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AKP, terrorists and earthquakes: Turkey’s never-ending Kurdish question

AKP’s success has been based on its domination of the Turkish centre ground, and if that centre ground is against making concessions to the Kurds, it will be hard for the party to move any further than it has, even if it wants to.
Djene Rhys Bajalan
31 October 2011

Even the most ardent sceptic has, at least grudgingly, to concede that since being elected in 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish acronym AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), has spearheaded significant reforms to both the economy and political system of Turkey.  Turkey’s economic transformation is certainly impressive, with real GDP growth averaging 4.84 between 2002 and 2010. And it’s not only on paper that the Turkish ‘miracle’ can be observed. Anyone who has visited Turkey will immediately be struck by the extent to which the country is beginning to look like part of the developed world. New York-style skyscrapers are sprouting up in many of Turkey’s major cities, while brand new luxury housing developments are being built on lands once occupied by impoverished migrants from the villages of Anatolia. Turkish society is also spending. The credit card is ubiquitous and anything from a new HD TV to the household groceries can be bought on credit, or as the Turks call it taksit. At the weekends, the new gargantuan shopping centres, which nowadays seem to number almost as many as Turkey’s mosques, are packed full of Turks eager to burn their hard earned cash on the trendiest brands and the latest mobile-phones.

Indeed, this consumerism is not restricted to the ‘westernised’ classes; those with more traditional moral inclinations too can partake in Turkey’s newly found prosperity with, for example, religiously conservative young girls lapping up such innovations as the ‘designer headscarf’. Naysayers may quibble over the extent that the AKP can really take the credit for these changes. The origins of Turkey’s rapid development can be traced back to the policies of economic liberalisation pursed by the Prime Minister (and later President) Turgut Özal in the 1980s, while the economic recovery that followed the 2001 Stock Market Crash was masterminded by World Bank technocrat Kemal Derviş, who served as Finance Minister between 2001-2002.

Nevertheless, the AKP has provided something that previous Turkish governments have not: stability. Weak coalition governments and military interference in civilian matters were the bane of Turkish politics in the 1990s. Today, however, the AKP’s position seems secure and it is providing the strong leadership that the country lacked in previous decades. The once fragmented political field in Turkey has now slimmed down to four major parties all representing significant sections of society. 

The AKP’s total domination of Turkish politics is, of course, not necessarily a positive thing in itself.  However, despite fears that the ‘Islamist’ AKP might attempt to turn Turkey into a new Iran, the party has implemented a number of significant measures to bring Turkish legal and political structures in line with European Union standards, to reduce the influence of the military and to reform the authoritarian 1980 constitution. Critics may again point out that the pace of democratisation has slowed since AKP’s landslide 2007 electoral victory. Nevertheless, the achievements of the new government have won praise from around the world and given Turkish people a new found confidence to project their political influence across the Middle East. Indeed, Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan has taken the recent ‘Arab Spring’ in his stride, siding with the ‘Arab street’ against the authoritarian regimes (quite in contrast to his government’s attitude towards the 2009 protests in Iran). These developments have led to renewed interest in Turkey and its role in international affairs. However, while Erdoğan has been championing the cause of Arab democracy, events at home have the potential to upset the apple cart, most notably the continuing discontent of Turkey’s Kurdish population.  

The Kurdish vote

As part of the government’s efforts at democratisation, Erdoğan spearheaded efforts to improve relations with the Kurds. In 2005 while in Diyarbakir, the spiritual capital of ‘Turkish Kurdistan’, he confessed that ‘mistakes’ had been made with regard to the Kurds and that his government would work to rectify them. Gestures were made: a Kurdish TV channel was opened, Kurdish courses were set up at some state universities in Turkey’s southeast and restrictions on Kurdish culture were eased. The result was that the AKP saw an increase in its share of the Kurdish vote in both the 2004 local elections and the 2007 general election. Indeed, AKP supporters like to point out that the party is, in fact, the largest Kurdish political party and that a number of its leading political figures are of Kurdish origin. These claims are not untrue. Yet, the question rumbles on and recent months have only seen things get worse.

Armed struggle

2011 has witnessed an increase in activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group founded in 1978 and that has been waging an armed struggle against Turkish authorities (as well as rival Kurdish groups) since 1984. This latest upsurge in violence culminated in the deaths of 24 Turkish soldiers in mid-October 2011 (the worst loss of life for the military since 1993). These deaths provoked a mass out-pouring of public anger against the ‘terrorists’ with demonstrations taking place across western Turkey. Indeed, Turkish public opinion was incensed by news agency Reuters’ refusal to label the PKK a terrorist organisation. At the same time, in the dusty towns of Kurdish Anatolia demonstrators also took to the street, with messages of support for both ‘those in the mountains’ as well as the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

