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The Ala-Turca presidency: old wine in new bottles in the Kurdish case

Erdogan may require a more pragmatic approach to the US and Russia, hence indirectly with the PYD and Assad, to open up space for himself in the region’s politics.

Omer Tekdemir
27 May 2017
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View of the building complex of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah (its second location, 1973 – February 2015), seen from the Euphrates river. Wikicommons/Céline Rayne. Some rights reserved.On April 16, Turkey experienced a crucial referendum on amending the constitution after which there was confusion as a result of different vote counts released by two state institutions, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) and the Anatolian News Agency (AA), a state-owned news outlet. This put the legitimacy of the referendum into doubt.

The pro-‘No’ vote opposition camp led by the Kemalist People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the Kurdish-led, left-leaning populist People’s Democracy Party (HDP) claimed that approximately 2 to 2.5 million ballots counted had no official stamp and that therefore the small majority in favour of ‘Yes’ was invalid. The controversial decision of the YSK (who should uphold the law) declared the ballots with no official seal valid unless there was proof of fraud violating the electoral law which states that ‘each ballot must be stamped with an official seal’.

The great shift or the ‘Ottoman Republic’

For some this result is seen as Turkey’s own Brexit: it will alter the Kemalist Republic of Turkey that was founded in 1923 to replace the Ottoman Empire’s Sultanate and Caliphate regime. The new political situation will restructure the parliamentary system by offering a broadening of power to the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This new super-presidency system has fleshed out and completed the ‘new Turkey’ policy of the conservative democrat ruling party, the Justice and Development (AKP), which more recently has embraced an increasingly right-wing radical conservative populism with majoritarian, authoritarian and illiberal tendencies.

This rhetoric of new Turkey emphasises a continuity with an Ottoman identity reconstructed within modern conservativism and Turkish nationalism through contemporary institutions and neoliberal economic principles, accompanied by a regional expansionist policy. The AKP, who claim to act in the name of the people, have adopted a discourse in which ‘the people’ has become a Turkish-Islamic homogeny, a supposedly unitary organic whole that excludes the diverse, multiple and plural identities of post-Ottoman society.

However, this watershed in current Turkish politics might be full of surprises as no one, including the AKP and President Erdogan, seem quite sure of what will happen next. For Kurdish politics too, the implications of this new order is not very clear, and the future of the ‘Kurdish rights problem’ is subject to much speculation.

Does this new Turkey mean some sort of renewal of the Ottoman millet system as a project of the Muslim Brotherhood, or does it create an opportunity for self-governance or democratic autonomy for the Kurdish political leadership?

The AKP’s new Kurdish policy: ‘our/good Kurds’ vs ‘their/bad Kurds’

In June 2015 the success of the HDP in passing the infamous 10 per cent national threshold by getting 80 members into parliament created hope for many in Turkey and beyond. The HDP had created a political grammar that was different from other pro-Kurdish political parties in its use of a leftist populist discourse, such as ‘we are’ and ‘Turkeyfication’.

It aimed to radicalise democratic institutions in terms of equality and liberty for all (religious, ethnic minorities, feminists, LGBTs etc.) by mobilising a collective passion arising from the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013 that were a reaction to the AKP’s authoritarian tendency.

The HDP provided synergies between the pro-Kurdish political parties (e.g. BDP) and the Gezi resistance (social) movement that to a certain extent became part of the global counter-hegemonic culture that includes other square/resistance movements such as the Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity groups, Indignados, Aganaktismenoi, etc and left-wing populist parties such as Syriza and  Podemos.

However, the failure of the so-called peace process between the AKP and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the period 2013 to 2015 saw a return to the violence and antagonistic relations and eclipsed the new radical political language. The renewed armed conflict between the security forces and the PKK’s youth branch, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (the YDG-H), who used for the first time heavy weapons, dug trenches and erected barricades down side streets in the city and towns in settlements such as Cizre, Sur, and Sirnak, hijacked the ‘human security moment’ (human-centric security approach) and put at risk the hope of peace that would end the long-term internal battle in the country.  

Since Erdogan’s abrogation of the Dolmabahce Agreement (2015), the policy of the AKP government, with the overzealous support of ultra-nationalists such as the National Action Party (MHP) and Homeland Party (VP), showed that they rejected the peaceful channels for conflict resolution.

With this Turkic-Islamic grouping, the Erdogan administration sought to ‘clean up’ the PKK on the battlefield with a claim that previous governments had been weak in their pursuit of the ‘war on the PKK’ due to the presence of many cliques within the state apparatus (the police, military, and intelligence), whose attention was geared more to a struggle against Kemalists, particularly the Islamic-originated Gulen movement (the so-called FETO) after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Whilst in contrast, the success of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has an organic tie with the PKK, in Rojava (northern Syria) increased the self-confidence of the PKK in pursuing their collective requests in the form of an armed struggle.

At the moment, both Turkish and Kurdish political actors have a wait and see policy. Erdogan stated in his post-referendum speech that there was a substantial increase in support for him in the east and south east of Turkey, which he saw as a ‘harbinger of a new era’, as the AKP-supported ‘Yes’ vote went up by 11 percentage points to 32% in the Kurdish-dominated region although the ‘No’ (HDP bloc) vote in these areas was between 60 and 70 per cent. However, the HDP claims that the rise of support for the AKP/MHP camp was the result of an increase in fraud, unfairness, and threats, accounting for the majority of  unstamped ballots which were found in the region.

