Friday, 22 May 2015

The Rising Bar: Prospects for the Kurdish Issue after the Turkish General Election

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By Gareth Jenkins (vol. 8, no. 10 of the Turkey Analyst)

In the run-up to the Turkish general election of June 7, most attention has been focused on whether or not the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) will cross the 10 per cent threshold necessary for representation in parliament and prevent the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from securing a large enough majority to change the constitution and concentrate all political power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But the election is also likely to have a profound effect on the future of the Kurdish issue itself.

 

  

BACKGROUND:  The initiatives launched by the AKP on the Kurdish issue since 2009 can be divided into three phases:

First, the “Democratic Opening”, a process of engagement and consultation which was launched in August 2009 and culminated in a delegation of serving Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) members crossing unhindered into Turkey from Iraq through the Habur border gate in October 2009. Second, the “Oslo Process”, which built on contacts established during the Democratic Opening and led to face-to-face talks in Norway between Turkish government officials and PKK representatives. And third, the dialogue with imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, which was initiated in late 2012.

In each of the three processes, the AKP’s priority was to end the PKK’s campaign of violence, which was first launched in August 1984. In contrast, for Kurdish nationalists, ending the PKK insurgency was dependent on resolving the issue that had fuelled it, namely greater cultural and political rights for Turkey’s Kurds. During both the Oslo Process and the dialogue with Öcalan, it was always the Kurdish nationalists who put forward detailed proposals for a resolution of the Kurdish issue as a whole. In none of the talks did the AKP put forward any detailed proposals of its own.

All three processes were suspended by the AKP rather than by the Kurdish nationalists: the Democratic Opening in an attempt to stem the violent Turkish nationalist street protests that swept the country after the PKK delegation crossed into Turkey from Iraq (the militants were all subsequently arrested and imprisoned); and the Oslo Process and the dialogue with Öcalan in the run-up to the 2011 and 2015 general elections respectively.

Since the beginning of the current election campaign, Erdoğan has singled out the HDP for a stream of excoriating verbal assaults, accusing party members of being terrorists and anti-Muslim infidels. Since April 2015, there have been nearly 60 reported attacks on HDP offices and election stands, including the simultaneous bombings of the party’s local headquarters in the cities of Mersin and Adana on May 18. There is no evidence that the AKP was actively involved in any of the attacks, which have been condemned by the party leadership. Indeed, at least some of the assailants are likely to have been Turkish ultranationalists rather than AKP supporters. Nevertheless, many HDP officials believe that Erdoğan is consciously inciting others to use violence against them.

Even before the beginning of the current election campaign, many Kurdish nationalists had already become deeply skeptical of the AKP’s commitment to resolving the Kurdish issue, suspecting that it had launched each of the three processes merely to try to reap the electoral benefits of being able to claim that it had put an end to PKK violence. Nevertheless, each of the three processes has involved the AKP abandoning what had previously been portrayed as a non-negotiable position.

The Democratic Opening was the first time that a Turkish government had publicly acknowledged the need for engagement with Kurdish nationalists. The Oslo Process broke the taboo on “negotiating with terrorists”, while the dialogue with Öcalan did the same for the taboo on publicly granting him the status of a legitimate interlocutor for the Turkish state. In practice, the breaking of a taboo enabled each process to be differentiated from its predecessor and thus portrayed as a new breakthrough. But taboos cannot be unbroken. The AKP has now raised the bar in terms of what will need to be done in order to convince Kurdish nationalists to take a fourth initiative seriously. Yet neither have Kurdish expectations remained stationery. Here too, the bar is rising, not least as the result of different generational reference points.

IMPLICATIONS: Older Kurds remember the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Kurdish language was banned and state-sponsored death squads terrorized the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. Even if they are frustrated by the AKP’s refusal to make substantive concessions, older Kurds are more prepared to be patient, confident that history is nevertheless now moving inexorably in their direction.

For younger Kurds in their teens and twenties, their reference points are the creation of a Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq and – above all – the emergence of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava in Syria under the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Many Turkish Kurds crossed the border to fight for the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (YPG), during the siege of Kobane in late 2014 and early 2015. Pro-YPG slogans and graffiti are now commonplace throughout southeast Turkey and the YPG flag – a red star on a yellow background with a green trim – has become a regular feature at pro-HDP and pro-PKK rallies. The YPG victory at Kobane in January 2015 gave a huge boost to Kurdish nationalist confidence in Turkey, particularly amongst younger Kurdish nationalists. Few see any reason why they should not enjoy the rights to self-rule as their fellow Kurds in Syria.