These events have exposed an increasing Kurdish-Turkish polarisation. For years Turkish political leaders have claimed that the terrorists did not represent the Kurds and that there was no social discord between Kurds and Turks. However, these claims are becoming unsustainable in face of the hard realities. In 2009 when a group of PKK activists descended from their mountain camps in response to government calls for peace, they were greeted by Kurds on the Iraqi-Turkish border as heroes. This triggered a harsh reaction in both the media and amongst the Turkish public who see the PKK as ‘baby killers’. The idea that anyone could support the PKK is an anathema to many Turks. Yet, in the same year, while visiting Hakkari, a town located in Turkey’s south-eastern corner close to the borders with Iran and Iraq, I could not help but notice the sympathy that many Kurds had for the PKK, known to locals simply as ‘the organisation’. I observed a group of children playing a Kurdish version of the classic children’s game ‘Cowboys and Indians’ – “Guerrillas and Soldiers” – in which the Guerrillas were most definitely the ‘good guys’. I also overheard discussions amongst the older generation about ‘martyrs’, a term that in western Turkey is reserved for those Turkish soldiers who have lost their lives in the struggle against ‘separatist terror’. The difference was that in Hakkari ‘martyrs’ referred to those PKK militants who had been killed by security forces. 

Obstacles to peace

The most recent clashes have done nothing to increase understanding between the two sides. Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt to the AKP and assumes that it is serious about making peace with the Kurds, two major obstacles remain. The first is the AKP’s paternalistic attitude towards the Kurds. One of the major deficiencies of the AKP’s Kurdish initiatives has been its failure not only to engage with the PKK, but also the elected representatives of Kurdish nationalism. The Democratic Society Party (DTP) and, after its closure on the grounds that it was a front for the PKK in late 2009, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), have been left out of these peace initiatives. On the face of it, the AKP claims that this has been because both the DTP and BDP have failed to condemn the PKK as terrorists. Yet, one might question the value of a Kurdish peace initiative which does not endeavour to include the side you wish to make peace with!

The 2011 elections saw a surge in support for the BDP, demonstrating that AKP’s policies towards the Kurds have been losing support. As one Kurdish journalist informed me, “allowing us a few of our basic rights and distributing some washing machines to Kurdish villages is not going to end the decades long Kurdish struggle.”  Worse still, recent years have seen representatives of Kurdish parties been thrown in jail and cases opened again Kurdish parliamentarians. Even the mild mannered Turkish academic Büsra Ersanlı, who has for years attempted to bridge the gap between Kurds and Turks, has recently come under police pressure. To many Kurds, all this is indicative of a conspiracy to silence the Kurdish movement.  Erdoğan’s forthright support for the Arab spring has only heightened anger, with many regarding the Prime Minister’s stance as hypocritical.

Public opinion

The second major problem is public opinion in Turkey. Lütfi Fikri Bey, an eminent opposition political figure in the early twentieth century once observed that in Turkey there was no such thing as ‘public opinion’ only ‘public sensitivities’. There is a certain element of truth to this statement, even today. Turkey is a highly nationalistic society and is prone to outbursts of public hysteria whenever there are perceived threats to the Republic. If the AKP has an Achilles heel, it is ‘nationalism’, and the party certainly does not want to accused of betraying the country or being soft on the highly emotional subject of terrorism, especially when Television channels are carrying heart-breaking pictures of young Turkish soldiers being returned to their families in body bags. Hence, the shift in its stance towards taking a harder line with the Kurdish political movement is an outcome of AKP’s populist instincts.

Many Turks feel that the Kurdish initiative has only emboldened Kurdish nationalism, and that Kurds are ungrateful to the Republic. This hostility was exposed by the response of some to the tragic earthquake in Van which occurred on October 23. One TV journalist stated on live television that ‘even though it is Van, a pain is great’, while ATV’s Müge Anlı enraged many Kurds by angrily claiming that one day the Kurds were ‘hunting our soldiers like birds’ and then (after the earthquake) ‘running to them for help’. Political leaders from right to left have urged people not to use the Van earthquake for ‘separatist ends’. However, such statements as well as the response of political leaders only prove the existence of a gulf between Kurds and Turks. It is difficult to generalise about Turkish opinion, but perhaps Müge Anlı’s angry statements merely articulated what many Turks are thinking. The Van earthquake has exposed more than just the poor standards of construction in Eastern Anatolia. It has brought to the fore the social divisions between Kurds and Turks.

So what are the prospects of overcoming these obstacles to the resolution of the Kurdish question? It is perhaps too early to tell. The Van earthquake has the potential to both promote understanding and deepen divisions. Many ordinary Turks have shown great kindness and generosity towards the victims of the earthquake. Unfortunately, a few have sent such items as stones, sticks and Turkish flags.   

Ultimately, meaningful change will take strong, and more importantly brave, leadership. Such leadership will have to integrate the representatives of Kurdish nationalism into the peace process, while simultaneously selling this to the Turkish public. It is unclear whether the AKP can do this. AKP’s success has been based on its domination of the Turkish centre ground, and if that centre ground is against making concessions to the Kurds, it will be hard for the party to move any further than it has, even if it wants to. While Turkey seems to be, in many ways, closer to a permanent resolution of the Kurdish question than at any time in its history, there is still a long way to go, and the most difficult steps, including making peace with those with whom the state has been at war have yet to be taken. However, the long term benefits for Turkey of peace with the Kurds far outweigh any short term political discomfort.

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