It’s not that Kurds aren’t clear what they want. It’s more like Turks don’t want to hear it. In a public statement last year, leading Kurdish political parties and organizations demanded “democratic autonomy” and a realistic plan for ending the PKK’s war and demobilizing the some eight thousand rebels whose home base is in the remote Kandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. In a June interview with the liberal Turkish daily Taraf, BDP cochairman Selahattin Demirtas laid out a framework for getting to the solution: Halt the arrests of Kurdish officials and activists, and release them from prison; ease conditions for imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who hasn’t had any visits, including from his lawyers, in almost a year; and create a mechanism for dialogue.
Unfortunately, like those who ruled before him, Erdogan’s having a hard time accepting Kurdish nationalism and the popular hold the PKK exerts over Kurdish opinion. As a result, he remains wedded to the idea that if he can do away with the PKK and outspoken Kurdish activists, he can find someone who will be perfectly content with the changes he’s made to date. But that’s not a way to make peace. If he wants to end the fighting, he has to talk to those who have the guns. And if he wants a political settlement with the Kurds, he needs to negotiate with their political party. Anything short of that is just wasting time.
It’s popular to suggest that Erdogan wants a deal, but he has to move slowly because of the nationalist wing in his party and within his voting base. Yet convincing the Turkish public may not be as hard as it seems. When word leaked out about secret talks between the PKK and the head of Turkey’s national intelligence agency, MIT, last year, Erdogan’s government didn’t fall, and his ratings in the polls didn’t drop. When Erdogan announced the new Kurdish-language reform package, the most amazing thing was the lack of reaction among AKP voters. Erdogan’s strength is that he has won the support of the Turkish public—again, again and again. His weakness is that he still hasn’t decided how to use this political capital to solve Turkey’s most fundamental problem.
The Kurdish issue isn’t a matter of selling something to the voters. It’s a matter of selling it to Erdogan.
Aliza Marcus is a writer in Washington, DC, and the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.
Image: World Economic Forum