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The Use and Abuse of the Kurdish Question

[Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) protest against President Erdoğan's policies in front of the Swiss Federal palace in July 2016. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.] [Members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) protest against President Erdoğan's policies in front of the Swiss Federal palace in July 2016. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.]

In August 2005, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made what was, by Turkish standards, a remarkable public statement. Speaking at a rally held in the spiritual capital of Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast, a location which only added to the symbolism of the occasion, Erdoğan stated that with regards to Turkey’s Kurdish population, “mistakes had been made,” further noting that: “The Kurdish problem does not belong to a certain part of this [Turkey’s] society alone, but to all of it. It is also my problem.” In a country in which the very existence of the Kurdish community, let alone the “Kurdish question,” was in dispute, this was an extraordinary confession for a Turkish Prime Minister to make. It won immediate praise from a number of Kurdish political leaders. Indeed, Diyarbakır mayor Osman Baydemir, a leading figure in the Kurdish movement at the time, proclaimed that Erdoğan’s statement as constituting “the foundation for turning a new page in relations" between Kurds and the government. While in the summer of 2005 the war between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued to rattle on (despite the capture of the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999), never had the prospects for peace in the Kurdish-inhabited districts of Eastern Anatolia looked so promising.

Yet today violence in Turkish Kurdistan has resumed with a vengeance. Since the summer of 2015, between four hundred and two thousand civilians have been killed in violence between the PKK and the Turkish authorities, and hundreds of thousands more being displaced. Today, Diyarbakır, as well as many other towns in the region, lies devastated, more closely resembling the war-torn cities of Aleppo or Mosul than the thriving metropolises of western Turkey. And the architect of this dramatic turn-around? None other than Erdoğan himself, whose volte-face on the Kurdish question is of Orwellian proportions.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power, in part, through reaching out to Turkey’s long-marginalized and oppressed Kurdish minority. From the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 to the election of the AKP in 2002, Ankara’s policies towards Kurds had been shaped by denial. In the imagination of the Turkish political elite, the “Kurdish question” was fabrication of hostile foreign powers who played on the uneducated population in Turkey’s underdeveloped south-east. The result was that government policies towards the Kurds were “security focused,” with even the most mundane expression of Kurdish cultural distinctiveness (such as a love for Kurdish folk music or the desire to give one’s offspring Kurdish names) being viewed with official suspicion.

In this contrast, the AKP's initial branding as a mainstream center-right Islamic Party included greater civil rights for Kurds and a willingness to negotiate with armed resistance groups. Indeed, the AKP’s initial posture towards Turkey’s Kurds hinted at a recognition that such a change in direction was not only favorable because the policies of earlier administrations had failed, but also that they had been unjust. While progress on the Kurdish question in Turkey was painfully slow, there is no doubt that the early years of the AKP administration witnessed a significant degree of liberalization, despite periodic upticks in violence and conflict. Restrictions on Kurdish culture were lifted, Kurdish language departments in universities were opened, and even the state broadcasting agency opened up a Kurdish language channel. In early 2009, the government announced its “democratic opening (demokratik açılım),” a raft of reforms designed to reach a final political settlement. The “democratic opening” eventually stalled. However, in late 2012, the AKP government announced that it had been in talks with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, a step which was nothing short of revolutionary.

The policies pursued by the AKP towards finding a political settlement to the Kurdish question—however limited and, at times, half-hearted—represented a progressive departure from earlier Turkish administrations. Of course, there was evidently a strong element of political calculation in the government’s relatively liberal approach. The AKP’s Kurdish gamble had paid significant dividends. On the most concrete level, the party was able to secure significant Kurdish electoral support. At the same time, the relative decline in bloodshed in Turkey’s southeast, when compared with the horrors of the 1980s and 1990s, allowed the AKP, or perhaps more accurately Erdoğan, to focus on consolidating power and moving against those viewed as its enemies within the “deep state” and the Kemalist establishment. So what went wrong?

It is certainly true that tit-for-tat violence between the PKK and government forces did not help the situation. Moreover, as the peace process at home stalled and security in the wider Middle East broke down, the AKP government moved noticeably to the right on not only the Kurdish question, but on security questions in general. However, the primary explanation for the reversal of Turkey’s government policy towards the Kurdish question is the utter cynicism of Erdoğan, who seems to have been more than willing to sacrifice peace with the Kurds in order to enhance his personal power and authority.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this whole state of affairs is that the growing success of peaceful Kurdish activism, which flourished in the relative calm of the 2000s, seems to have precipitated Erdoğan’s volte-face. The nature of the Turkish electoral system, which denies representation to political parties that win less than ten percent of the national vote, meant that the AKP was able to pick up the majority of parliamentary seats from Turkey’s southeast, despite often coming in second to candidates from pro-Kurdish political parties such as the HEDEP (1997-2005), DTP (2005-2009), BDP (2008-2014), and HDP (2012) in particular Kurdish districts. In order to work around this, Kurdish political parties often ran their candidates as independents which, while assuring some parliamentary representation, allowed the AKP to control a share of parliamentary seats from the Kurdish southeast out of proportion to their actual support.

