ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Peace in Progress

How Turkey’s Leaders Will Combat Extremism

The two recent bomb attacks in Turkey have hurt the peace process to accommodate Kurdish political demands within Turkish society. However, a coalition of the AKP and the CHP, and a strong performance by the HDP, might work towards an end to the ongoing hostilities and provide new opportunities for peace.

On 10 October 2015, two suicide bombers struck a rally for “Labor, Peace and Democracy” in Ankara, killing 102 and injuring hundreds. The rally was organised by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), one of the strongest political opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and several leftist Turkish trade unions and occupational organisations. This attack follows closely on the heels of a similar bombing on 20 July in Turkey’s Suruc district that killed 33. The July attack too targeted a meeting of socialist parties, who had gathered to convey their solidarity with the Kurdish resistance against the Islamic State (IS) in the nearby Syrian town of Kobani. Both these deadly attacks have been credited to the IS.

Leaders of several countries condemned these attacks. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ordered a state probe into the October massacre. Predictably, Erdoğan also used the opportunity to declare that there was no difference between the ultra-Islamist IS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for several decades now. He has claimed that ISIS, PKK and Syrian intelligence were responsible for the atrocity. Pro-state Turkish media adopted a similar narrative.  Counterterror operations by Turkey continue to target Kurdish citizens though Kurds were clearly the main targets of both blasts. Activists belonging to the HDP and those suspected of having sympathies towards the PKK have been harassed by the police.

On the other hand, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP, criticised Ankara’s lapse in providing adequate security for the rally. Mourners who gathered at the spot of the attack the next day chanted “murderer Erdoğan.” The PKK in a recent statement accused the AKP of being behind the blasts. It further alleged that leftists, activists, intellectuals and democratic organizations were under increasing threat from the Turkish state. In the aftermath of the blasts, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire. Turkish jets, however, continue to pound at PKK targets.

These blasts occur at a time when there is a considerable spillover effect of the Syrian civil war into the Turkish society. Turkey, a key NATO ally in the region, is part of the American coalition’s war on the IS. However, Kurdish activists allege that Turkey has used the opportunity to target the PKK rather than the IS. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a PKK affiliate which has been putting up a fierce resistance against the IS, too accuse Turkey of preventing crucial aid from reaching the Kurds in Syria.  

Kurds and the Turkish State

The modern Turkish state has a pained relationship with the Kurds. In the Ottoman period, Kurdish tribes fought for regional autonomy, mostly on a tribal-clan basis. But the turning point in modernity was the formation of Kemalist Turkey which denied the existence of Kurds as a separate entity with their own culture and language. Referred to derisively as “mountain Turks”—a term coined by the military junta of the 1980 coup, the Kurds were subject to decades of cultural assimilation. The speaking of the Kurdish language in public was prohibited and Kurdish cultural symbols and festivals were banned. Several Kurdish intellectuals, poets and writers were arrested or assassinated.

While the Kurds have been resisting assimilation into Turkishness for long, a paradigm shift in Kurdish politics came with the formation of the PKK in 1978. Beginning as a Marxist-nationalist group that sought the secession of the Kurd dominated southeastern parts of Turkey, the PKK eventually gave up its separatist claims, fighting instead for decentralization, democratization and greater cultural and political autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. Abdullah Öcalan, PKK leader and key ideologue, has rejected the modern nation-state and nationalism as inherently oppressive and pleads instead for a democratic-confederalist model which places greater emphasis on a self-sufficient localized economy and communal governance, somewhat similar to the anarchist experiments in Spain in the previous century.

While the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has claimed about 40000 lives, the Kurdish struggle has received little attention in the global mainstream press. The Kurds shot to prominence in the Western media recently after the IS crisis and the resistance of Kurdish groups in Syria to the Islamist outfit. Despite the fact that it is the PKK affiliates like the YPG that are waging an unrelenting on-ground struggle against the IS, the PKK still remains on terror list of Western countries. The proscription of the PKK also places several legal and political hurdles for a credible peace process between Turkey and the Kurdish insurgents.

One could say that there were some observable changes in the Turkish government’s attitude towards the Kurdish issue in the last decade under the AKP rule. Instead of following the previously tried and failed strategy of the forceful oppression of the Kurdish identity and demands, the AKP government started a negotiation process with the PKK and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan, aiming at a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The AKP, in the early years of its government, had put forward a number of reforms regarding the Kurdish issue such as the starting of broadcasting in Kurdish language in the official network in 2006 and the changes made to the Anti-Terror Law in order to limit the power of the security forces. This must been seen in the light of Turkey’s desire for integration with the European Union.

