Erdoğan’s Kurdish issue

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Translated by Tanem Zaman

Hello, good day. Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been saying that there is no Kurdish Issue left in Turkey, that it does not exist anymore. I don’t think that is true, but let’s put that aside. I think that Erdoğan by himself is a Kurdish issue. This is what I am going to try to discuss today. Personally, there are three personal axes to the Kurkish issue that Erdoğan is living through. Firstly, the Kurdish issue always arises in his relations with the West. This would not be a problem for Erdoğan who is mostly in conflict with the West, but we know that lately, especially for economic reasons, he wants to improve his relations with the West. The second matter is, as it was observed in the local elections of March 31, Kurdish votes can be very determining in Turkish politics. We know that for the CHP victories in metropolitan cities such as Istanbul, Adana, Antalya and Mersin were achieved through the significant contributions of the Kurdish votes, and thus of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). And this points out that in the upcoming elections, the People’s Alliance that involves Erdoğan and Bahçeli, maybe we can add the Great Unity Party (BBP) and maybe Doğru Perinçek, might not get the 50+1 of the votes. It points out this risk. 

In accordance, he is hoping that the Kurdish votes won’t go to the opposition as a whole. There is a Kurdish issue in this sense. Another issue is the support of his party and Erdoğan himself to the Kurdish community. We see this support to be decreasing and eroding  both in a collective and in a staff-related way. These are all interrelated matters; but if we are to go in order, the most current issue is the European Court of Human Rights ruling on Selahattin Demirtaş. The Grand Chamber has called for his immediate release from the Turkish state. Erdoğan’s first reaction was “This is not binding for us”; just now, he softened his tone at the caucus and said the following: “The European Court of Human Rights cannot decide on behalf of our own courts. The rulings of ECHR can only be evaluated by our own courts”. He stated this and passed the buck to the Turkish courts. But with the statements he made subsequently, he claimed that Demirtaş is a nationally-recognized terrorist, etc. Through stating this, he lashed out to the courts as in “Okay, you make the decision;  but make your decision based on what I have just said!”. 

Under normal circumstances, we know that Erdoğan does not want Demirtaş to be released at all; but we also know that regarding his relations with the West, the imprisonment of  Demirtaş and other members of HDP is a very serious topic of debate. We can add Osman Kavala to this and we can also consider Ahmet Altan to a certain extent. However, his persistence on the Demirtaş matter will definitely complicate the relationships he wants to establish and recreate with the West. At today’s group meeting, he used a very sympathetic language towards the new president of the United States, Joe Biden. In the upcoming process starting from January, it is expected that the Biden Administration will be more sensitive on the issues regarding our region, regarding the Kurdish issue. But of course, they are going to focus on their domestic matters first. Especially some of the names inside the Biden administration, notably the new Secretary of Defense, we know that they give great importance to relations with the Kurdish groups in Syria. 

Another important matter is Iraq, of course. There is the issue of Iraq, but one should keep in mind that the Biden administration might keep the Kurdish issue in Turkey in their political agenda. Additionally to all of this, if we think about what has been happening in Syria especially in the context of the fight against ISIS, we know that the existing sympathy, support and interest towards the Kurdish community is further increasing. In this sense, Erdoğan’s “hawk” attitude towards this Kurdish issue will make things hard for him in many aspects, whether it be administrations, public opinion, or the Western media. The Selahattin Demirtaş ruling could actually be an opportunity for Erdoğan. On one hand, he could direct all his criticisms and discontent, on the other hand he could give the green light for the ruling to be applied. And through this situation he would still have the chance to claim that Turkey is still under the rule of law. 

