Turkish Election Fever

Continuing National Interest coverage of Turkey, Thomas Goltz reports on how the Kurdish question is influencing the run-up to the July 22 parliamentary elections.

ISTANBUL, Turkey-The record-breaking heat-wave that enveloped the country in late June may have subsided, but the temperature continues to rise between the dozen-odd political parties and a multitude of independent candidates contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections on July 22. Major contenders are literally taunting their rivals with the hangman's noose.

"If you don't have a rope, take mine!" bellowed Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), symbolically flinging the gallows instrument at the (absent) feet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). He was referring to Mr. Erdogan's accusation that the government preceding his had not hung Abdullah Ocalan, captured leader of the outlawed and separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), when they had the chance-before Turkey banned the death penalty under pressure from the European Union.

The question of being too soft on separatist Kurds, who have recently mounted a series of bloody attacks across the Turkish southeast-allegedly from safe-havens in northern Iraq-has become the third rail in the election contest. Virtually every candidate has wrapped him or herself in the red and white, star and crescent Turkish flag. Many had believed that the capture of Mr. Ocalan-in Kenya, of all places-in 1999 was the end of the PKK rebellion, which had cost some 35,000 lives and devastated much of the rough countryside in the southeast over the course of 15 years. Partially bowing to EU pressure and partially admitting to decades of head-in-the-sand nationalist idiocy, successive governments recognized the "Kurdish Reality", and allowed Kurdish language instruction and broadcasting rights to the country's estimated 20 million Kurds.

But the ongoing chaos in Iraq has allowed the PKK to regroup and launch new attacks in Turkey, both against hard (military) and soft (civilian) targets from safe-havens in northern Iraq. During the 1980s and 90s, the Turkish military would mount periodic cross-border, hot pursuit missions to eradicate bases with impunity. Now, however, the specter of a massive, cross-border operation into Iraqi Kurdistan brings with it the nightmarish possibility of a confrontation between Turkish and American troops in the same theater, which until now has been the quietest part of war-torn Iraq.

For Turks, however, Iraqi Kurdistan is a terrorist redoubt that must be crushed-but which NATO allies are preventing the Turkish military from accomplishing.

"While anticipating international cooperation in dealing with a terrorist organization, we have difficulty in understanding the lack of response", General Yashar Buyukyanit, chief of the General Staff sternly remarked at a July 3 NATO conference in the Turkish resort city of Antalya. "Among the obstacles is the inability of the international community to define what exactly constitutes an act of international terrorism. Sadly, this fact does not merely prevent international cooperation, but provides a foundation for the spreading of international terrorism."   

Adding fuel to the fire is the recent allegation made by several PKK defectors that they personally witnessed U.S. military vehicles delivering weapons to a PKK base in northern Iraq. Although denounced by the U.S. embassy in Ankara as "ridiculous", the report was broadcast widely and fits into the growing negative view most Turks have about their NATO ally-a negative view captured in the blockbuster movie Valley of the Wolves: Iraq. Loosely based on a real incident in 2003, in which a Turkish special forces team was arrested by American forces in Iraqi Kurdistan and then marched in front of cameras with sacks over their heads, the film pretends to show the aftermath: a second team of Turkish commandos, in alliance with both Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, takes revenge on the psychotic American commander and his men responsible for the humiliation. The film broke all box-office records, but has now been semi-suppressed.

This has not eased the growing antipathy shown by most Turks toward American policy in the region. A recent Pew poll showed that a miniscule 9 percent of Turks have a positive image of their long-time NATO ally, one of the lowest approval ratings in the world.

So sensitive is the American issue that in a recent scenario session held at the Hudson Institute in Washington, the team playing the United States decided against handing over captured members of the PKK to Erdogan's AKP government, lest it be perceived in Turkey that such a gesture meant American support for the AKP in the run-up to the elections. Other elements in the Hudson scenario session-the assassination of a supreme court judge, a mass terrorist action in Istanbul-added little positive to the picture. The very idea that such discussions involving Turkey could be entertained in the American capital was seen as yet another example of potential U.S. perfidy. The pending legislation in Congress marking the so-called Armenian Genocide is mere icing-or more poison-on top of the cake.  

And, as for a Turkish foray into northern Iraq, most believe that it is only a matter of time-and likely to happen before the July 22 elections.

Thomas Goltz is a visiting scholar at the University of Montana's Central and Southwest Asia Studies Program. His most recent book is Georgia Diary (M.E. Sharpe, 2006).