MESOP Turkey Analysis: Erdogan’s Risky Game on The Kurdish Issue  

Sunday, April 7, 2013 | Ali Yenidunya in EA Middle East and Turkey, Middle East & Iran

In the past week, there have been two significant developments in the “peace process” between the Government and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Opposition deputies of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have paid a fourth visit to the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Tayyyip Erdogan has selected 49 “wise people” — seven for each of seven regions — to promote the talks to the Turkish public. – On the surface, then, this continues to be advance towards the “historic” resolution of the Kurdish issue. Dig a bit deeper, however, and you will hit a major block: the ambitions of a Prime Minister trying to maintain and increase his power at every step of the process.

Let’s start with the commission of “wise people”. For the Government, their goal is no more than molding public opinion on behalf of Ankara. In contrast, the opposition BDP wants the representatives to work on the ground, not only observing developments but intervening to bridge gaps between Ankara and the PKK.

Last Sunday, Erdogan said:

They will directly answer to me. There will be no legal status. It is all about a societal support.  We will fund their expenses. Our Public Security Undersecretariat will perform as its secretariat. [They say that] they will watch those [PKK fighters] leaving the borders [of Turkey]….There is no such duty. 

The Deputy Prime Minister, Bekir Bozdag, continued on Monday:

These are not the people who will run the process. They will only carry out works through conferences, panels, seminars, and cooperation with NGOs in seven regions of Turkey.

To ensure his control, Erdogan chose every “wise person” before meeting the commissions on Wednesday to declare its members “bold and fearless”. 

The second, larger problem is the position of Parliament. For the BDP, if there is no legal role given to MPs,  the peace process could be damaged by an intervention by the judiciary. The government, dismissing the possibility, rejects any involvement by the legislators. 

Meanwhile, Ankara has raised a possible complication with the withdrawal of PKK fighters to Iraq, saying that security forces will not target unarmed insurgents but reserving action on those who carry weapons.  The BDP’s co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, objected that this would create a risk of confrontation, underming the negotiations, but  Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag replied, “They can’t cross the border with arms.”

The Ankara’s intransigence on passing some of its powers to Parliament is political, rather than procedural. The ruling AKP knows that any role for legislators will be followed by demands for the “reconciliation” or “truth-seeking” commission sought by the PKK’s Ocalan. 

The Government also fear that allowing insurgents to cross the border with arms will empower them with a sense of “victory”, consolidating the empowerment of movements in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan and possibly building future pressure within Turkey for more authority for Kurdish areas and dcommunities. Until he secures his Presidential future with a new Constitution, Erdogan will guard against that possibility, especially if it gives credibility to other political figures. 

Ocalan recognises this. So the BDP and PKK will pressure the Government for a Parliamentary role but will show flexibility. The PKK leader may order withdrawal in return for Government commitments on the new Constitution.

At the end of the game, the biggest prop for this process is that Ocalan does not want to miss a historic moment. 

Still, this is a risky game. Erdogan will ensure that he is strong enough to control each step of this process. At what point does that insistence on his primacy override the willingness of the BDP and the PKK to compromise?