Turkey’s parliament has approved a legal framework for peace talks with Kurdish fighters, in an important step towards ending a three-decade insurgency a month before a presidential election.
The measure, passed on Thursday, could be a vote-winner for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who is hoping to pick up Kurdish support as he bids to become Turkey’s first directly elected president in a nationwide poll on August 10.
Turkey, a NATO member state, began peace talks with jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012, in an effort to end a 30-year-old insurgency that has killed 40,000 people.
Until now however, there have been few legal provisions for negotiating with Ocalan’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labelled “a terrorist organisation” by the Turkish authorities, the European Union and the US
“Turkey is normalising and democratising,” Mehdi Eker, agriculture minister and a ruling party deputy from the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, said after the law was passed.
“This bill will strengthen Turkish citizens’ sense of belonging and will be a vehicle for unity and integrity.”
The new law will shield from prosecution those involved in disarming and reintegrating Kurdish rebels, as well as giving legal protection to meetings aimed at ending the bloodshed.
Pro-Kurdish politicians have long sought such a bill, partly to remove the risk of those involved in the talks being prosecuted if the political climate in Turkey turns against the peace process in future.
An earlier draft offering even wider immunity to government officials was toned down after complaints from opposition MPs that it was unconstitutional.
The PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a separate state in the southeast for Turkey’s Kurds.
The group subsequently moderated its demands, seeking increased political and cultural rights which were long denied.
A ceasefire called by Ocalan in March 2013 has largely held, despite rising tensions this year over the construction of military outposts in Kurdish areas by the Turkish army.
The cross-party support the bill finally garnered – passing with a majority of more than 80 percent – marked an important step in the peace process, according to Hasip Kaplan, an MP for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.
Erdogan has invested significant political capital in peace efforts, boosting cultural and language rights for Kurds at the risk of alienating some of his own grassroots support.
Kurds account for around a fifth of Turkey’s population and could boost Erdogan’s presidential chances if he can count on their support, particularly in the event of a second-round run-off, although opinions polls already give him a strong lead.