Opinion polls suggest that support for the HDP is currently running at around 10 per cent. If the party fails to win any seats on June 7, most of its supporters are likely to assume that it is because of electoral fraud, and distrust of the Erdoğan regime will deepen still further as a result. There is a high risk that this resentment will trigger a cascade of civil unrest, both in southeast Turkey and in urban areas in the west of the country.

If the HDP fails to enter parliament, the party is likely to maintain an office in Ankara but relocate its main organizational hub to the southeast, probably to the city of Diyarbakır, and try to present the AKP with fait accompli by independently facilitating full Kurdish cultural rights, such as opening schools which use Kurdish as the medium of instruction. It is also likely to increase cooperation and consultation between pro-HDP municipalities and thus create a de facto framework for its overriding goal of establishing what it terms “democratic autonomy”.

Despite the high levels of commitment from its supporters, the HDP’s relative limited financial resources remain a major constraint on such initiatives. Moreover, although it likes to portray itself as their representative, the HDP does not enjoy the support of all of Turkey’s Kurds. Any perceived attempt by the HDP to impose its own hegemony – whether on a political or a societal level – is likely to trigger a reaction not only from the central government but also from other Kurdish actors, most notably the Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par) of the Kurdish Hizbullah, which punches considerably above its electoral weight in terms of its ability to mobilize opposition to HDP. The outcome could be considerable turmoil, including an escalation in intra-Kurdish violence.

Supporters of the mainstream opposition parties claim that, if the HDP does enter parliament on 7 June, it will cut a deal with Erdoğan, trading support for the introduction of a presidential system for greater Kurdish cultural and political rights. This is unlikely. HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş has made opposition to Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions one of the cornerstones of the party’s election campaign. Reneging on that promise would seriously damage the HDP’s credibility and risk a premature end to Demirtaş’s political career.

In addition, the HDP has repeatedly insisted that the devolution of some of the powers of the central government is now a prerequisite for a resolution of the Kurdish issue. If the HDP enters parliament, the boost to its confidence is likely to ensure that it becomes even more reluctant to compromise on its core demands. Erdoğan sees a presidential system as a means of concentrating all political power in his own hands. Devolution would reduce the authority of the central government and almost certainly result in Erdoğan exercising less real political power than he does at the moment.

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey is in the final phase of the Erdoğan era. When coupled with the country’s international isolation, the increasing authoritarianism, restrictions on freedom of expression, collapse of any semblance of the rule of law and the deliberate attempts to exacerbate already dangerous social divisions are unsustainable – politically, economically and socially. How long this final phase will last is currently unclear but both its duration and its nature are likely to be largely shaped by the outcome of the June 7 general election.

If the HDP enters parliament, the AKP is highly unlikely to secure the 330 seats it needs to put a new constitution to a referendum. This would be a fatal blow to Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and one which he would be unlikely to accept gracefully. The result would be more political turmoil, which would limit any government’s ability – even if it had the will – to make the concessions necessary to resolve the Kurdish issue; and, flushed with confidence, Kurdish nationalists would be more, not less, insistent on their core demands being met.

If the HDP fails to enter parliament, Erdoğan will intensify his efforts to introduce an autocratic system and his domestic opponents will mobilize to try to stop him. The result, again, would be political turmoil. In addition, under this scenario, the widespread conviction that the HDP’s exclusion was the result of electoral fraud would destroy any lingering vestiges of trust in the AKP’s commitment to resolving the Kurdish issue. Yet without trust it would be very difficult even to launch a new process of engagement – and almost impossible for it to succeed.

There is no doubt that the HDP entering parliament on June 7 would be positive in terms of strengthening Turkey’s ailing democracy, curbing Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism and ensuring the inclusion of Kurdish nationalists in the political process. But, although it is preferable to the party’s exclusion, the HDP entering parliament would not by itself lead to an imminent resolution of the Kurdish issue. Indeed, both scenarios for the general election appear likely to delay any concerted attempt to resolve the Kurdish issue – and, particularly given the rising expectations of younger Kurdish nationalists, the longer a resolution is delayed the higher price the Turkish state is likely to have to pay for it.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Scott Sutherland)

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