What is behind Ankara’s major turnabout on the PKK?
Istanbul, Turkey – On October 10, a suicide attack in the Turkish capital of Ankara left at least 100 people dead and 245 wounded at a peace rally organised mainly by the HDP.
Shortly thereafter, during a football match between Turkey and Iceland in the city of Konya, some spectators refused to stay silent during a moment of silence for victims of the attack. Instead, they chanted “Allahu Akbar” and booed.
The incident once again exposed how the events of the past five months have polarised Turkish society along ethnic and political lines.
Soli Ozel, a professor in Kadir Has University’s international relations department, told Al Jazeera that “Turkey was never this polarised. The more this chaos prevails, peace seems a more distant prospect. This polarisation and a visible terrorist threat might suit the political calculations of AK [Justice and Development] party. They want to undercut the [Peoples’ Democratic Party] HDP’s electoral appeal in the forthcoming snap elections on November 1.”
According to a recent poll conducted by Gezici Research Company, 46 percent of Turks hold the presidency accountable “for the chaos that has been going on recently”, whereas 40 percent believe the HDP is responsible. Thirty-one percent of respondents placed the blame on the AK party.
HDP is a crucial actor, but ultimately, the PKK is one of the two warring parties. So the Turkish government should also politically engage the PKK towards a comprehensive solution.
Turkey’s June 7 elections were a major victory for the HDP. Though the party won only 13 percent of the votes, it was the first time a pro-Kurdish party surpassed the 10-percent electoral threshold of the polls. This gave the HDP 80 seats in parliament and fuelled hopes for a political solution to the Kurdish issue.
Partly as a result of the HDP’s success, the ruling AK party lost its majority in parliament, thwarting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aspirations to expand the presidency’s constitutional authority.
But since the June elections, Turkey’s political parties have failed to form a coalition government, pushing the country towards snap elections scheduled for November 1.
Meanwhile, peace talks have broken down between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) following a series of bombings and assassinations.
Turkey’s air strikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq in late July marked the end of the three-year peace process.
Since then, hundreds of people – including PKK fighters, civilians and Turkish security personnel – have died in the clashes. Ethnic tensions have risen, several arson attacks have taken place against Kurdish-owned property, and many HDP offices were sacked by mobs.
Civilian casualties, alleged extrajudicial killings and harsh curfews imposed by the Turkish government in predominantly Kurdish towns have alienated some Kurds from hoping that the peace process will resume.
Ideologically and ethnically, both the PKK and HDP claim to appeal to the same demographic. However, the HDP is a legal political party that supports nonviolence, whereas the PKK is an armed organisation considered illegal by the Turkish government.
In the past, the PKK demanded an independent Kurdish state; now, it calls for eventual democratic autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. The Turkish government has accused the HDP of having links to and being influenced by the PKK – charges denied by both Kurdish groups.
Although the government has failed to back up these claims with evidence, many Turks believe there is something to them.
Columnist Levent Gultekin of the news website Diken said that Erdogan is trying to prove that “any solution excluding him would be harmful for the people of the region and for the peace process”.
“It doesn’t matter if HDP is in [the parliament] or not; they were already in the parliament when the peace process broke down. What matters is if AK party would secure its [single-party] rule or not,” said Gultekin, who, in the past, was a strong supporter of the AK party.
Mehmet Metiner, a Kurdish MP representing Istanbul with the AK party, has a different perspective. Metiner was a former deputy chair of the now-defunct pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), which was closed down in 2003 by Turkey’s constitutional court on grounds that it allegedly supported the banned PKK.
Metiner now believes that “since [the PKK] will not lay down its arms and abolish itself, PKK’s presence is the vital problem for Kurds in politics”. He added, “HDP is incapable of detaching itself from the PKK and showing an independent will, despite PKK’s domination of Kurdish politics.”
This, he said, “creates a feeling that nothing could be achieved through the HDP. Thus, I don’t think that they would be considered as one of the interlocutors of the peace process, even if they enter the parliament again”.
Metiner’s comments point to the dilemma that the Turkish government now faces. If the peace process were to restart, would a democratically elected pro-Kurdish party in the parliament serve as the interlocutor, or would the government negotiate directly with a group that it labels a “terrorist” organisation?
Since directly engaging with a “terrorist” organisation is considered to be a constitutional crime, the only viable option would be to resurrect the HDP’s role as a go-between with the PKK and its jailed leader. The government negotiated with Abdullah Ocalan through the mediation of the National Intelligence Organisation and HDP members.
Hisyar Ozsoy, an HDP parliamentarian from the southeastern town of Bingol, believes that his party’s representation in parliament “is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to restart the peace process”.
He added: “HDP is a crucial actor, but ultimately, the PKK is one of the two warring parties. So the Turkish government should also politically engage the PKK towards a comprehensive solution. The major goal of the HDP will be the struggle to renew the process and bring the parties back to the table. In order to achieve this, we will try to put pressure on the government by engaging with anyone in the parliament who wants peace.”
But for this to happen, the HDP would first have to pass the 10-percent electoral threshold in the November 1 elections – which seems plausible, given recent polls showing that between 12 and 14 percent of Turkish voters plan on supporting the party.
If the HDP were to win seats in parliament again, it could be a signal from the party’s mostly Kurdish voters that they prefer peace to violence.