Friday, 21 November 2008

Kurdish Problem Forces Erdogan to Shift to the Right

Published in Articles

By M. K. Kaya (vol. 1, no. 18 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Faced with an increasingly intractable problem of PKK terrorism, coupled with increasing tensions in society between citizens of ethnic Turkish and Kurdish origin, the governing AKP appears to have moved to the right. Erdogan’s rhetoric has become increasingly nationalistic, aligning itself more with the military brass on issues concerning the PKK, the Kurdish question in general, and Iraq. This has led to some discontent among ethnic Kurdish forces within the AKP, which have been an important support base for the party. The split was most clearly visible in the resignation of the AKP’s deputy Chairman and prominent politician of Kurdish origin, Dengir Firat. This likely has important implications for the AKP’s electoral hopes in upcoming local elections, not least in the Southeast.

BACKGROUND: Though the latest period of the Ottoman Empire can be taken as the era marking the beginning of the Kurdish separatist movements, the terrorist activities of PKK started in 1984 dragged the situation to another dimension. PKK, being recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey as well as the international community, made a significant impact on Turkey’s internal, external, social and economical agenda. While the terror campaign of PKK cost many civilians and security forces to their lives, also country’s resources were allocated to sustain the fight against terrorism and millions of people had to migrate from the east to the west.

In the beginning of 1999, the activities of the PKK slowed down following the capture of Abdullah Ocalan -the leader of PKK- with a carefully planned operation. However, starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the PKK gradually revamped its activities. Unquestionably, Turkey’s failure to calculate the changing balance in the region following the Iraq War contributed to this outcome. When the Turkish Parliament on March 1, 2003, refused to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil in the invasion of Iraq, Turkey effectively accepted its isolation from developments in the region. So while Northern Iraqi Kurds, being in full alliance with the U.S., empowered their autonomy, the PKK also started to flourish in the power vacuum of northern Iraq.

The election of the AKP in 2002 also had significant impact on the region and on the Kurdish movement. In the Milli Görüş or National Outlook Movement, from which the AKP stems, Kurds have occupied important positions. Moreover, the Kurds and Kurdish sheiks have been influential in the Naksibendi religious order, which has been influential on the Milli Görus movement. Taking its cue from Milli Görüş, AKP elites always kept close relations with the Kurds. With a self-perception as being among the aggrieved, the AKP elites accepted a sort of parallelism between their perceived suffering on account of religious issues and the situation of the Kurds. This perception boosted support for the AKP in the region and in the 2007 elections, where the AKP emerged as the leading party among the ethnically Kurdish parts of the population. The many social, political and economic programs that were launched by the government played a role in this regard, as did the AKP’s decision not to order the Turkish Armed Forces to conduct operations against PKK camps in Northern Iraq in spite of increasing PKK activities. This repudiation of a military solution seemed to have a positive impact on the regional population’s view of the AKP.

However, the further increase in terrorist activities after the elections, which escalated to include ambushes on military posts, led to a backlash with popular demonstrations against the PKK across the country, which even risked leading to tensions in society. (See 10 October issue of the Turkey Analyst)

This cornered the AKP, leading it to pass legislation in September 2007 allowing the military to conduct cross-border operations against terrorist targets abroad. In the framework of Turkey’s alliance with the U.S. and in coordination with U.S. forces, a series of operations against the PKK were conducted in the first months of 2008. Since then, the Turkish Armed Forces continued to conduct operations in the region intermittently.

IMPLICATIONS: As the PKK activities increased further in the Summer months of 2008, the military responded with intense military operations and Prime Minster Erdogan began to use more assertive rhetoric against the PKK. In early November, Erodgan held a speech in Van, where he emphasized “One flag, one nation, one country”, adding that people uncomfortable with this could leave the country. This statement, subsequently repeated to the AKP parliamentary group, was criticized in some quarters as a duplicate of the traditional official ideology, and Erdogan was said to be distancing himself from the reformist line. The Chief of the General Staff’s briefing on terrorism in the council of ministers, and Erdogan’s visit to the Egridir commando training camp together with prominent ministers further reinforced this perception.

