In a historic development for Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will begin to withdraw its armed forces from Turkey on May 8, as part of ongoing talks between Turkish intelligence and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The eventual goal of the talks is the definitive disarmament of the outlawed group.
The organisation has scaled down its demand from secession to autonomy in the recent years. Now it’s waiting for the Turkish government to make certain amendments to its legal system, including a new definition of citizenship in Turkey, a decentrailisation of state power, and the right to Kurdish language education.
The conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) government revealed the talks – what it calls a “resolution process”, at the end of 2012. Since then, the country has experienced exceptional steps towards a settlement to the almost 30-year conflict, including a truce, contact between the PKK leadership in Northern Iraq and Ocalan through letters carried by Kurdish MPs, and a withdrawal call penned by the jailed leader.
A new constitution enhancing the rights of Turkey’s Kurds is a fundamental part of the step-by-step process, observers say. However, the political parties taking part in the relevant parliamentary commission were not able to agree on central parts of the draft text. The commission’s fate is currently unclear as the AKP wants it dissolved due to a lack of progress.
Key stumbling blocks have included disagreements about how the state could be decentrailised and disputes over the presidential system proposed by the AKP. It is widely speculated that the AKP is seeking a resolution to the Kurdish question in order to gain support from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and Kurds in general for a new constitution envisaging a presidential system.
Critics of the proposed constitutional change believe the AKP wants a presidential system to enhance its own political power and is using debates over the Kurdish question to advance a broader partisan agenda.
Gul not hopeful
“Apparently, a new constitution cannot be written from scratch,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters on Monday, expressing frustration about the negotiations. “The method of amending the current constitution can be pursued, as it has been done before,” he said.
Turkey’s current constitution, written during military rule in 1982, has been changed numerous times since then. Ironically, Turkey is trying the last two living generals of that era.
Constitutional guarantees are central for Kurds, who expect legal steps on the way to a definitive resolution
“We are advancing towards an interim constitution,” Cengiz Aktar, a lecturer of international relations and European studies at Bahcesehir University, told Al Jazeera. “Constitutional guarantees are central for Kurds, who expect legal steps on the way to a definitive resolution. And an interim constitution should at least have a minimum standard on the central areas. If this is not put into practice until summer, the words of peace cannot be fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, domestic debates on peace negotiations and the Kurdish question continue in a politicised and polarised manner. The second and third largest parties in the Turkish Parliament oppose the process, but for different reasons.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) opposes the talks at a fundamental level, accusing the AKP government of “treason” for “negotiating with the terrorist organisation”. Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader, calls the PKK “baby killers”.
On the other hand, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who consider themselves social democrats, oppose the nature of the initiative. The process “lacks transparency” according to CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has politicised the negotiations in order to get himself the top job under a proposed new presidential system in Turkey, Kilicdaroglu said.
‘CHP key for new constitution’
The CHP, which is going through an internal conflict between the so-called reformist and traditional wings, lost some members at different levels in recent months in rows over how to approach the talks.
“The CHP’s role is central for a new constitution,” Baskin Oran, a professor of international relations at Ankara University, told Al Jazeera, pointing out that the political parties will sit down and compromise when efforts to write the new text come to the final stage.
“The CHP has not been able to become a [unified] political party,” Oran said. “This situation convinces people to [support] the only other option – the AKP. The CHP will become a real party when it cleans up the neo-nationalists within its own ranks.”
According to Oran, the AKP’s plan for a presidential system is a major obstacle to a new constitution written from scratch. “If peace hopes bump against this wall, the consequences of this sin would be huge,” he said.
Meanwhile, the governing party and the architect of the talks staunchly rejects that it is a “give and take process” between the PKK and Turkey. “We have never decreased to a level to bargain the interests of this country,” Erdogan told his deputies last week, echoing previous statements.
Such declarations by the AKP create a perception that the PKK has taken a decision to withdraw from Turkey without any returns. “What has been given to PKK? It is not clear,” Kilicdaroglu said in a recent statement. “The one who bargains with the PKK is vile and dishonorable,” he said last week, further polarising already tense negotiations.
In contrast with Erdogan’s rejection of any bargaining as part of the talks, the PKK has been publicising its demands through various Turkish media outlets. Murat Karayilan, the leader of PKK forces in Northern Iraq, even demands direct contact with Ocalan and eventually his freedom.
The negotiations themselves have produced some broader positive developments, analysts said, rather than just political squabbles. A new set of amendments to Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Law and the Turkish Penal Code narrowed the definition of “terrorist propaganda”. Among the changes, a perpetrator must now conduct “violence” in order to receive punishment. The amendments have led to the release of some of the Kurds held in Turkish prisons and this trend is likely to continue.
Thousands of Turkish activists, politicians and journalists are behind bars in relation to cases against the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan in Kurdish or KCK), the alleged umbrella organisation of the PKK, along with other Kurdish groups in the region.
Some analysts think Turkey is not on the way to a full-fledged democratisation process and resolution of the Kurdish question does not necessarily guarantee this.
“Democracy is a fixed menu and it should reflect on all parts of the society,” Aktar says, stressing that the settlement of the Kurdish dispute is only one of the challenges to Turkey’s democratisation and it does not guarantee a democratic state.
Oran said that democratisation and the “resolution process” should progress hand-in-hand. “Otherwise, we are back to square one: Bloodshed. We are at a point where we try to stop the bloodshed in order for the beginning of democratisation,” he said.
Baskin Oran is also part of the so-called “Wise People”, an initiative of the set up by the government to enlighten the public about the process. With a group of fellow intellectuals, he meets citizens, NGOs and business leaders in the Aegean Region.
“People are not against the process but they are suspicious,” he said. With much at stake, the conflict between a popular desire peace and lingering suspicions mean the negotiations could still go either way.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras