by Henry Johnson
The outcome of Turkey’s general election surprised many by putting an end to the AKP’s 13-year winning streak. The consequences of this historic election for the country’s “Kurdish problem” may come as an even greater surprise, and not in a good way.
Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, argues that these elections might derail Ankara’s efforts to peacefully reconcile long-standing differences with Kurdish citizens.
When mapping the modern Middle East, Western powers divided the Kurdish population, now in the ballpark of 30 million, among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They have thus relegated a distinct linguistic, ethnic, and cultural entity to a beleaguered minority status.
The 2015 elections, which ended President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes of concentrating more power in his hands, may have also dashed hopes for a peaceful resolution to perennial conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. The party responsible for Turkey’s electoral upset—ironically, the pro-Kurdish HDP—has inadvertently made it much harder for the AKP to conclude the peace process it started. In 2009, AKP launched the “Kurdish Opening,” which gestured toward a lasting compact with the Kurds but ended in a short-lived ceasefire. Back channel talks with the imprisoned leader of the armed Kurdish opposition in Turkey, the PKK, nonetheless continued. In spring 2013, both sides announced a cease-fire and have fitfully adhered to it since. The 2015 elections, however, deprived the AKP of its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. In forcing it to form a coalition government, the elections have limited the AKP’s willingness to take risks and negotiate a settlement with the Kurds.
An outsider to the secular and anti-Kurdish political establishment, the AKP realized it could win votes by making progress with the Kurds. “Despite all the setbacks, I think the AKP and Erdogan have been the Kurds’ best bets,” said Tol. She added that Erdogan, first of all, could start the process only “because he was able to form a majority government” and because “there was no coalition partner to whom he had to explain himself.” Erdogan’s success in persuading the PKK to lay down its arms, a feat that had eluded the country for decades, paid off politically as well. According to Tol, Kurdish voters have traditionally voted in two blocs, “50 percent voted for conservative, center-right parties, and the other 50 percent voted for pro-Kurdish nationalist parties, so the AKP was as Kurdish as the pro-Kurdish HDP.”
As the AKP looks for coalition partners, its only available options are skeptical of the peace process. The most likely candidate, according to Tol, is the MHP, a right-wing and ultra-nationalist party “that has been basically saying that, ‘if you want to form a coalition government with me, you have to end the Kurdish peace process.’” The other possible candidate is the secular, center-left CHP, which claimed 25 percent of the vote. Tol also doubted whether this party would support the peace process. The CHP “has a very strong nationalist base, and it already lost 1 percent of its votes compared to the 2012 general elections, so [it] might not be as willing to deliver on the Kurdish peace process, not to alienate its base further.” Finally, the only predictably pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, has already registered its unwillingness to work with the AKP.
Erdogan’s reactionary stance toward regional crises has reduced his Kurdish base of support. He has attempted to counter regional developments that have advantaged Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and won them fresh appraisals from Western nations. In doing so, he has drawn the ire of erstwhile Kurdish supporters. As Islamic State (ISIS or IS) militants encircled the Syrian city of Kobani, Erdogan blocked fighters and supplies from streaming across the border and reaching highly vulnerable Kurdish forces a mere handful of miles away. His deliberate inaction incensed Turkey’s Kurdish population. Protests against the policy resulted in the deaths of dozens of Kurds before Erdogan eventually capitulated by allowing a contingent of Iraqi Peshmerga to pass through. After Kobani, Tol said “conservative Kurds switched sides. That’s how [HDP] was able to win the 13 percent.” She estimated that some 65 percent of Kurds now support HDP.
Already harmed by the AKP’s weakened position, the prospects for the peace process are further dimmed by a sense of overconfidence among Turkish Kurds concerning their international and regional position. Tol remarked, “the PKK used the ceasefire with the state to empower itself institutionally, socially, and politically. If you have travel around the Kurdish region in Turkey you will see that there are tens of civil society organizations, tens of women’s organization, schools, and language institutes.” She also brought up a telling anecdote from an interaction before the elections with a prominent Kurdish leader. She paraphrased the answer he gave when she asked what the Kurds would do if the HDP didn’t make it to parliament: “‘we renovated the nicest building in Diyarbakir [the largest Kurdish-majority city]. It could either be a home to the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, or it could be the home to the new Kurdish parliament.’” His answer indicated that “there would be a de facto autonomous Kurdish region, so the institutional framework is there and the mood is there.”
Complicating the Kurds’ willingness to cohere to the Turkish body politic is the nascent fulfillment by neighboring Kurds of the ethnic group’s most ardent dream—Kurdistan. The YPG, a Syrian military affiliate of the PKK, has established three cantons amid the chaotic Syrian war. All three, in Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira, abut Turkey’s southern border and were, until recently, isolated from one another. Kurdish forces recently seized a strategic border town, Tal Abyad, in between the central and eastern cantons. Ankara would likely have preferred that the town remain under IS control. Turkey had allegedly provided electricity to it before the YPG victory. Its capture has effectively erased the borders between those two cantons. Tol believes that the emergence of a united Kurdish belt is now a matter of time. “Probably the next move for the Kurds will be to try to connect the remaining two cantons…From the U.S. perspective, it makes perfect sense. The Obama administration is very frustrated with Turkey’s unwillingness to do something against [IS], so now…[it has] a partner who is willing to do just that.”
The U.S. has treaded lightly in its support of Kurdish forces. Although it has provided crucial air support in nearly all Kurdish engagements with IS, the administration has not directly supplied any single Kurdish group beyond a trickle of covert support. The reasoning is not hard to divine. Regional countries have always feared the rise of a pan-Kurdish separatist movement: a collective power that would immediately eclipse the threat posed by each national minority on its own. For a region known for starting more fires than it puts out, encouraging Kurdish separatism could spark a conflagration of its own. As an Arab resident of a village nearby Tal Abyad said, “People are silent because Kurds are fighting ISIS now, but when ISIS leaves, Arabs from all over Syria will come to fight the Kurds.” If Ankara cannot contain its anxiety over Kurdish separatism and relapses into a confrontational strategy, it will fan the flames. More Turkish Kurds, seeing a collapse of hope in Turkey, will defer to an unlikely cause fraught with upheaval, that of carving out Kurdistan.
Photo: Kurds in Turkey celebrating the electoral showing of HDP