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Turkey’s election and the Kurdish peace process: what now?

The post-election landscape in Turkey raises new challenges in the search for a lasting settlement of the conflict between Turks and Kurds.

Özge Genç
26 June 2015

The peace process in relation to Turkey's Kurdish minority was at the heart of the country's general elections on 7 June 2015. It will be a leading item for the coalition talks between parties prior to the formation of a new government. In turn that government will have to decide whether to continue talking to Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) and figurehead for many of Turkey's Kurds.

The election results were a breakthrough for the Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), which in winning 13% of the vote easily passed the high threshold of 10% needed to qualify for seats in the national parliament. This reflected the HDP's success in gathering a new coalition from its core constituency, a politicised young generation of first-time voters in the Kurdish neighbourhoods, Kurdish conservatives who previously voted for the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP), and the Kurdish Alevi minority in the eastern provinces. Many believed that the HDP's presence in parliament would protect Kurdish interests as a whole, and guarantee that the peace process would continue.

Other factors contributed to the HDP's advance. They included President Erdoğan’s unconstructive discourse on the peace process before the elections, Turkey’s initial reluctance to open the border at Kobane where Kurdish fighters were (and still are) battling Islamic State, and the desire of new voters to strengthen the hands of the Kurds and the HDP in the peace process.

A new period

But what happens next? The AKP remains the largest party, but it lost the majority in parliament it had held since 2002, so must find a partner to form a government. The realistic choice is between the hardline National Action Party (MHP) and the politically conservative Republican People's Party (CHP). A link-up with the HDP is improbable because of mutual distrust, the military and political aspects of the Qandil-based KCK, and the HDP's anti-AKP election campaign. Turkey's new government, therefore, is unlikely to favour the phased completion of the peace process, which will require the PKK’s disarmament, the return of PKK combatants, democratic reforms, and a true reconciliation.

The MHP is categorically against the talks with Öcalan, and the CHP highly sceptical, declaring that it would not make him a party to the negotiations. They do not recognise him, or the KCK, as a legitimate side in the peace talks. They believe the peace process itself involves concessions to the PKK at the expense of Turkey’s integrity. And both MHP and CHP rejected proposals made in 2011-13 to reform the definition of citizenship in the constitution (by removing the emphasis on “Turkishness”, and introducing education in Kurdish).

The elections thus create difficulties, both political and bureaucratic, for the future of the peace process. The first is, assuming the process can continue, who the negotiators would be. So far it was run by two strong leaders, the prime minister (and now president) Erdoğan and the PKK's Öcalan, which gave it widespread social legitimacy. The election results have called into question the extent to which the power and impact of these two leaders will remain intact in the post-election era. Moreover, if the AKP loses control of the bureaucracy, the balance of power in Turkey's politics may tilt towards hardline anti-peace elements.

For Turkey even to get to the stage of talks between the government and Öcalan was a major achievement, for it meant that key state institutions such as the army and civil-judicial bureaucracy had lost their control over politics. This could only happen after a long power struggle between elected and non-elected elites, and by social forces (including the Kurds, Alevis, and Islamic actors such as head-scarved women) who challenged the state. Thus a new period has now opened. The same factors that hindered the peace process before the elections are still to be tackled in the next government regardless of the actors that compose it.

A fundamental choice

The peace process thus faces four new challenges. First, before the election campaign, much excitement was created by a joint press conference between the AKP government and the HDP in Dolmabahçe. But equally it raised conflicting expectations and made more obvious the different understandings of peace held by the two sides. The PKK/KCK side anticipates that the disarmament of the PKK and democratisation should go hand in hand. For the government of the time, consolidation of public order and disarmament are preconditions for further reforms.

Second, there are the contrasting views of Turks and Kurds towards the peace process. The Kurdish population feels that it is working in only one direction - only the Kurds are compromising, while the government does not take any tangible steps. Turks, on the other hand, typically believe that the government is giving too many concessions to a PKK which does not want to lay down arms.

These different outlooks were set long before the elections. Now, an invigorated HDP and a yet unknown coalition partner will inescapably diversify the political scene. How the various contentions will play out is yet to be seen. An important factor is the greater multiplicity of actors. More than two sides will need to talk to and convince each other - the responsibility will not lie with the government alone.

A third challenge lies with the state. One of the weakest points of the peace process so far has been the lack of support from within the state. The civil and military bureaucracy, as well as the security apparatus, are in a position to hamper peace-making efforts. A  government firmly committed to the process is needed to counterbalance the ability of these old actors to block progress.

A fourth challenge involves the spoiler effect that all conflict-resolution processes face. Two cases in point are the bomb blasts at an HDP rally in Diyarbakır before the elections, and fighting between supporters of the Kurdish-Islamist Hüdapar and the HDP after them. Experience suggests that a spoiler effect is unavoidable; yet if both sides are aware of this, they can use it as an opportunity rather than a weakness. Peace-oriented actors on both sides could become more resolute and united if they respond in the right way to isolate destructive elements.

There is also a strong counterweight to these problems. After decades of conflict, the idea of peace has become the norm for Turks and Kurds alike. The notion that all sides would undoubtedly gain from peace is the strong foundation of the peace process. And Turkey’s public opinion by now acknowledges that the only alternative to peace would be a disaster. 

Everyone knows what that alternative would mean: a continuation, even intensification, of the armed conflict, securitisation of the Kurdish region and the rest of Turkey, discrimination, social unrest, economic underdevelopment, and a shift of power from civilian government back to the security apparatus. This fundamental choice means that, despite all the difficulties, there is still room for optimism about the peace process.

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