Resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey is difficult by any measurement. It has gotten immensely harder with the outbreak of a major political upheaval.
Turkey is once again in politically uncharted wars, and the country is in deep trouble. Events can change quickly, but right now it looks like Prime Minister Erdogan is throwing down the gauntlet at the various heterogeneous opposition groups. So far he has done little listening,
Rather he continues to portray the protests as a plot, facilitated by various “internal and external enemies,” terrorists, and money bags—some read Jews. He now plans to hold competing vastly larger demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey seems set to divide, with profound political effects, unless he changes tactics. These developments could end the first serious and extremely difficult effort to resolve Turkey’s most glaring existential issue—the future of its Kurds.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have made important strides on the Kurdish issue, from opening Kurdish language state television to allowing Kurdish language programs at universities. Most importantly, Erdogan has put the issue front and center. Erdogan also started negotiations with the most reviled man in Turkey—the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan—to end the three-decade insurgency that has cost forty thousand lives. So far Turkey has been reaping the benefits of the peace process. The violence finally halted as the PKK announced a ceasefire and began withdrawing its forces from Turkey.
While the PKK withdrawal marks a major turn in the long conflict, reforms in local administration, education, election and antiterrorism laws need to follow. That requires a new civilian constitution. However, the uprisings and Erdogan’s dismissal of expressed concerns raise questions about the future of the peace process, which above all requires greater democratization. Moreover, events could damage Erdogan sufficiently to prevent him from making the necessary but politically difficult and mostly unpopular changes in the Constitution to solve the Kurdish issue once and for all.
The Kurdish Reaction
Throughout the present uprisings, preserving the peace process has been the top priority for the Kurdish political movement. While more than sixty provinces have been engulfed with protests, relative calm has prevailed in the major Kurdish cities. Even though a Kurdish parliamentarian prevented an earthmover from uprooting the trees in now famed Gezi Park and laid the foundation for mass protests, the Kurdish political movement has been equivocal about the uprising. This can be attributed less to the absence of resentments among the Kurds against the AKP government than a careful policy by main Kurdish political entities.
The Kurdish political parties clearly do not want to jeopardize the peace process by alienating Erdogan. Major Kurdish political figures and PKK leaders necessarily expressed their solidarity with the protesters against the dictatorial prime minister, but also made known their concerns that continuing demonstrations could turn against the peace process. Some Kurds also believe that a weakened Erdogan cannot make the necessary political changes to resolve the Kurdish issue. However, if Erdogan keeps up with his hardline and illiberal stance, it will be harder for Kurds to maintain their distance from the protests. PKK leader Ocalan’s recent statements praising the protests and asking the Kurds not to leave the streets to nationalists and the supporters of “the deep state” may signal further Kurdish involvement in the uprising.
Erdogan’s Dilemma and His Essentiality
For the moment, the political domination of Erdogan and his Turkish miracle has been shaken. The “wall of fear” in the society may be breaking down and people are probably more likely to rise up vocally against government measures or policies they do not like, making it more costly for the government to turn a blind eye to public opposition. Erdogan’s international stature has also fallen. All this is likely to weaken Erdogan’s ability to implement radical, politically unpopular policies (significant constitutional change, greater regional self-rule, possible changes in Ocalan’s jailing) to resolve the Kurdish issue.
So far Erdogan remains unyielding to the protesters, giving a little ground only grudgingly. He bashed President Gul’s and Deputy Prime Minister Arinc’s attempts to mollify the masses, and announced that he will go ahead with the plans to uproot the Gezi Park and build a replica of former Ottoman barracks there. Instead of showing any deference to the concerns of the protesters, who he continues to label as "looters" and "extremists," Erdogan turned to his strong voter base. His defiance can cost him politically
His uncompromising approach is resented even in his own party ranks, and could deepen the divisions within the party, notably along the Erdogan-Gul fault line, and impair his incessant practice of issuing ukases and moral pronouncements.
The already strained ties between Erdogan and the Gulen movement are also likely to further erode. The tension first peaked in 2012, when a public prosecutor in Istanbul called the intelligence chief Hakan Fidan for questioning in a Kurdish case, which Erdogan quickly quashed. This episode was widely interpreted as a move by the Gulenists against Erdogan. While both sides have been trying to patch up damaged relations, tensions remain—and not just under the surface.
The movement, a key player in the political process with its influence in the security forces and judiciary and its important media, has been somewhat ambivalent about the Kurdish peace process. It is, however leaning negatively towards Erdogan’s increasing power and authoritarian tendencies and may further distance itself from the government, which would hurt his ability to manage the Kurdish peace process.
The AKP will remain in control, but it is too early to say anything definitive about the longevity of Erdogan’s continued political domination and his unique ability to implement bold political, social and cultural changes without much challenge. Present events have yet to play themselves out.
The fate of the Kurdish peace process, however, is tied to Erdogan and his efficacy. It will not likely happen without him. His Kurdish efforts have not been particularly popular, and if his political fortunes diminish, he will find it harder to make the necessary concessions to the Kurds, reducing the likelihood of an agreement. The protests also indicate that Erdogan might be forced, despite his strong AKP majority and current support of Kurdish parties, to build a larger consensus across political and civil-society groups in drafting a new constitution: he may well have to give up on efforts to enshrine his cherished presidential system. More importantly, his efforts to write a new constitution with Kurdish rights will be increasingly difficult and quite likely fall short of Kurdish demands. The peace process, difficult enough, may fall victim to Erdogan’s political woes and diminished reputation. Political change is often ironic.
Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. Omer Zarpli is a research associate at the Century Foundation.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Bertil Videt. CC BY-SA 3.0.