BACKGROUND: On February 28, representatives of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) read out a message from Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stating that his organization is going to officially abandon the armed struggle in Turkey. The decision is scheduled to be announced by a PKK congress that will be convened later this spring. Öcalan’s declaration was greeted with satisfaction by the Turkish government; however, its representatives failed to acknowledge that Öcalan had put forward a comprehensive program for democratization and autonomy for the Kurds as precondition for the formal abandonment of the armed struggle.
The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) re-launched the “solution process,” its Kurdish peace initiative, in the beginning of 2013. The process has been used by the supporters of the party in the Turkish media as proof of its reformist identity and ambitions. According to this discourse, the AKP’s attempt to solve the Kurdish question indicates its commitment to peace and democracy.
However, the solution process since 2013 has failed to mobilize support for the AKP among liberal circles. These lent wholehearted support to the initial “Kurdish Opening” of the AKP that was launched – and then quickly withdrawn – in 2009. But today, the AKP’s Kurdish policies have come to be greeted with widespread suspicion among liberals, as well as among Kurdish political circles.
The reason for this change of attitude among liberals and other pro-democracy circles that had otherwise been encouraged by the fact that the AKP had ended the regime of military tutelage is to be found in the authoritarian drift of the party since 2011.
The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş goes even further in his indictment of the AKP regime. Demirtaş recently stated that “thirteen years of practice tells us this: I have absolutely no faith in the AKP bringing freedom to the country”.
Hasan Cemal, one of the prominent figures of Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia, argues that the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in fact no game plan for a permanent peace and he holds that the “solution process” will turn out to be a “fake spring” which is used by the AKP for electoral purposes, with the upcoming June 7 general elections in mind.
After AKP took over the government in 2002, Turkish politics came to be defined by a polarization that pitted two sides against each other. Political economist Ziya Öniş, professor of International Relations and the Director of the Center for Research on Globalization and Democratic Governance (GLODEM) at Koç Universtiy in Istanbul, has described this polarization in terms of a rivalry between on the one hand “conservative globalism,” represented by the AKP, and on the other hand “defensive nationalism”, represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Conservative globalism refers to a synthesis of liberal ideas based on democratization, a free market, European Union membership and defense of traditional values that appeal to large segments of voters. Defensive nationalism refers to a strong commitment to secularism and the nation-state. Furthermore, defensive nationalist parties have an anti-progressive image due to their fear-based policies and authoritarian biases. When the Kurdish Opening was launched in 2009, defensive nationalism and its fear-mongering forced the AKP government to abandon the ambitions of the opening.
However, contrary to what might have been expected, the AKP’s convincing victory in the 2011 elections did not have the effect of emboldening the party to pursue these reformist ambitions. Instead, what happened was that the more AKP consolidated its position as the custodian of the regime, the less interest did it display to make democratic reforms.
Especially after the Gezi Protests in 2013 and the graft probe the same year, the AKP’s control over media, civil society and market actors has become ever more pronounced. Furthermore, both the Gezi Protests and the graft probe showed that AKP was inclined to adopt an anti-Western and conspiracy-based discourse when it felt to be under threat. The picture becomes complete when President Erdoğan’s ambition to institute full presidential rule instead of parliamentarianism is added. It is apparent that Erdoğan aims to personally dominate and incarnate the regime and that he sees the AKP as an instrument that will help him realize his personal power ambitions.
It is against this background that liberal intellectuals and Kurdish politicians have come to question Erdogan’s and the AKP’s real intentions in engaging in the “solution process.”
IMPLICATIONS: On February 6, 2015, President Erdoğan in a public speech exhorted voters to provide him with 400 lawmakers in parliament so that the presidential system could be introduced; furthermore, he made a direct connection between this number of deputies and the solution of the Kurdish issue: “If you want the solution process to continue, you have to ensure that there are 400 lawmakers so that a strong party can come to power to realize it.” Needless to say, what Erdoğan was asking for was votes for the AKP. And the crucial point of Erdoğan’s speech was the causal connection that he established between a presidential system and the solution process.
