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Can the AKP's Kurdish Gamble Pay Off?

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Analysis September 30, 2010

Summary: Calls by pro-Kurdish political groups for greater autonomy reect their increas ingly deant stance. Turkey’s ruling AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan face difcult 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.


Washington, DC Berlin Paris Brussels •

BelgraDe ankara BuCharest •

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 eort 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 reorms or bow to nationalist pressure and intensiy the army’s army’s 26-year-long battle against the PKK. Nationalism on the Wane?

Te school boycott was not uniormly  observed. But it reects the increasingly deant stance o the BDP, BDP, which earlier appealed to its constituents to shun the September 12 reerendum on a ra o ar-reaching constitutional reorms. 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 eorts to woo the Kurds as “capitulating to terrorists.” Bahceli B ahceli played heavily on this theme throughout th roughout a pre-reerendum 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 beore. Millions o Kurdish voters stayed at

In the event, voters in the MHP’s MHP’s traditional strongholds approved the reerendum 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 conerence that he might be open to the idea o  a more inclusive denition o urkish citizenship.

Te shi in the public mood is perhaps best illustrated il lustrated by  the indierence 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 ceasere 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. Aer more than a quarter o a century o conict, most urks A September 16 attack on a minibus m inibus in Hakkari almost agree that the rebels cannot be deeated 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, aer decades o neglect, there are hopeul are bitterly opposed to the AKP (and the EU-driven reorms signs that the CHP is seeking to win back the Kurds as well. that are eroding their inuence), 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 conict, most Turks Turks agree that the rebels cannot be

defeated by force. It’ It’s undoubtedly helpul 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 beore 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 ulll, 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 eorts 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 dierences 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

Te German Marshall Fund o the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members o the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to oster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number o initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gi rom Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides o  the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six ofces in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, urin, and Stockholm. About the On Turke Turkey y Series

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