The military operations, as well as the increasingly nationalist rhetoric on the part of the prime minister, generated visible discomfort and dissent among some of the AKP’s deputies of ethnic Kurdish origin, leading the issue to become an contentious issue in intra-party discussions. It was not long before this led to staff changes in the party’s upper echelons. Early November saw the resignation of Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, the AKP’s second-in-command. Firat, a deputy of Kurdish origin, had long suffered from corruption allegations unveiled by the opposition. Though he stated health problems as the reason for his resignation, there is little doubt that Erdogan’s rhetoric had disturbed the Kurdish deputies and the Kurdish population in general. The protests organized by supporters of the PKK and the legal DTP pro-Kurdish political party, held during Erdogan’s visit to Southeastern Anatolia, were an indicator of this situation.

Of course, for Turkish politics, the reaction of the Kurdish deputies within the AKP holds much greater importance than that of PKK supporters. The PKK-DTP line, which claims to represent the Kurdish people, proved unable to drag itself out of its association with terrorism and violence. On the other hand, many Kurdish deputies in various political parties believe that it is possible to gain cultural rights through democratic reforms. Indeed, during the five years that the AKP has been in power, there were important developments improving the status of Kurdish language and culture. However, the Prime Minister’s current stance seems to be pushing moderate Kurdish deputies to search for other alternatives, where they can express their views. In this context, this raises the potential for the establishment of a moderate Kurdish party, perhaps issued from the Islamic conservative movement, which could provide its alternative versions on how the problems of the Kurdish-inhabited parts of Turkey should be addressed.

Erdogan and Firat - in Happier Times

Prime Minister Erdogan stated two important aims in his political agenda for the 2009 local elections: capturing the municipalities of Izmir and Diyarbakir. Izmir has been dominated by leftist parties, while Diyarbakir is held by pro-Kurdish DTP. However, it is evident that Erdogan’s increasingly nationalist rhetoric undermines the latter aim. Indeed, recent opinion polls show that the Prime Minister’s popularity in the region is decreasing. Notwithstanding the decrease in the polls, there are four months left until the elections, a long period in Turkish politics.

Following the PKK’s ambush of a military post in Aktutun in September, in which 17 servicemen were killed, the government ratcheted up its diplomacy, leading to a trilateral summit on PKK terrorism in Baghdad in November with U.S. and Iraqi representatives. The latest feeling in Ankara, however, is that no concrete results have been accomplished. In turn, that raises the issue of an increase in the military’s authority – something that the Armed Forces are eagerly awaiting. However, these pose problems because it would not be in line with the EU reform package, and moreover would likely prove harmful for AKP’s credibility in the Southeast on the eve of 2009 local elections.

CONCLUSIONS: It appears unlikely that Turkey could provide a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish question in the near future. New reforms in line with Turkey’s EU membership process, which notably lacks the enthusiasm displayed until 2005, do not seem possible currently. Meanwhile, Erdogan has clearly ruled out any prospect of negotiating with a terrorist organization. Being stuck between Kurds, general society and the state, Erdogan appears to seek to gain some more time until the local elections. Public speeches and meetings will not be enough to solve the problem.

Having been punished by the constitutional court for being the focal point of anti-secularist activities, the AKP now wants to respond through a victory at the ballot box. Erdogan’s aim is to emerge victorious from the local elections with an increased share of votes compared to the 22 July general elections. But Erdogan’s maneuvers to gain more time in such an unpredictable issue may not provide the expected results. On the other hand, being exhausted by the “one man” policy of Erdogan, Kurdish deputies may eventually search for a more appropriate platform. Meanwhile, the PKK question remains tightly connected to developments in Iraq. The PKK was rejuvenated after the U.S. came to the region, and Turkey will certainly watch for signs of a potential U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and take appropriate measures.

During the last fortnight, the plight of the discriminated Alevi minority caught the attention of several columnists. The statements of Prime Minister Erdogan about Iran and the question of nuclear arms were commented upon. The wide-ranging debate about the heritage of Kemal Atatürk continued. And the columnists try to make sense of the ideological sea-change underway in the ruling AKP and the opposition CHP respectively.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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