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[OPINION] Turkey’s Kurds and their expendability in AKP politics

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The AKP’s rise to power in 2002, brought along its commitment to address the longstanding Kurdish issue, by underlining the need for a different approach as compared to that of the kemalist administrations. However, the government’s promises were overshadowed by its hesitation on implementing ethnic-linguistic rights to the Kurds, legislation voted by the outgoing coalition government in 2002; it was only by 2009 that these became possible, whereas political propaganda during election campaigns in languages other than Turkish, was legalised in April 2010.

The government policy to address the issue through negotiations can be summarised in three separate attempts. First, was the 2009 initiative, which included a reform and
reconciliation process and wide-ranging amnesty for PKK rebels and was linked to the 2010 referendum for a more democratic constitution. The initiative received strong criticism, both from the nationalist opposition parties and the pro-Kurdish DTP. The Kurdish rejection was based on the exclusion of their principal demands from the constitutional reform package and the prosecution of a number of Kurds involved in politics, such as mayors, activists and trade union members.

The second attempt, was the “Oslo meetings”, a series of secret meetings between Turkish officials and the PKK that run from 2005-2011 and aimed at PKK disarmament. The Turkish government denied Öcalan’s involvement and PM Erdoğan made clear that he would never accept the PKK as the representative of the Turkish Kurds. However, he could not avoid the embarrassment, when an audio recording of a meeting between MİT director, Hakan Fidan, and PKK officials wanted by the Turkish state, leaked to the public after the June 2011 elections. The government wanted to avoid infuriating the nationalist and ultranationalist feelings, which were now considered potential electoral supporters.

The third attempt was a round of informal peace negotiations with the PKK leadership and the pro-Kurdish BDP, called Solution Process, towards the end of 2013. PKK leader A. Öcalan called for an end to the armed conflict and PKK’s acting leader, M. Karayılan, enforced an indefinite ceasefire on PKK operations, while the Turkish armed forces suspended their operations on the Qandil Mountains in north Iraq. Bringing the PKK and the BDP at the same table of negotiations was Ankara’s recognition of the BDP as the official political wing of the PKK, something that the Turkish governments have been strongly denying to do and also the main reason for the ban on a series of pro-Kurdish political parties in 24 years. Consequently, this radical change from Turkey’s traditional practice produced strong negative reaction from the nationalist political parties. The Solution Process was abruptly terminated after the June 2015 elections with an official declaration that “there no longer existed a Kurdish issue” and that “all possible rights had already been granted”.

The first glimpses of Erdoğan’s change of policy are traced in his November 2008 Diyarbakır comment about “One nation, one flag, one motherland and one state” that unsettled the Kurdish population and partially led to the resignation of the AKP’s deputy leader of Kurdish origin, Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat. By 2011, the AKP’s strategy has shifted to securing nationalist votes rather than Kurdish ones, in contrary to 2007. The secrecy in the Oslo meetings meant that the government wanted to avoid publicity, since any kind of official negotiations with the PKK would severely undermine the AKP’s influence on nationalist voters. Therefore, there was little room for political concessions to the Kurds from the government’s side and its strategy was leading to a dead-end. In the June 2015 elections, the AKP’s failure to secure the majority of the seats was blamed to the rise of the Kurdish HDP and to the loss of nationalist votes to the MHP; this marked the end of Erdoğan’s alternative approach to the Kurdish issue or to what Kerem Öktem calls “pragmatic problem management, misunderstood by many as a major softening in Turkey’s security-minded Kurdish policy”. Since then, state policy towards the Kurds has returned to the security-oriented kemalist approach, with the Kobani crisis also playing its role.

PM Ahmed Davutoğlu’s 2016 action plan focused on public order and socio-economic conditions in the southeast provinces, while it did not respond to the political and democratic demands of the Kurds, it blocked HDP from all consultation mechanisms where the problems of the region would be discussed and made clear that the PKK would not play any part in this process. However, his disagreement with President Erdoğan regarding the resumption of the negotiations with the PKK, was partly to blame for his ousting from the government. His resignation was soon followed by a crackdown on HDP politicians, including MPs and party leaders. Since then, Turkey was plunged into the whirlwind of Erdoğan’s autocracy under the shadow of the coup attempt that includes widespread demonization and purge of dissidents, human rights violations, restrictions and curfews in the southeast.

After the AKP-MHP cooperation for the 2017 constitutional referendum, the two parties are closing in on an election alliance, in view of the 2019 general elections. President Erdoğan is simply not interested to target the root causes of the Kurdish issue. He wants the nationalists’ support and he has been pursuing it by aligning himself with the MHP’s view of the Kurdish issue; that includes politically eradicating the HDP and returning to strictly security-oriented policies for the PKK, which are currently extended into Syria, although the Afrin invasion should not be limited to Ankara’s PKK-PYD affiliation claims. Under these conditions, one should not expect any softening in the government policy towards the Kurds and the Kurdish issue, at least until the forthcoming general elections, simply because the nationalist vote is fundamental in Erdoğan’s strategy to secure the win in the new presidential Turkish republic he has curved.

Dr Anthony Derisiotis is a lecturer of Turkey and the Middle East, at the Department of Turkish and Modern Asian studies, of the National and Capodistrian University of Athens. He has graduated from the Department of Turkish Studies of the University of Cyprus and got his MA and PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He teaches Turkish political history and foreign policy. His publications and research interests include Turkish domestic and foreign politics, with a special focus in the Middle East and the United States, as well as the Kurdish issue. He has previously held a research associate position at the Hellenic House of Parliament.

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