Peace Process

The peace process started by the declaration of the Minister of the Domestic Affairs Besir Atalay in 2009 by stressing the government’s intention to deal with the Kurdish issue with peaceful methods and democratic reforms was the start of a new phase in terms of the handling of the Kurdish political demands in Turkey. The process began with the mobilization of the civil society to open the Kurdish issue to a public discussion in 2010 and progressed to the negotiations between Turkish state officials and three centers of the Kurdish political demands – the imprisoned leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan, the  senior  leaders of the PKK located in the Northern Iraq and some European cities, and  lastly the parliamentary representatives of the Kurdish region organized under the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) until 2014, and later the HDP.

The regular meetings between the different sides of the negotiation table resulted in the common declaration of AKP officials and HDP members about a ten-article road map for a democratic resolution of the conflict in 28th February 2015, publicly known as Dolmabahce Agreement. Hopes were high despite problems faced throughout the process, such as the bombing of the civilian Kurds by Turkish air forces in the village of Roboski in December 2011 and the shady assassination of three Kurdish activists, one of whom was a senior member of the PKK, in Paris in January 2013. A peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish issue of Turkey seemed more possible than ever.

However, things have changed dramatically. The decision of the HDP to enter the general elections of 7 June 2015 as a party, rather with independent candidates as it was done by the Kurdish political parties before, in order to overstep the ten per cent threshold in the Turkish elections, risked the parliamentary majority of the AKP. In the pre-election period the AKP officials made statements linking the peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish issue to the existence of an AKP majority in the parliament. Deputy PM Yalcın Akdogan had warned that if the HDP gained more than ten per cent of the votes and the majority of the AKP is lost, the democratic resolution process will end.

During the campaign period there were more than a hundred attacks targeting HDP campaigners, offices and meetings. On 5 June, two days before the elections, , a bomb exploded at a public meeting of the HDP in the city of Diyarbakır, killing four and injuring over a hundred people. HDP officials accused the AKP government and security officials for not taking the necessary measures and not investigating previous attacks on them seriously.  

The elections resulted in a hung-parliament, the AKP falling short of a majority by 18 seats. the HDP gained over 13 per cent of the votes and became represented in the Turkish parliament with 80 seats among the total of 550. Their election success ended the parliamentary majority of the AKP government and put an end to the single-party rule which has been the case since November 2002.

The relation between the HDP and the AKP officials including President Erdoğan, who continues to carry a strong tutelary role over the AKP, has been marked by continual political sparring in the period after the elections, with each side blaming the other of intransigence. The HDP’s success was also followed by several attacks on its offices and cadres, both by Turkish ultra-nationalists as well as Islamist terrorists, the latest being the tragedy of 10 October.  The hawkish posturing of the AKP leadership, which seems to consider the PKK as a greater threat than the IS, also places several constraints on a democratic resolution of the Kurdish demands.

It appears that the period of the “Democratic Peace Process” has come to an end. 

Future of Peace

A snap election, scheduled for 1 November 2015, has been called by Erdoğan, who seeks to restore his party’s presence in the parliament. The future of the peace process depends on the outcome of the November elections and the possible negotiations for the constitution of a coalition government following the elections. The AKP strives to acquire a majority that would allow the party to form a single party government which would then lead to the higher involvement of Erdoğan in the executive affairs due to his strong connections with the party. It can be inferred from the developments of the last six months that it will very difficult, if not altogether impossible, for a single-party AKP government to reinitiate the peace talks due to eroded trust between the contending sides. The increased influence of Erdoğan over the party also lowers the chance for returning to peaceful negotiations because of his stance against the HDP.

If the AKP fails to secure an absolute majority in the parliament it is probable that coalition talks with other parties will revolve around the Kurdish issue and the Syrian policy. While the ultra-nationalist right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is openly against any negotiations with the representatives of the Kurdish demands and pushes for the dealing of the issue as nothing more than a security problem, the Republican People’s Party (CHP)—the main opposition party in the parliament—keeps the door open for peaceful talks and a democratic solution to the problem.  The HDP’s Selahattin Demirtaş also talked about this possibility and said that his party is ready for supporting an AKP-CHP government that intends to return to negotiations.

It can be said that under a victorious AKP-MHP coalition there will not be much of a chance for the restarting of negotiations between the government and the Kurdish representatives, increasing risks of the spiral of violence. However, a coalition of the AKP and the CHP, and a strong performance by the HDP, might work towards an end to the ongoing hostilities and provide new opportunities for peace.

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