DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke out on Monday against a court ban on a Kurdish party that caused angry protests and plunged the country into political uncertainty.
The court ruling drew criticism from the European Union, dealing a new blow to Turkey’s faltering hopes of EU membership.
“Our position against the closure of the DTP is clear ... We are against the closure of parties. We think individuals should be punished, not a (party) identity,” Erdogan told parliament.
The leader of the banned Democratic Society Party (DTP), closed after being found guilty of links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), said former party members would resign from parliament in protest.
This could open the way for by-elections, increasing political uncertainty ahead of national polls due in 2011.
In Diyarbakir, the largest city in the primarily Kurdish southeast, thousands of Kurds took to the streets, watched by riot police, for the fourth day of protests since the court disbanded the only Kurdish party in parliament.
In the town of Dogubeyazit, angry protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police, who fired back with tear gas and water cannon.
Clashes have erupted mainly in villages in the southeast, but also in the heart of Istanbul’s shopping and entertainment district on Sunday, raising ethnic tensions.
The European Commission warned Turkey on Monday that the court verdict could deprive a substantial number of voters of representation, which it said was essential to Ankara fulfilling its democratic mandate.
The ruling AK Party wants to push reforms aimed at ending decades of conflict with Kurdish separatists by increasing the rights of Turkey’s roughly 12 million Kurds.
Investors who are hardened to the emerging market’s domestic turmoil were relatively untroubled by the events.
The Turkish lira and bonds weakened moderately on Monday but shares were in positive territory, boosted by news of Abu Dhabi’s surprise $10 billion bail-out of debt-stricken Dubai.
DTP deputies, riding an open-top bus, received a heroes’ welcome when they arrived at Diyarbakir on Monday after a flight from Ankara, as around 5,000 people flooded the streets in a largely peaceful protest against the party’s closure.
The chairman of the former party, speaking in the predominantly Kurdish city, said there was no longer any reason to remain in parliament.
“As you know, we have said before there is no reason to stay in parliament if our struggle for democracy is not taken into consideration ... We will submit our resignations to the speaker of the parliament in the shortest possible time,” said DTP chairman Ahmet Turk.
Other MPs speculated that they could join an alternative pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.
Earlier in the day police fired water cannon when a group of youths pelted them with rocks and ripped up street signs. Protesters also stoned a local office of the AK Party and several people were arrested.
Some protesters carried portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK.
The Constitutional Court ordered the closure of the DTP after finding it guilty of cooperating with the PKK, branded a terrorist organization by Washington, Brussels and Ankara.
The PKK has fought for 25 years for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey. Some 40,000 people have died in the violence since 1984.
The Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of the population, were for decades forbidden to use the Kurdish language, and have long complained of discrimination.
(Additional reporting by Pinar Aydinli)
Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore