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Turkish Kurds: The Predicament of Opportunity

World Economic Forum, by Andy Mettler

World Economic Forum, by Andy Mettler

Turkey’s historically troubled relationship with its Kurdish population has become less tense since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) founder and current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became prime minister in 2003. Yet, after almost a decade of democratic reforms that brought Ankara closer to Turkish Kurds, this rapprochement stands, once again, challenged.

On Feb. 28, the imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan called on his supporters to lay down their weapons and reach an agreement with the Turkish government. The Kurdish military insurgency, which demands separation from Ankara, has been raging for the better part of three decades, claiming so far some 45,000 lives and displacing more than 3 million people in Turkey’s eastern regions. But is this a poisoned gift?

The success of Selahattin Dimirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), during the 2014 election cycle where he captured almost 10% of the votes, demonstrated the Kurds’ potential for assuming a broader role within the country’s political scene. An emboldened HDP is confident that it can receive enough support in the 2015 parliamentary elections and overcome Turkey’s whopping 10 percent voting threshold, the world’s highest. If it succeeds, the HDP may become the kingmaker for Erdogan’s plans of constitutional reform. The Turkish leader wants to bolster the office of the president, which currently has limited powers, a move that requires securing the votes of two thirds of the National Assembly.

Curiously, however, the possibility of political dependence between the AKP and the HDP is not necessarily an indication that Turkish-Kurdish ties will advance. In fact, the development responds to the increasing tensions between both groups.

Turkey’s limited and belated engagement in efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the first point of contention between Turkish Kurds and Ankara. Erdogan’s inaction with regards to the Islamic group’s forays into Kurdish Iraq and Syria, specifically the border town of Kobani, exacerbated Kurdish distrust of Turkish authority. In their eyes, Erdogan’s do-nothing policy toward ISIS could be seen as an unapologetic abandonment of the Kurdish people.

Erdogan has repeatedly drawn red lines in the sand, noting that unless Turkish territorial integrity or interests are directly threatened, his country will remain on the sidelines. Although certainly not the only reason for Erdogan’s fecklessness in tackling ISIS, his personal vision for Turkey’s future as a regionally influential Sunni Muslim state is undoubtedly a key factor in his lackluster reaction. Throwing a spanner in the works, Kurds are not willing to make the same sacrifices for Erdogan’s vision, and in fact find it difficult to reconcile such policies with their own goals of greater autonomy.

As a result of this leeriness, many Kurds have also solidified their dismissal of central Turkish authorities like the National Assembly, further fragmenting the group’s relationship with the state. This fracture, perceived as harmless by Turkish authorities a decade ago, becomes far more significant now that the AKP and the HDP may need to work together. If the Kurds continue to perceive Erodgan as untrustworthy, its votes coupled with those of other progressive sectors of Turkish society could propel the HDP to the forefront of parliamentary politics, in turn putting at risk Erdogan’s plans of turning Turkey into a presidential system under his command.

Despite a greater rapprochement’s potential for consolidating the Kurdish peace process, it would come at a very high price for the embattled minority. Kurdish support for the AKP would only serve to guarantee the success of the President’s proposed constitutional referendum, effectively subjecting Kurds to his already unfavorably tight grip on power. Similarly, a Turkish Presidential Republic ruled by Erdogan would likely diminish its respect for human rights. As a result, even if Erdogan were to deliver more democratic reforms, a Kurdish rapprochement would only serve to secure his ability to quickly revoke them at will.

Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement is no longer just about remedying past tensions. Today, Kurds can either choose to reject the government, ally with it, or contest it in the ballot box, and the choice they make will not only determine their own future but will decide whether Turkey steers back to democracy or continues down its authoritarian path.