By Toby Sterling, Associated Press
A lobby group began a campaign Tuesday to urge Dutch voters of Turkish ancestry to boycott any party that labels the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in Turkey genocide.
The campaign - three weeks before November 22 national elections - is a setback for both major parties, the governing Christian Democrats and the Labor Party, which have struck ethnic Turk candidates off their rolls for refusing to use the term "genocide" to describe the killing of Armenians during World War I. Events that took place far beyond Dutch borders nearly a century ago have became a surprise campaign issue in elections otherwise focused on bread-and-butter economics.
The lobby group, which calls itself Turks Forum, distributed posters urging voters to write in a candidate of the small centrist D-66 Party in the elections. D-66 is the only mainstream party that doesn't refer to the slaughter as genocide in its stated positions.
The European Parliament has said Turkey should be required to recognize the killings as genocide before it is considered for EU membership. The French parliament voted for a bill that, if enacted, would make denying the genocide a crime.
"Who should the Turkish community's votes go to? Let's use the voting ballot to teach a lesson to those who want to limit our democratic rights!" said the Turks Forum poster. It is being distributed in the country's largest cities, where ethnic Turkish populations are concentrated.
The poster carries pictures of ethnic Turk candidates with a red cross and the words "definitely not" in Turkish next to the names of parties that say the killings constituted genocide. At the top of the list is a photo of a candidate for the D-66 party, Fatma Koser Kaya, with the word "evet," Turkish for yes.
Koser Kaya wrote on her Web site that allowing open debate on the matter was a matter of free speech. "Many hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered" in 1915, she wrote. "Definitely, there can be no doubt about it. There needs to be, in Turkey, too, an adult and scientific debate over what exactly happened during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, who is responsible, and how those events should be described."
"But the point is ... why are Dutch candidates of Turkish descent being pilloried and forced to confess a 'genocide' standpoint?"
D-66, which has been in a decade-long decline, was forecast to disappear entirely during this election. But the Turkish issue has helped it recover slightly, and recent polls show it holding two seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament.
Meanwhile, Labor, which led in most polls a month ago, has now fallen slightly behind the incumbent Christian Democrats. Immigrant voters traditionally have supported Labor or other left-leaning parties. In an apparent attempt to limit political fallout, Labor's National Party Chairman Michiel van Hulten wrote to local party offices in The Hague and Rotterdam instructing them not to use the issue as a litmus test for Turkish-Dutch candidates, newspaper Trouw reported.
The killings of 1 million or more Armenians starting in 1915 has been the subject of academic and political debate across Europe, especially in view of Turkey's application for EU membership. Most European governments consider it a genocide. Turkey denies the deaths resulted from systematic slaughter, saying estimates of 1.5 million dead are wildly inflated and that both Armenians and Turks were killed in fighting during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. government does not use "genocide" to define the killings.