting its resistance to the package to the fore, Qandil has shown it has no intention of giving up the initiative it seized in urban centers,” political commentator Rusen Cakir wrote in the Haberturk newspaper.
The HDP has meanwhile submitted its own draft law boosting freedom of expression, political association and assembly, lifting obstacles to autonomy and removing a 10 percent threshold of votes before parties can enter parliament.
That threshold is unlikely to be changed by June and could prevent the HDP from re-entering parliament. Their absence could hand the AK Party more seats but leave it isolated in enacting laws related to the peace process.
The PKK’s role in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq has also dimmed prospects of full disarmament by a group designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Tom Heneghan