In this referendum, the Kurdish position might be compared to that of the Scots with regard to Brexit, although in the situation of the Kurds is very different since almost all local government in pro-Kurdish municipalities has been replaced by state-appointed trustees, their elected mayors arrested and the region highly securitised under a draconian state emergency law and its curfews.

Challenges and opportunities

In the realpolitik of the Middle East, the Kurdish rights problem has become a matter of a transnational power struggle and is, therefore, subject to multiple internal and external dynamics.

In the dimension of internal politics, the AKP’s understanding of the millet and milli irade (national will) social project, combined with an authoritarian populist politics and neoliberal economic practices, means that pro-state and pious Muslim Kurdish politicians and their followers (including tariqas) are bound by certain conditions, such as the acceptance of one nation, one language, one state and, more recently, one religion.

At the same time this non-secular policy demonises Alevis, Yezidis, Zoroastrians, and atheists and also, in a broad sense, secular Kurds. Yet Erdogan appears to be seeking to establish contact with a new political representative from the Kurdish conflict after the inefficient mobilisation and failure of collaboration with the non-PKK-related Kurdistani political parties (who support Kurdish autonomy such as the HAK-PAR, etc.) and their transborder representative, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. However, after the suppression of the HDP, with for instance more than 10 MPs arrested including the co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the restrictions placed on the role of the HDP in the region has created a hegemonic vacuum which might well be filled by a new actor such as the Huda-Par, a radical Islamist group that has links to Hizbullah, the paramilitary group.

The first problem with this political project is that the people still remember the brutal violence of the Hizbullah in its armed struggle carried out against the PKK rather than the state, a political manoeuvre that has planted doubt about the role of Hizbullah in the region. Indeed Hizbullah are referred to as ‘Hizbul-kontra’ (a reference to them as counter-guerrillas) and are accused of being agents of the ‘deep state’ whose purpose is to frustrate the Kurdish national demands of those Kurds who are either secular or Sufi and culturally Muslim but who do not politicise their Islam in daily life.

Secondly, the secular pro-Kurdish political actors (the BDP, PKK KCK and the Kurdish-led HDP) are still dominant, particularly after the Kobane victory against IS/ISIS in Rojava by their ‘sister party’ the PYD. Both these factors create difficulties for the AKP in constructing such a political project on the ground.

The game shifts again

In terms of international politics, it seems that the game is changing for Turkey and the Middle East. Just before Erdogan’s visit to Donald Trump, the president of the United States, as an ‘honored’ guest on May 16, he was forced to witness the substantial military aid given by the US government to the PYD in Syria that operates under the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their battle against IS/ISIS.

The problem for Turkey is that Turkey, along with a few other countries such as Qatar, define the PYD as a ‘terrorist’ organisation because of its organic ties with the PKK. The US and the EU (who declare the PKK as a ‘terrorist’ group) and Russia (who does not) do not agree with Turkey on this and moreover see the PYD as a most effective partner in the war against IS/ISIS in Syria and Iraq (along with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the army of the KRG).

This new situational partnership of the US and Russia supports the PYD’s secular and liberal identity (for example in the promotion of gender equality) against the fundamental and radical Islamist Middle East. At the same time it creates an opportunity for Syrian Kurds to establish extensive territory with long borders with Turkey similar to that which occurred after the coalition of Iraqi Kurds and the US which destroyed the Saddam regime (2003) and gave the Kurds a chance to have some independence.

In the region, the recently de facto independent KRG, who consist of Sunni Muslim Kurds, has become one of the most reliable political and economic partners of Turkey in the sectarian power struggle with non-Sunni Iran, the central Iraqi government and Assad’s Syria, although until recently the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, were treated as ‘tribal leaders’ and there was Turkish hostility against any Kurdish progress in Iraq. Now President Erdogan, having strengthened his governmental power, seeks, as part of his increased responsibility, a greater stability in the country’s political and economic life.

This may require a more pragmatic approach with regard to relations with the US and Russia, and hence indirectly with the PYD and Assad, in order to open up space for himself in the region’s politics. Rather than clash with these international powers, including the EU, which would have significant political and economic consequences for the country, there could be a new politics that legitimises the PYD by distinguishing it from the PKK (as Trump did in his speech during Erdogan’s visit) and with some reservation recognises it as another Kurdish neighbour and partner.

After all, a couple of years ago Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, visited Ankara and in 2015, when ISIS threatened to destroy the historic tomb of Suleyman Shah (the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I), the Turkish army undertook a joint operation with the PYD’s armed forces People’s Protection Units (YPG) to save the tomb and put it under the regional control of the PYD because of its national significance.

In this respect, any positive relations with such ‘external Kurds’ creates the possibility or necessity of another attempt at some form of conflict resolution (it would be too early to say peace) with the Kurdish armed political actor in Turkey (otherwise known as the PKK) and gives some possible hope for peace in the distant future.

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