However, this causal connection has two problematic implications. First, Erdoğan takes his control over the parliament for granted in such conditions, that is, that 400 lawmakers will approve the constitutional amendments that will legally enshrine Erdoğan’s present de facto presidential mode of government. Thus, this reveals that Erdoğan not only aims to rule over the executive, but also that he intends to retain his control over AKP’s lawmakers.
Second, it shows that Erdoğan views the à la turca style presidency he favors as a pre-condition for the continuation of the solution process. It would thus appear that Erdoğan wants to consolidate his power in order to settle the Kurdish question.
But Erdoğan’s formulation has created question marks in the minds of liberals and Kurdish political representatives. These suspect that Erdoğan’s causal connection in fact does not reflect his real agenda. That is to say, they believe that Erdoğan’s insistence on having a presidential system is not a sign of a willingness to do what it takes to solve the Kurdish question. Instead, it is the other way around; what it suggests is that Erdoğan uses the solution process to become the absolute ruler of Turkey.
Thus, Kurds and his former liberal supporters have come to view Erdoğan’s engagement with the Kurdish question as being part of his personal ambitions rather than as an expression of any interest in democratization.
HDP co-chairman Demirtaş sums up this skepticism by saying that “the issue of peace should be freed from being part of a political gain, or a piece of bargaining material for the AKP”.
The skeptics also legitimately question whether Erdoğan will be willing to make any concessions to the Kurds once he has absolute power. In other words, they regard the presidential system, which would free Erdoğan from any kind of checks and balances, as a threat to peace instead of its sine qua non.
Kurds and liberals are also deeply concerned over the implications of the law for internal security that the AKP government is about to legislate, despite heavy criticism from the opposition parties HDP and CHP in parliament. The new legislation expands the authority of the police to deal with street protests and further restricts the rule of law: notably, police is accorded the right to detain suspects for a longer time without having a court order. From a Kurdish perspective, the new security legislation appears directed specifically against Kurds, as its introduction was timed after violent protests broke out in the Kurdish areas of Turkey last October, in reaction against the refusal of the Turkish government to help save the Kurdish city Kobane in Syria which was assaulted by the jihadi group ISIS. It is safe to argue that this step has contributed to undermining the confidence of the Kurds in the solution process. Halil Aksoy, an HDP lawmaker, said that the internal security act “dynamites the solution process.”
And by now, it is well-known that Erdoğan has a limited view of democracy: he sees it as restricted to the right to vote, while ignoring the other conditions of democracy such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to protest. Therefore, Erdoğan’s bid for an à la turca presidential system and the new security legislation are cause for deep concern.
The statements that emanate from Kandil, the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and from the HDP reflect the fact that the Kurds are concerned over the consequences if AKP wins a big majority in the June 7 general election. Indeed, the Kurds have reason to ask themselves what leverage they are going to have left if the AKP reaches 400 members of parliament, amends the constitution and Erdoğan becomes president with extended authority. How are the Kurds then going to be able to keep a check on the AKP regime, and ensure that Ankara consents to devolve power to them?
CONCLUSIONS: President Erdoğan and his regime have succeeded in changing the parameters of the Kurdish question: it is no longer treated solely in terms of security, and the military is kept out of the game. However, the regime has not opted for democratization as a way to finally settle the problem, because ultimately, democratization would require that the power of the government is checked. Instead, Erdoğan is using Kurdish peace and the solution process as instruments in his bid to consolidate his position as the unchecked leader of the country.
However, Erdoğan’s bid to concentrate all power to himself has increased the skepticism and reluctance among the representatives of the Kurdish political movement and liberals. The Turkish debate abounds with warnings that the solution process will pave the way for a fully authoritarian government. And there is also the apparent risk that a full-fledged authoritarian regime may not feel compelled to abide by what makes peace possible.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek is Associate Professor at International Relations Department of TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara
(Image attribution: Haber Konya)