Summary: Calls by pro-Kurdish political groups for greater autonomy reect their increas ingly deant stance. Turkey’s ruling AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan face difcult choices ahead of next year’s elections, either engaging the Kurds or bowing to nationalist pressure against pro-Kurdish groups. Although nationalist groups have criticized the AKP for supposedly capitulating to terrorists, the recent referendum suggests waning support for a hard line approach. At the same time, the AKP’s refusal to lean too far forward means that the best thing Erdoğan can do is keep engaging Kurdish leaders.
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Can the AKP’s Kurdish Gamble Pay Off? by Amberin Zaman
On September 20, millions o urkish urkish children returned to school or the start o the academic ye ar. ar. Not so in Hakkari, a remote and determinedly rebellious province in urkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Children boycotted classes under orders rom the country’s country’s largest proKurdish Kurdish party, the Peace and DemocDemo cracy Party (BDP), which is closely allied with rebels o the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Aimed at protesting existing bans on Kurdish language education in state-run schools, the move is part o a broader eort by the Kurdish group to push or what it calls “democratic autonomy” autonomy” or sel-governance in the Kurdish Kurdish majority provinces.
home. In Hakkari, only 9 percent showed up at the ballot box. It was the lowest turnout in the country. urkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep ayyip Erdoğan, aces tough choices ahead o nationwide parliamentary elections in June 2011. Erdoğan can either engage with the Kurds Kurds and press ahead with w ith reorms or bow to nationalist pressure and intensiy the army’s army’s 26-year-long battle against the PKK. Nationalism on the Wane?
Te school boycott was not uniormly observed. But it reects the increasingly deant stance o the BDP, BDP, which earlier appealed to its constituents to shun the September 12 reerendum on a ra o ar-reaching constitutional reorms. Te BDP declared that the package, approved approved by some 58 percent o urkish voters, contained “nothing or the t he Kurds.” Kurds.”
Both options carry risks. Devlet Bahceli, the hawkish leader o the arright Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has labeled the t he AKP’s AKP’s previous eorts to woo the Kurds as “capitulating to terrorists.” Bahceli B ahceli played heavily on this theme throughout th roughout a pre-reerendum campaign aimed at discrediting the constitutional amendments. His case might have been served by a sharp escalation in PKK attacks over the summer months that le scores o urkish soldiers dead.
Egged on by the PKK, the t he Kurds are exing their muscles as never beore. Millions o Kurdish voters stayed at
In the event, voters in the MHP’s MHP’s traditional strongholds approved the reerendum in droves. Most embarrassingly emb arrassingly
o all they t hey did so in Bahceli’s Bahceli’s native Osmaniye province. Tis surprise outcome suggests that an increasing number o urks urks are open to the idea o accommodating the Kurds, Kurds, and that come the elections, the MHP may even ail to win the minimum 10 percent o the national vote needed to win seats in the parliament.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces tough choices ahead of nationwide
parliamentary elections in 2011. 2011.
Good Kurds, Bad Kurds
Erdoğan says the government will never talk to Ocalan. But security ofcials, notably successive directors o urkey’ urkey’ss National Intelligence Intelligence agency MI, MI, continue to do so. And on September 24 BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas was granted a long-awaited audience with top AKP ofcials, including hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek and Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin. Te talks reportedly ocused on details o a new constitution Erdoğan has promised to deliver i the AKP is re-elected to single rule next year. year. Te Kurds insist that any new constitution should alter the wording o article 166, which w hich deems all urkish citizens to be “ urks.” urks.” Tey also want the threshold or entry into parliament (designed to keep the Kurds out) to be lowered and the bans on Kurdish language education to be eased. Although Erdoğan remains opposed to Kurdish Kurdish language instruction in government schools, he hinted during a recent news conerence that he might be open to the idea o a more inclusive denition o urkish citizenship.
