Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

RTE and the Kurds

Fortunes are rising for Turkey’s Kurds, as Erdogan needs to court their support in August’s presidential elections, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Initially he appeared to waver, keeping room wide open for speculation. Perhaps he had not received instructions from Imarali, the prison island in the Sea of Marmara where his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Öcalan, continues to serve a life sentence. This is not to signify that the young MP Selahattin Demirtaş hates the country in which he was born and raised. It is just that he believes in the cause of his people, by which we mean the Kurdish — rather than the Turkish — people. Like the majority of his fellow Kurds, young and old, he dreams of an entity that embodies their usurped ethnic and national identity, that frees their native tongue, which they are often forced to dispense with in modes of communication, which is why you will find that whenever two Kurds meet anywhere in Turkey, they take pride in speaking to each other in their own language.

As co-chairperson of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (PDP) and chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BD), the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Demirtaş is well poised to realise that the current period until 10 August is the season for asserting Kurdish political and cultural rights. The Kurds have the power to swing the outcome of the presidential elections scheduled for that day and in which incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE) will be facing former secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate for the opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (NMP).

A simple calculation, based on the results of the municipal elections held 30 March, helps explain this. In those elections, the two opposition parties (RPP and NMP) combined obtained approximately 42 per cent of the votes cast, and it is unlikely that they will obtain more in the forthcoming elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) won around 43 per cent of the vote and, barring the possibility of outright ballot rigging and fraud, it is unlikely that it will win more in the forthcoming elections. The pro-Kurdish BD won between five and six per cent of the votes in the municipal polls. It is a modest percentage, but it could carry a lot of weight in the presidential polls.

This realisation is what finally prompted Demirtaş to take the plunge and announce that he would field himself in the elections. As he himself said, it is a bold step as this is the first time in the nearly century old Turkish republic that a Kurd will run for president (although this is not quite accurate, as Halil Turgut Özal, the eighth president, from 1989-1993, had partial Kurdish roots). Now, Demirtaş is perfectly aware that he does not stand a chance to win. But he also knows that, with his participation, neither of the two other candidates is likely to win the minimum 50 per cent of the vote needed to settle the contest in the first round. The crucial question, then, is to which of the two will the Kurdish vote to go into the second round? Demirtaş had no difficulty in answering that one. “It will go to the person whose policies and principles are best for us,” he said.

At closer inspection, the BD chief’s remarks can be read as a strong hint that the Kurdish vote could go to RTE. It was the prime minister, after all, who launched the peace process with the Kurds and who talked directly with the imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan. To this, one can add the chronic hostility and profound differences between the Kurds and the NMP, the ultra nationalist party headed by Devlet Bahçelki who does not even recognise that there exists an ethnic problem in Anatolia and who, on Saturday, accused Demirtaş and his “secessionist aides” of attempting to tear apart unified Turkey.

In order to stay a step ahead of the competition and so as to win over his newfound friends, RTE suddenly revived the Kurdish peace process that had stalled several months ago. In a move described by Öcalan himself as “historic”, the ruling JDP submitted to parliament a bill for a reform package “to end terrorism and strengthen social assimilation and integration”. With this package, RTE hopes to obtain the mandate necessary to follow through on the steps that he has already taken to put an end to the decades long conflict that had claimed thousands of lives among both soldiers and civilians. If the bill is passed, a committee will be formed to monitor the withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, which would resume in September a year after the PKK froze the withdrawal in protest against the government’s failure to fulfil its pledges.

 By a remarkeable coincidence, the Turkish Supreme Court ruled in favour of the establishment of a party calling itself the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Evidently, the court found that the attribute “Kurdistan” did not conflict with the provisions and principles of the republic’s constitution.

In all events, the current climate appears favourable to a major breakthrough in Turkey’s most intractable problem that has plagued the country in many ways for decades. Still, the obstacles are so manifold and formidable that it is difficult to imagine a solution at least in the foreseeable future. For one, the Kurdish secessionists themselves, in spite of their relative gains, are continuing to escalate their roadblocks, bus hijackings, kidnappings and other such acts that are clearly intended to provoke. Such actions are far from random or spontaneous. They have been carefully planned and are designed to secure the greatest possible concessions out of the belief that the current JDP government will do anything in order to ensure that RTE wins the presidential elections.

Simultaneously, broad segments of Turkish public opinion still oppose dialogue with Öcalan, whom they continue to regard as a “terrorist”. In fact, this may be the greatest problem of all. At the current stage in the Kurdish question there can be no middle of the road. The government must make real concessions in favour of Kurdish cultural rights and autonomy. Anything less will cast all parties back to square one.

But can the government deliver? The fact is, RTE himself does not want to provoke the nationalists, who have already begun to make insinuations about suspicious deals sponsored by Israel. But this subject is best left for another report from Ankara.

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