We don’t know what the courts will decide, but it seems hard that the courts will make an affirmative decision regarding Demirtaş’s and other HDP members’ release following Erdoğan’s such statements. In accordance, we can predict that Erdoğan is missing an opportunity and is also causing Turkey to miss the opportunity as well. I hope I will be mistaken and Selahattin Demirtaş will be liberated in line with the ECHR ruling, and that is when we will have the opportunity to live through a relaxation period as a country. We would also catch an advantage in regards to partially stopping polarization, and fixing the ties with the West. If we are to take the matter from  Erdoğan’s Kurdish issue regarding the relations with the West, and take it to the Kurdish issue that the government in power is struggling for their future, I already said it: March 31 was a very clear example. If HDP supports the Nation’s Alliance in the upcoming elections, and if the Nation’s Alliance can gather the new-established DEVA Party and Future Party on their side, it is certain and apparent that Erdoğan’s situation will be very tough. Moreover, according to the public opinion pollings, the People’s Alliance is already unable to reach the 50+1% of votes. They are quite behind that percentage and each passing day, of course particularly due to economic reasons, there are allegations that the AKP vote is in decline. What can be done in this situation? Initially, to pull HDP apart from the opposition alliance. They attempted to do this, and it seems like they will continue to do so. An alternative option that can be done is to pressure a party from the oppositional bloc, for instance the Good Party, through HDP. They attempted to do this as well, and they seem to continue to do so; but it is also apparent that this is not working, and probably not going to work in the future. Division of HDP is not something that is likely to happen either; there is not a significant conflict, fight, etc. within the HDP. There is a certain number of outside powers that put pressure on HDP, and thus news that comes as follows. Most recently, there is news on Osman Öcalan and how some people have been in touch with him on behalf of the government — I am not sure whether or not it is true. However, we know that right before the latest local elections Osman Öcalan was brought to TRT, so that he could serve the government in power, which is of Erdoğan’s, so that People’s Alliance can increase their votes. 

This blew up in their faces, in many ways. Firstly, Osman Öcalan is unrecruited. For a long time, Osman Öcalan was frankly someone nonexisting in Turkey in regards to Kurdish politics, he does not hold much power. Maybe because of his last name they wanted to do something with him, but it did not happen. Apart from that, there were reactions that came as a result of handing a microphone to Osman Öcalan. 

Besides, there are some rumours on how there are new political parties desired and planned to be established. They call it the right-wing Kurdish Party, Liberal Kurdish Party. Can this happen? It can. Moreover, there are currently Kurdish parties apart from HDP; some of which are legal, some of which are waiting in line at the Interior Ministry. For instance, the line of Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, in other words the party of those in the line with Barzani. I frankly do not think that these will have significant impact. This was also voiced in the past in various periods, the government desired to pave the way for different structures; but none of them were effective. In accordance, to establish a new party, to make them establish a new party and attempt to divide the Kurdish constituent’s votes does not seem effective to me. In this context, the probability of the Kurdish votes going to the People’s Alliance is very low.

Of course, there is also the Hüda-Par aspect to this. Erdoğan lately welcomed the Hüda-Par President and delegation at his “Külliye”. I commented on this before, Hüda-Par has certain reciprocity; but they are already supportive of, if not the People’s Alliance, of AKP and of Erdoğan. Their vote was already an incoming vote. I don’t think they will add anything further; on the other hand, I believe that Hüda-Par’s engaged appearance will cause them harm. What is left behind is only Abdullah Öcalan. Abdullah Öcalan tried this also before March 31, and it is very likely that he will view this as a card and try to put it to use before the upcoming elections. However, as this strategy failed on March 31, I doubt that they will get their desired outcome if they are to use this card again. Of course under this conjuncture, if there will be such initiative through Öcalan, it is once again necessary to wait for the details of the initiative. But judging it from this perspective, it doesn’t seem like there is much to take out from here either.