Te shi in the public mood is perhaps best illustrated il lustrated by the indierence displayed to the government’s government’s recent admission that assorted urkish ofcials have at various junctures held talks with the PKK’s PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Te meeting with w ith the BDP suggests that the government’s government’s Ocalan, ostensibly to secure a deal or the militants to new strategy is to publicly engage the Kurds’ Kurds’ elected leaders l eaders lay down their arms. Te last such attempt, last October, October, and to get the PKK to extend the unilateral ceasere it came to naught when a group o PKK militants returned declared on August 13 until the June parliamentary electo urkey urkey rom Iraq via the Habur gate. It was a goodwill tions. At the same time, it is piling pressure on Ocalan gesture and more were to ollow. ollow. But when the militants to order his men to withdraw rom urkey to Kurdishproceeded to tour the southeast delivering “victory” controlled northern Iraq, where the PKK leadership is speeches in their guerrilla garb, there ensued a public based. Te government appears to be suggesting that should outcry. A PKK attack on a convoy o urkish soldiers in the voters give the AKP a third term o single rule, it would northeastern province o okat last December delivered the then revive an amnesty plan allowing al lowing PKK rebels untainted coup de grace. Te government was orced to put its much by violence to return home and rewrite the constitution in touted “Kurdish “Kurdish opening” on ice. ways that would take at least some o the Kurds’ Kurds’ demands into account. Yet public debate o the Kurdish Kurdish issue has continued. Aer more than a quarter o a century o conict, most urks A September 16 attack on a minibus m inibus in Hakkari almost agree that the rebels cannot be deeated by orce. Over the derailed the talks between the government and the BDP. BDP. past months, assorted politicians, commentators, and other Speaking through his lawyers, Ocalan Oc alan suggested that rogue public gures have lent support to the idea o strik ing a deal PKK elements acting in cahoots with w ith urkish urkish security with Ocalan. urkey’s urkey’s hawkish generals gener als have not uttered a ofcials rom the so-call ed “deep state” state” were behind the peep. More crucially perhaps the pro-secular main opposiexplosion that claimed nine lives. Te aim was to provoke tion Republican People’s People’s Party (CHP) has changed tack. Its the kind o public outcry that would orce the AKP to new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, recently declared that i cancel the meeting. m eeting. Te “deep state,” state,” a shadowy alliance o talking to Ocalan would help end the bloodshed, then “why rogue security ofcials and like-minded like-m inded bureaucrats who not?” Indeed, aer decades o neglect, there are hopeul are bitterly opposed to the AKP (and the EU-driven reorms signs that the CHP is seeking to win back the Kurds as well. that are eroding their inuence), has been blamed or a
string o similar simil ar provocations. Although the “deep state” has been considerably weakened thanks to the ongoing Ergenekon trial, it is by no means me ans dead.
After more than a quarter of a
century of conict, most Turks Turks agree that the rebels cannot be
defeated by force. It’ It’s undoubtedly helpul that Ocalan has publicly admitted that there are saboteurs within the PKK. Tis may, in turn, rally nationalist Kurdish Kurdish opinion behind the moderates mo derates led by a top PKK commander, Murat Karayilan, who is widely believed to be b e more amenable to a deal. Yet it is highly unlikely that either Ocalan or Karayilan can persuade a critical mass o ghters to lay down their t heir weapons without the AKP delivering some substantial concessions in return. And should the army continue to attack the rebels unpro voked, the entire process could blow up in the AKP’s AKP’s hands. Erdoğan may well have persuaded the top army command to hold its re. But the “deep state” state” will almost al most certainly continue to seek to reignite the violence because this remains their sole means o undermining the government in the run up to the elections. No wonder the government is so eager or Ocalan to persuade his urkey-based ghters to retreat to northern Iraq. Keep Talking
Given these risks, what w hat are the AKP’s AKP’s options in the highly critical period beore the elections? Clearly the government doesn’t have the time to dra a new constitution, let alone build consensus around it. And Erdoğan must not raise expectations that he cannot ulll, otherwise another Habur-type Habur-type asco may occur. o ccur. But the AKP can make some symbolic gestures such as allowing villages in the southeast to reclaim their original Kurdish names and stepping up investment in the southeast. Suspending construction o a controversial dam, which is poised to submerge the Kurds’ Kurds’ most treasured historical site, Hasankey (never mind that it reached its zenith under the urkic Artukids), would also als o
create immeasurable goodwill. But above all, the AKP must keep talking to the BDP. BDP. A meeting between Erdoğan and BDP leader Demirtas would send a strong signal that the government is sincere in its eorts to build bridges with the Kurds. Just as importantly, Erdoğan must reach out to CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu and win his support or solving the Kurdish Kurdish problem. Tis will b e difcult because bec ause Kılıçdaroğlu has yet to consolidate c onsolidate his own position within w ithin the CHP. CHP. Additionally, Additionally, matters will be urther complicated by the elections. Te AKP remains the BDP’s biggest rival in the southeast. Te challenge or both groups is to set aside their dierences and join orces against their common enemies in the deep state.
Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and also writes a column twice a week for the mass circulation Turkish
daily Haberturk. About GMF
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