Turkey and the Kurds: Towards a Lasting Peace?

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Image: Office of the Prime Minister of Turkey

In late September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a long-anticipated democratic reform package. The package was in part aimed at the Kurdish population as a way to pursue Kurdish peace and salvage democratic credibility his government lost after it brutally cracked down on protesters this summer. Erdoğan knows that his political future hinges, in part, on his ability to implement a lasting peace with a Kurdish population—a group who had long been denied the right to expression. Electoral politics in the wake of Turkey’s protests as well as conspicuous geopolitical circumstances, which empower Kurdish populations along Turkey’s border, place pressure on the Turkish government to ease its domestic conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Progress on brokering peace between the Kurds has been slow, with Kurds accusing Erdoğan of being more motivated by electoral politics than Kurdish issues. “Tossing out a few crumbs to stall [the process] shows this government lacks the mentality and capacity for a solution,” a September PKK statement said. The Kurdish reaction to the September democratic reform package was tepid.

The unbridled success of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the last decade has effectively created a single-party system in Turkey. This, combined with Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with the European Union, has diminished the AKP’s incentive to implement democratic reforms that might jeopardize their future power. Meanwhile, Turkey’s population has come to perceive the AKP’s ruthless crackdowns on political rivals and its socially conservative political agenda as an affront to the Republic’s sacred, secular values. A mass civic movement this summer protested against Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian governing style, citing the lack of Kurdish rights as one of many grievances.

Erdoğan’s democratic reform package expands political rights—lifting the ban on headscarves in most public institutions, reinstating the Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Assyrian Community, and relaxing provisions against the use of Kurdish language. However, the deepest grievances, especially those against the present Turkish Penal Code, remain unaddressed. Thousands of Kurds, journalists, and others remain prone to imprisonment under the Penal Code’s ambiguous definition of “terrorism.” Furthermore, the reform package failed to offer amnesty to currently imprisoned political activists, journalists, and members of Parliament now serving long detention periods.

Though it has garnered mass popularity, the AKP’s latest reforms remain inadequate and allow for various interpretations of law that could possibly restrict democratic rights. According to Derya Lawrence of openDemocracy:

The provisions that strengthen the protection of individual life-styles and discrimination from hate speech are also positive but they contain hidden dangers…if the amendment is used as a legal platform to punish undesired criticisms, then freedom of expression will suffer even more.

In addition, Gültan Kışanak—co-chair of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)—sharply dismissed the reform package.

Erdoğan may soon face even greater political pressure to reach out to the Kurds. Having lost support from both crucial portions of the voting base and the West—largely because of the brutal crackdown on protestors this summer—Erdoğan is now looking to regain support. While the nationalist voting base balks at broadening Kurdish rights, the AKP cannot afford to appeal exclusively to nationalist sentiments heading into the 2014 election. Owing to the Kurds’ indifferent reaction to the reform package and the strong likelihood that the cease-fire with the PKK will break down, it is in Erdoğan’s best interest to seek greater democratic reform.

Regional geopolitics are also compelling the regime to broaden Kurdish rights. In Syria, the PKK-linked Kurds appear to be the sole beneficiaries of the ongoing war, having managed to occupy a somewhat autonomous zone in the north. Moreover, in northern Iraq, the Kurds govern themselves in a relatively peaceful region considered one of the most promising growth markets for investors in the Middle East. Consequently, Turkey’s neighbors have newly empowered Kurdish populations, and while the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria remain deeply divided along political lines, seeds of cohesion among the Kurds of different countries are emerging. This could elevate the importance of the Turkish government’s appeasement of an oppressed Kurdish minority population. The first official pan-Kurdish meeting in Erbil on November 25, to the chagrin of Baghdad and Ankara, is a compelling development. As Ankara’s links to Kurdish Erbil in Northern Iraq strengthen, a tortured conflict with the Turkish Kurds may dissuade current Kurdish Regional Government president Massoud Barzani—a man aspiring to become a pan-Kurdish leader—from catering to Turkish interests. Despite heavy investment in Kurdish-run Northern Iraq, Barzani may have trouble maintaining strong ties to a Turkish government unfriendly to its own Kurdish population.

Erdoğan seeks to gain distinction by leading Turkey to global preeminence as a model of political and economic development. But this has forced him to juggle a natural tendency to consolidate power with the need to implement democratic reforms, and his hypocrisy has produced discontent resulting in nation-wide protests. With the 2014 Turkish presidential election fast approaching, the regime needs to table the one-party dominance strategy and seek a more inclusive approach to politics. Only then will Erdoğan’s aspirations to be the democratic leader of Turkey be possible.

Human Rights and Dignity

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Eli K. Lovely

Eli Lovely is an Analyst at Kroll Associates. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and holds an M.A. in Democracy and Governance Studies from Georgetown University. Mr. Lovely has worked at the National Democratic Institute and the U.S. Department of State, and has spent over a year living in Turkey as a Fulbright Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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