However, in the June 2015 elections, the HDP took a gamble, running as a party list rather than a collection of independents, and to many peoples’ surprise (including, one might assume, Erdoğan) successfully won thirteen percent of the national vote and eighty seats in parliament. In doing so, the HDP helped obliterate the AKP’s parliamentary majority. Moreover, in the short term, the HDP’s success scuppered Erdoğan plans to secure a super majority, which would have allowed him to change the constitution, transforming the largely ceremonial presidency, to which he had been elected in 2014, into nothing short of an elected-despot.   

It seems to have been this electoral humiliation that constituted the tipping point in Erdoğan’s relations with the Kurds. Barely a month after the election, Turkish Kurdistan was once again spiralling towards war. On 20 July 2015, an Islamic State terrorist attack in the border-town of Suruç claimed the lives of some thirty-four young Turkish and Kurdish activists who had been planning to cross into Kurdish-controlled Syria to assist in the reconstruction of the city of Kobanî. Two days later, two Turkish police officers suspected of being involved in the Suruç bombing were killed in a “revenge” attack attributed to the PKK. It should be noted this point that, even at the height of the peace process, violence in Turkey’s southeast never entirely disappeared. Indeed, in the fall of 2014, Kurdish cities had been the scene of violent clashes between security forces and Kurdish protestors angered by the refusal of the government to allow Kurds from Turkey to cross into Syria to assist their compatriots in the defence of Kobanî, which at the time was under siege from the Islamic State. Hence, had Erdoğan and the AKP been truly committed to peace, it would have been easy to walk back from the precipice. Instead, following the Suruç attacks, Erdoğan chose to escalate, terminating all hopes of a negotiated solution to the Kurdish question. 

This abandonment of the peace process reflected a shift in Erdoğan’s strategy to consolidate power. It seems that the HDP’s success convinced Erdoğan of the limits of his support amongst the Kurds. Thus, Turkey’s president sought an alternative strategy, pandering to anti-Kurdish sentiment in order to consolidate support on the nationalist right. Not only has this involved a renewal of the struggle against the PKK, but also the criminalization of the HDP, manifested in a wave of arrests of elected HDP officials. Indeed, a month before the failed 2016 coup d’état, the AKP passed legislation, which was supported by members of the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) as well as the far-right National Action Party (MHP), which removed parliamentary immunity, a move that laid the legal foundations for the arrest of HDP leaders Figen Yüksekdağ and Salahattin Demirtaş in the aftermath of the coup.

There is a certain degree of irony this reversal. While Erdoğan’s approach to the Kurdish question today is diametrically opposed to the policies he was advocating a decade ago, it is significant that the use (and abuse) of the Kurds remain central his political strategies, albeit in the most cynical way. As Erdoğan has reached for greater and greater power in referendums, he has been able to use a hard-line position on the Kurdish question to fortify his base and reach a broader section of nationalist voters.

Now, as Turkish civil society gears up for another round of resistance to Erdoğan, opposition politicians and Turks across the political spectrum need to consider the role of Kurdish rights in the broader fight for Turkish democracy. This is particular relevant to the CHP, who not only failed to oppose the “securitization” of Turkey’s Kurdish policy, but supported the bill that opened up HDP parliamentarians to arrest and incarceration. Indeed, the CHP’s knee-jerk anti-Kurdism, which the AKP so successfully played on, and their failure to support their fellow parliamentarians from the HDP, has come back to haunt them. In June 2017, CHP Deputy Enis Berberoğlu, now lacking parliamentary immunity thanks to a bill his party supported, was sentenced to twenty-five years in jail on charges that he had leaked images of Turkish intelligence services supplying weapons to Syrian rebels to the press. 

In short, the failure of the CHP to support the HDP in 2016 has proved disastrous. They are now alone in facing a greatly empowered Erdoğan. For the CHP, as well as for Turkey’s opposition more generally, overcoming the animosities between Turks and Kurds is imperative.  As has been argued here, Erdoğan was, in part, able to consolidate his electoral power base by making strategic concessions to Kurdish opinion. Should the CHP truly wish to challenge the AKP’s vice-like group on the Turkish body-politic, they must win over Turkey’s Kurds. To do that, deep soul searching is necessary. The CHP’s leadership, as well as those secular nationalist Turks who support it, have to ask which they find more distasteful: Erdoğan’s autocracy or the Kurds. Unfortunately, the conspicuous absence of the HDP and Kurdish issues more generally from the “Justice March” organized the CHP earlier this month in response to Berberoğlu’s conviction indicate that this lesson has yet to be learned.  

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