The Kurdish issue has played a double-pronged role in the overall democratisation of Turkey. In the 1980s and 1990s, the establishment cited armed conflict aspect of the Kurdish issue as a pretext for stifling democratisation, curbing liberties and suppressing the emergence of an open society. After the 2000s, the interaction between the Kurdish movement’s demands for greater political and cultural rights and the government’s drive to democritise the political system contributed significantly to the overall democratisation of the country.
Just as the armed manifestation of the Kurdish movement emboldened undemocratic forces in Turkey’s system and slowed down democratisation, the movement’s political alteration played a catalysing role in Turkey’s further democratisation. The Kurdish peace process, which began in late 2012, presents the Kurds and Turkey with a great opportunity to not only solve the Kurdish issue peacefully, but also to push Turkey towards a more advanced level of democracy.
Reforms: the way forward
The process has recently been facing difficulties, though not insurmountable ones. The government and the Kurdish movement have blamed one another for not adequately undertaking their respective responsibilities. In August, Prime Minister Erdogan accused the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of not living up to its promise to withdraw from Turkey, saying that only 20 percent of fighters had left Turkey’s soil.
With increased parliamentary representation and sound finances, an invigorated Kurdish movement in the upcoming years requires little imagination.
In response, the Kurdish side accused the government of not being committed to the process, since the government did not undertake the necessary judicial and democratic reforms as part of the second step of the three-phase process. The first phase of the process concerns the withdrawal of PKK members from Turkey and the last phase involves the reintegration of PKK members into society. Consequently, the PKK decided to discontinue its withdrawal until the government carries out the necessary reforms and meets the conditions for more comprehensive negotiations proposed by Ocalan, the incarcerated leader of the PKK.
As a result, the government announced a much-anticipated 28-point reform package in late September. Yet, Kurds deemed the package insufficient to address its main demands and reiterated their insistence that the government conduct deep and meaningful negotiations with Ocalan. Thereafter, both sides have adopted increasingly accusatory language, the latest evolution of which took the form of PKK’s Cemil Bayik threatening to renew the fight unless the government revives the process.
With this posture, the PKK seeks to achieve two goals. First, it wants to exert pressure on the government as local elections near. Second, it wants to strengthen Ocalan’s negotiating position in the process. Although one can see the logic behind this stance, the threat of resuming armed struggle, let alone initiating it, is ultimately inimical to the interests of both Turkey and the PKK, and counterproductive to the Kurds’ efforts to attain full democratic rights. In an era of opening political channels and improved prospects for peaceful political advancement of their rights. Armed struggle is obsolete. The PKK should not renounce violence as a tactical move; it should do so as part of its strategic vision.
Recent reforms have fallen short of meeting some key demands of the Kurdish movement. These include the use of the Kurdish language in education and public life, elimination of Turkey’s infamous anti-terrorism law and introduction of a decentralised local government structure by lifting Turkey’s reservations on the Council of Europe’s European Charter on Local Self-Government. However, the package did free the Kurdish movement from many restrictions that had previously prevented it from being a more effective political force. Given that pro–Kurdish parties usually poll at 5-7 percent of the national vote, it was unable to enter parliament under its name and receive public funding.
Therefore, it is clear that the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will be the main beneficiary of the package’s provisions related to the political system. These include: proposing to lower than the current 10 percent election threshold to 5 percent or annulling it altogether; reducing the 7 percent threshold for parties to receive public funding to 3 percent; and allowing political campaigning in languages other than Turkish.
These articles mean that Kurdish politics will have secured more direct representation in the parliament and more public financing in the future. Due to the moribund state of Turkey’s main opposition, the lackluster Republican People Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish BDP already functions as the real opposition in parliament and punches above its weight.
For instance, as a sign of its commitment, the government should announce a time-table for amending the notorious anti-terrorism law, which led to the jailing of hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists.
With increased parliamentary representation and sound finances, an invigorated Kurdish movement in the upcoming years requires little imagination. Such a movement will be capable of bringing about greater pressure on the government for the further attainment of Kurdish rights.
Reciprocity is key
The general mood in the country and government officials’ language suggest there is no serious opposition to the demands that the Kurdish movement regards as integral to any solution. The conversation between BDP MPs Sirri Sakik and Hasip Kaplan, and Prime Minister Erdogan during the opening ceremony of the parliament on 1 October affirms this point. When the two MPs conveyed Kurds’ disappointment at the shortcomings of the democratisation package, Erdogan replied by saying “see the glass as half-full”. In addition, as demonstrated by the lack of any significant backlash against the government’s removal of a highly nationalistic student oath, which begins “I am a Turk, I am honest…” and ends with “may my presence be a gift to Turkish nation”, society has matured vis–a–vis the Kurdish issue. This picture reveals two things: First, what we have witnessed is tough political bargaining and calculations. Second, the societal and political environment is ripe for the Kurdish movement to attain Kurdish rights through politics.
This assessment does not mean that certain elements of the political calculations cannot go awry and cause setbacks in the process. The road to a peaceful settlement of the issue is plagued with risks apparent and unforeseen. To avoid this, the PKK should continue its withdrawal across the border into Iraq, as the presence of armed rebels on Turkey’s soil means the continuing risk of violent confrontation between the PKK and the army. In return, the government should be clearer about, and bolder in its reforms. For instance, as a sign of its commitment, the government should announce a time-table for amending the notorious anti-terrorism law, which led to the jailing of hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists.
Ocalan shrewdly aligned the Kurdish movement with the zeitgeist of a new era and a new Turkey when he declared in his 21 March Newroz (Kurdish New Year) letter that the era of armed struggle is over, heralding a new period for politics and ideas to speak. The Kurdish movement should not backtrack on this vision, and the government should reciprocate in the same manner. As long as the Kurds can keep their struggle within civilian and political boundaries, they are likely to form stronger domestic alliances and find a more sympathetic international audience. Through struggle in this form, the Kurds not only have a better chance to attain their rights, but they also can play an enhanced role in the further democratisation of Turkey.
Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.
You can follow him on twitter: @GalipDalay