In years past August 15 has been a day of unrest in Turkey. Many Turkish Kurds observe it as the anniversary of the first confrontation between Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militias and Turkish security forces. It marked the start, in 1984, of the PKK’s campaign to establish a Kurdish state in Turkey. That campaign saw the PKK designated a terrorist group by the Turkish government, the US and the EU.
Over the years, attempts to commemorate the occasion have resulted in further clashes between Kurds and Turkish security agencies. This year the day passed without incident. This is a measure of the strides made in recent years to address the causes and symptoms of Kurdish grievances in Turkey. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, released a statement acknowledging the 30th anniversary but also heralding “historic developments” and declaring that the struggle was “coming to an end”. Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay echoed Ocalan’s remarks, noting that negotiators were making the “final steps” towards resolving the Kurdish issue, with a delegation set to visit the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq for further discussions. Such a situation would have been unimagineable in Turkey even a few years ago. For decades nationalist voices held sway. Some flatly denied the existence of the Kurds, others denounced the idea of negotiations as a betrayal of the founding principle of the state. But the debate on Kurdish political and cultural rights has moved on so fast that even the erection of a statue honouring a founding member of the PKK in the restive Lice district did not foment inter-communal rancour. The statue was promptly removed by Turkish security agencies, resulting in the death of a local Kurd. But previously this would have led to an escalation. This year cooler heads prevailed and peace was restored. This marks a triumph of diplomacy.
The PKK, which enjoys considerable support amongst Turkish Kurds, some time ago abandoned its Marxist agenda and its goal of an independent state. Meanwhile Ankara has steadily pursued a political solution to what had long been regarded as a security issue.
In recent years, restrictions on the Kurdish language and Kurdish cultural practices have been lifted. Now in Kurdish-populated neighbourhoods, cities and villages it is commonplace to find Kurdish-language newspapers and books and hear Kurdish music. Accompanying these societal initiatives has been a diplomatic campaign that was kickstarted, after several false starts in preceding years, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with long-time Kurdish politician Leyla Zana in mid-2012.
Since then the so-called “resolution process” has gathered pace. Erdoğan conceded that the military’s heavy-handed response to Kurdish agitation was counterproductive and negotiations were instigated with the PKK leader, Öcalan. This has led to significant breakthroughs including the PKK’s officially declared ceasefire – at the instigation of Öcalan – after the Kurdish new year last year.
In recent months some worried that the Kurdish issue would drop off the agenda as the Turkish political arena was consumed with jousting for the presidential elections of August 10. Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan came in for considerable criticism during the campaign for his polarising political style and for his increasingly authoritarian ways, which have become ever more evident since the Gezi Park protests of last year. Many observers regard his democratic credentials as tarnished. However he and his government have continued to progress negotiations with Kurdish interlocutors. The election, which Erdoğan won in the first round, was also notable for the fact that one of the candidates was a Kurd. Aside from the main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, the ballot paper also featured Selahattin Demirtaş, from the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakır. Demirtaş ran as a candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a party affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). It is further evidence of the maturation of the Turkish political sphere that an avowedly Kurdish candidate could run for president. He was able to mount a well-organised campaign across the country without a nationalist backlash, something that could never have taken place in the 1990s when Turkish parliamentarians routinely remarked that allowing Kurdish to be spoken would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the state.
In fact, Demirtaş proved to be the surprise package of the electoral campaign, winning almost 10 percent of the vote, a notable increase on the HDP’s vote in local elections earlier this year. He did this despite enjoying none of the benefits of incumbency, not the least of which was media coverage that was wildly skewed in favour of Erdoğan. Observers noted Demirtaş as an engaging politician and effective public speaker, something that Erdoğan tacitly conceded when he squibbed on Demirtaş’s challenge to participate in a televised debate.
In the face of Erdoğan’s sometimes acrimonious campaign, Demirtaş’s civility, eloquence and even-handedness won plaudits and, apparently, hearts and minds. He swept the Kurdish-populated provinces of the southeast, as expected, but also made sizeable gains on the HDP’s vote in the March municipal elections in the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The increase in the HDP vote suggests that Demirtaş won the support of voters beyond the party’s expected Kurdish support base.
This may be seen as a voter backlash against Erdoğan, who is viewed negatively by many Turkish liberals and leftists. It also indicates that Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) can no longer expect to win a plurality of the Kurdish vote.
Elsewhere the complexion of Kurdish politics is changing apace. A persecuted minority little known at the time of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against them, the Kurds are now firmly in the spotlight across the Middle East. The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is the only positive to have arisen out of the calamitous US-led Iraq war. When another genocide loomed with ISIS threatening the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis in Iraq’s Sinjar region, the major powers eventually acted, calling in airstrikes. However it is widely argued that PKK militias played a major role in routing the ISIS gangs that threatened catastrophe.
German MP Ulla Jelpke, released a statement from the Syrian Kurdish territory of Rojava, saying that PKK guerrillas and affiliated Syrian PYD units had been the most effective fighters in reclaiming territory and protecting Yazidis from ISIS. PKK units also defended the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, fighting off ISIS gangs at Mahmour. The PKK coming to the aid of Iraqi Kurds is notable because Kurdish political groups have long been at odds with each other, but also because there is now a concerted campaign to have the PKK declassified by the US and the EU as a terrorism organisation.
Advocates argue that any group that fights so effectively in support of US and EU interests has gained the right to have its status as “terrorist” removed.
That the PKK could be recast as a legitimate political group seemed unlikely until recently, however the prospect of Kurdish voices becoming part of the political mainstream in Turkey was similarly unlikely. But the political ground has shifted, swiftly and largely for the positive. With negotiations poised to enter their final stage an end is in sight to Turkey’s Kurdish problem, and that must be to the benefit of both Turks and Kurds.