The only option left for the People’s Alliance candidate to win the elections through Kurdish constituent support is: HDP’s consent and endorsement. By that, of course I don’t mean HDP voting for Erdoğan; but for HDP to not vote for the opposition candidate and if possible, to ensure that HDP will have their own candidate for the presidential election — which is very complicated and very difficult. This is something that certain close circles of HDP desire as well; but after the incidents that happened following the solution process, I find the chances of this happening to be close to improbable. And of course, there is another problem: Bahçeli. On the very spot that Bahçeli occupies, what are the chances of an opening -or whatever you name it- that Bahçeli will approve of ? To reject Bahçeli, that is to give up MHP, and to solely try to take the Kurdish votes would be suicide for AKP on a serious note. I really doubt that he will do such a thing. Besides, during the course of People’s Alliance, he changed his language to a nationalistic discourse with a vengeance, he also tried to transform his own base. At this point, something like this cannot be done solely relying on Erdoğan’s authority, and charisma. To provide HDP support in addition to Bahçeli would be something beyond a miracle, but as I mentioned, some people are trying to keep this popular in the agenda. This is not something reasonable.  

And lastly, the AKP and Erdoğan’s movement have a Kurdish issue. This party, this movement, was perhaps the most powerful Kurdish party to a certain point. Of course HDP takes very important votes, wins many municipalities, etc., but AKP is the leading party in many places where Kurdish voters are tightly packed, and for the rest it is always the second party; but what is more important is that, under the eye of the Kurdish voter, the AKP had a very powerful audience that it inherited from the Welfare Party and the National Vision Movement. We see this audience to be dissolving. Additionally to this audience, the AKP had staff; but now Erdoğan is having a hard time finding a Kudish name in his party— there are some videos where he says: “Let’s get one or two Kurds”. 

Frankly, in the past, there were many names who were in very influential positions in the AKP that would openly own up to their Kurdish identity. Today, even for those who are still present, we don’t see them doing anything significant in regards to owning their identity. We have just seen the İhsan Arslan example recently: After the book he wrote, İlhan Arslan made serious criticism, self-criticism at the interviews he gave to BBC and Medyascope; but through the reactions he raised, he took many steps back. He regretted what he said. For example, if Erdoğan was to keep İhsan Arslan in the party despite all his criticisms, maybe he would have a chance to do something; but when we look at the current situation, we are witnessing AKP and Erdoğan’s connection with the Kurdish community to be dissolving more and more everyday.

Would Erdoğan make such a decision? I don’t think he would, nor would he want to do it. Right now, they might be walking along this path due to necessity; but I am sure that in the southeast, and in the Kurdish-majority neighborhoods and regions, he is conducting regular research, because Erdoğan gives tremendous importance to matters like this. There he also gets the opportunity to observe how the Kurds view himself, his party and his policies, and while doing that he gets to see this serious crisis through naked eyes. I don’t think he would say “Leave them to it!”; but at this point, it seems like there is not much that can be done.

However, such scenario is probable — which Erdoğan has applied through different forms at different times: He can let go of his current state of affairs, and can go on to a brand new stage. This is possible. He did this with the Gülenists, he did this with the liberalists, and he can do so with the MHP. Of course there is this option, but we know that all of this takes shape at a certain rhythm and gradually. None of them broke their ties instantaneously; step by step, as the tensions turned into conflicts, conflicts turned into clashes and finally to fights. There were very serious disengagements. At first, Erdoğan stumbled; but then he knew how to get back up. Can a similar scenario take place with the relationship he created with the MHP? Maybe it can, I am not really sure. Maybe, but even if it does happen, I don’t think there is a chance of it happening in the short term. However, some certain breakthroughs that has been expressed recently — for instance Bahçeli’s HDP breakthrough, which Erdoğan finally commented on saying that closing a party is not something good — but subsequently, for Bahçeli to clearly point at Numan Kurtulmuş as a target, and previously having targeted Bülent Arınç, shows us that there is tension inside the People’s Alliance of which the major axis consists of the Kurdish issue.

Would this tension make a rupture possible and necessary? At this point, I am under the assumption that this is early, but — I mentioned this before— I still do not think that the People’s Alliance is an alliance that is very sustainable for Erdoğan. This alliance has an exposure time, and we might be coming to the end of this exposure time and if it is to end here, in the middle of all of this, the Kurdish issue will be in the middle of it. Erdoğan might re-decide to do something to solve Turkey’s Kurdish issue, under the aim of solving his own Kurdish issue. That is all I have to say, have a good day.

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