Main opposition leader’s comments on Kurdish question reignite debate amongst politicians on resolution of long-running issue

by Leo Kendrick

Recent comments by main opposition and Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have ignited debate among politicians in Turkey regarding the actors needed to solve Turkey’s age-old struggles with its Kurdish minority.

In comments released in a 12 September documentary entitled “Mr. Kemal and his alliances“, Kılıçdaroğlu made the argument that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an opposition party in the Turkish parliament that polls strongly in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeastern provinces, was the right “interlocutor” to solve the long-running issue. In his comments, Kılıçdaroğlu said: 

“It is very important that the HDP is in parliament…Our political institutions have been unable to solve the Kurdish problem for 35-40 years. In order to solve this issue, we need a legitimate body.” 

Characterizing the HDP as the political organ capable of addressing the Kurdish problem, Kılıçdaroğlu criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s dealing with the issue. While the Erdoğan government has treated imprisoned former Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan as the default “interlocutor” for dealing with the Kurdish issue, Kılıçdaroğlu argued that it has ignored the potential role of the HDP in reaching a long-term solution to the problem. 

The HDP has been repeatedly criticized by Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) for its alleged connections to the PKK, designated by Turkey as a terrorist organization. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) which forms an alliance with Erdoğan’s AKP in parliament, has made repeated attempts to close the HDP over its alleged terrorism connections. As such, powers-that-be in Turkey’s government have not treated the HDP as a legitimate actor in reaching permanent resolution of the issue, an approach Kılıçdaroğlu criticized.
Sezai Temelli, a HDP politician who represents the southeastern region of Van in Turkey’s parliament, took issue with Kılıçdaroğlu’s statement, saying that although the HDP could play an important role in solving the Kurdish issue, “We must not forget that the address of the interlocutor of the democratic solution is on Imrali.” 

Imrali is the name of the small island in the Sea of Marmara where Abdullah Ocalan has been imprisoned for over two decades, and is frequently used as shorthand to refer to the imprisoned PKK leader. While avoiding referring to Ocalan by name, Temelli’s statement implied the important role Ocalan must play in permanent resolution to the Kurdish issue.

Speaking to Medyascope regarding Temelli’s comments, HDP co-vice president Tayip Temel clarified on Tuesday that Temelli’s statements represents his personal views, not official HDP platform regarding resolution of the Kurdish issue. “If Kılıçdaroğlu had said ‘The HDP is an important actor in solving the Kurdish issue’, it would have been more accurate.” Temel explained that although the HDP has an important role to play in solving the Kurdish issue, it must not be the sole player.

Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chairman of the HDP who has been imprisoned in Edirne’s Silivri Prison for nearly five years, released a statement that seemed to offer support to Kılıçdaroğlu’s argument, highlighting the important role the HDP must play in resolving the issue. Mentioning that the HDP aspires to solve all of Turkey’s problems, including the Kurdish issue, Demirtaş’s statement struck a different tone that the one released by Sezai Temelli, saying “The address of the solution is the Turkish Grand National Assembly.” Without mentioning Ocalan or Imrali, Demirtaş argued that resolution to the Kurdish issue must take place in the Turkish parliament.

Demirtaş’s conciliatory message, which seemed to agree with Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach to solving the Kurdish question, highlighted the extent to which the imprisoned former HDP co-chair still holds sway in Turkish national politics, especially when it comes to Kurdish issues. In a broadcast on Tuesday, Medyascope’s Ruşen Çakır commented that Demirtaş himself may be the “interlocutor” that the Kurdish problem needs, a well-known politician with the ability to reach across the political aisle to solve the issue by parliamentary means. While Ocalan is a convicted terrorist imprisoned for over two decades with limited access to the outside world, Demirtaş is still a current figure on Turkey’s political scene, and enjoys freedoms from prison that Ocalan lacks, such as access to lawyers, media, and the ability to publish material from prison. Medyascope conducted an interview with Demirtaş just last month. 

Analysts also noted the important step Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments represent for the CHP, a party which itself has a troubled history with the Kurdish issue. By recognizing the legitimacy of the HDP in solving the Kurdish issue by parliamentary means, Çakır said, Kılıçdaroğlu has opened the door to democratic resolution of the issue. Additionally, the move could have important political implications for Turkey’s upcoming elections, expected to take place in 2023. Increasing its share of the Kurdish vote has recently been a goal for the ruling AKP, which has struggled with this slice of the electorate, especially since forming an alliance with far-right MHP in 2018. Therefore, Kılıçdaroğlu’s overtures towards the HDP could have electoral implications as well, and a sign that the main opposition Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı) may be attempting to widen their political tent in anticipation of 2023.

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli also released a statement in response to growing discussion about Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments and the Kurdish issue. Bahçeli criticized Kılıçdaroğlu’s conciliatory remarks towards the HDP, characterizing the party as an extension of the PKK: “To view the HDP as a legitimate political body means making the PKK the interlocutor. The HDP is not a legitimate political organ, it is just a masked version of the PKK. In Turkey, there is no Kurdish problem.” 

Although it remains unlikely that the HDP formally joins the Nation Alliance coalition with CHP and IYI Parties, Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments were interpreted by many as an attempt to increase appeal to HDP voters without including the party explicitly. Tied to the strongly anti-HDP Bahçeli and MHP through the People’s Alliance coalition (Cumhur İttifak), President Erdoğan’s AKP approaches the 2023 elections having a complicated relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, confused by both their alliance with the MHP and opposition attempts to widen their electoral appeal and exploit the president’s political vulnerabilities.

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