Turkey’s snap elections: an opportunity for peace?

Unfortunately, the peace process has not produced trust regarding the longterm intentions of each side; on the contrary it has generated actions and attitudes that have contributed to greater distrust. 

Müjge Küçükkeleş
5 November 2015
Oct 31, Galatasaray, Saturday Mothers gather in call for justice for the Kurdish disappeared in Turkey's attempt to root out the

Oct 31, Galatasaray, Saturday Mothers gather in call for justice for the Kurdish disappeared in Turkey's attempt to root out the PKK in the 90's. Demotix/ Sahan Nuholglu. All rights reserved.November 1 snap elections in Turkey, to everybody’s surprise, produced a very different political landscape from that emerging in the June 7 elections. The leading AK Party, which lost its parliamentary majority in June 7 elections, received 49% of the votes and 317 seats in the Parliament. The party had managed to persuade a cross section of voters ranging from a nationalist core to the conservative Kurds that it was the only party able to provide stability and security.

The biggest agent of change in the June elections, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), this time barely managed to cross the 10% threshhold, its votes dropping from 13% to 10.8%. According to preliminary estimates, around half of the more conservative, middle class Kurdish voters, who turned their backs on the AK Party in June and voted for HDP, now switched back to the AKP.  

AKP’s return to single party rule has immediately raised the question of the future of the halted peace process. Many assume that the results provide the next AK Party government with a golden chance to restart the process; however, with so many dynamics at play, the potential resurfacing of a proposed change to a presidential system, and related political bargains, it is very hard to foresee under what conditions the peace process could restart and evolve.

As Turkey swept into a two-front battle, fighting PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) at home and in Northern Iraq, and ISIS in Syria, violence and terror attacks have escalated across the country. A wave of ISIS-linked bomb attacks on Kurdish targets (in Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara) inside Turkey risked turning the country into a new battle field between ISIS and the PYD. At a time when the country is in the grip of multiple crises, the costs of prevailing Turkey-PKK clashes are very high. Turkey could continue its air campaign against PKK camps in Northern Iraq; but this will not be the only war front.

Increasing military assistance to the People’s Democracy Party (PYD-an affiliate of PKK in Syria) in Syria is likely to offset any losses PKK endures stemming from Turkey’s air strikes on Northern Iraq. Also, PKK’s new strategy to draw clashes into city centres is challenging Turkish security forces to come up with an appropriate response. PKK can continue clashing with the Turkish army; but as the election results have shown, this escalation in violence has not worked out well for the HDP, and if maintained, it will continue to weaken the Kurdish movement politically, blocking its attempt to open up to the wider society and pushing it back into a small geography in the Kurdish region, where it has traditionally enjoyed most support. 

Under these circumstances, it is in the best interest of both Turkey and the Kurds to return to the ceasefire and find a political solution to the Kurdish issue. With so many international actors actively engaged in the regional Kurdish dynamics, the prevalence of the current armed conflict will only make the resolution increasingly complicated.

And there are signs from AKP officials that negotiations could be resumed at some point. AKP Deputy Head Omer Celik stated on November 2 that the stalled Kurdish peace process could be relaunched if public order was guaranteed. With the return of some Kurdish votes to the AKP, strong expectations have been created that the next AKP government will sooner or later reinitiate the process.

However, what is needed this time is a new strategic vision that aims to develop a more realistic and integrated approach towards regional Kurdish affairs. Current levels of mistrust between the Turkish government and Kurds must be addressed as a first step. Unfortunately, the peace process has not produced trust regarding the longterm intentions of each side; on the contrary it has generated actions and attitudes that have contributed to greater distrust.

The mutual distrust is especially centered upon both parties’ different approaches towards the Syrian Kurds, led by People’s Democracy Party, PYD, an affiliate of the PKK in Syria. While Turkey believes the PKK is using the war in Syria as a pretext to legitimize its armed activism, the Kurdish political movement perceives Turkey’s actions as another tactic to oppress Kurdish aspirations. 

The destiny of the Syrian Kurds will continue in this way to hang over Turkey’s relations with its own Kurds. At the moment, it is too early to envisage a change in Turkey’s approach towards the Syrian Kurds; Turkey is still dismayed by the PYD’s growing role in the fight against ISIS and trenchantly opposed to the PYD’s attempts to unify the three cantons in northern Syria. There is no reason to think that the next AKP government will change this position for the sake of the peace process.

Elections have already strengthened the AKP position vis-a-vis the PKK, whose declarations of self-governance in several southeastern towns did not resonate well with middle class and conservative Kurds, driving them back to the AK Party. HDP’s loss of one million votes to AKP from the June elections clearly shows this. On the other hand, the AKP is aware that the harsh rhetoric it used against the Syrian Kurds only helped the unification of Kurds around their Kurdish identity in the run up to the June elections.

So rather than a complete change in Turkey’s policy towards the Syrian Kurds, one would expect the next government to tone down its rhetoric towards the PYD. It follows that any potential for change in Turkey’s approach towards the PYD is more likely to result from developments on the ground in Syria and the related US position. 

Turkey’s own political agenda has also increased tensions between the AKP and the Kurdish movement. The HDP’s campaign of opposition to President Erdogan before the June elections frustrated Erdogan’s plan to launch a presidential system in Turkey and deepened the mutual distrust between the AKP and HDP. Although the AKP managed to claw back some of the votes it lost to HDP in the last elections, resentment towards the HDP and its leader Selahattin Demirtas still goes deep.       

This is clearly seen in the statements and reports of some government officials and pro-government media outlets. AKP officials have accused the HDP for betraying the process by directly targeting President Erdogan. Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan even said on November 3 that the PKK had buried its jailed leader alive thanks to these recent wrongdoings. These statements have raised expectations that the next government will turn to imprisoned leader of PKK Abdullah Ocalan to manage the process, and downplay the role of HDP in talks. But how it would be possible to further exclude the HDP from the process is yet to be seen; any absence of the HDP from the talks can only damage the political leg of the process.

Turkey is walking a tightrope. Society is overly polarized, the country is more vulnerable to regional instabilities, and the economy is in a bad shape. On top of all these problems, the Kurdish issue remains unresolved and has turned violent again. The AKP’s strong comeback to power by a considerable majority is a good opportunity for the new government to address Turkey’s Kurdish issue through political means, especially at a time when the conflict between Turkey and Kurds has already crossed Turkey’s borders and when Turkey is less able to keep its domestic issue under wraps, due to developments in Syria.

But how and when the process is to start is yet to be seen. In the meantime, continuing clashes in southeastern Turkey days after the elections, and the government’s indifference to the unilateral ceasefire that PKK declared in mid-November signal that Ankara will first seek to further weaken the PKK before it sits down to the negotiation table. 

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