As Election Cycle Nears, Turkey’s Kurds Warn of Peace Talk Risks

By Emre Peker – Wallstreet Journal – 25.10.2013 – Turkey’s Kurdish peace process, beset by mounting risks, has seen both sides accuse each other of failing to honor pledges as they come under pressure from their constituencies to take a tougher stance.

Turkey’s much-vaunted Kurdish peace process has had a tough few months. Beset by mounting risks, both sides have accused one another of failing to honor pledges as they come under increasing pressure from their constituencies to take a tougher stance.

On Friday, Turkey’s Kurdish leaders flagged what promises to be yet another risk to the peace process: an election cycle that tends to see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan turn into a nationalist hawk to boost his party’s support at the ballot box.

The government’s unilateral approach and slow pace is already threatening the process even as its efforts established a dialogue that may lead to more substantive negotiations, said Selahattin Demirtas and Gulten Kisanak, co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. Turkey’s premier had authorized intelligence officers in December 2012 to start talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to end a three-decade insurgency where more than 40,000 people have been killed.

Just this week, Cemil Bayik, the northern Iraq-based acting leader of the PKK, said if the government doesn’t meet Kurdish demands the group will renew fighting in southeastern Turkey. In response to a March cease-fire by the PKK—which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union—Mr. Erdogan introduced in September a democracy package that Kurdish politicians say falls short of expectations, legalizing only those rights de-facto-earned by the country’s Kurds, who make up about 20% of the 75 million population. The government was broadly criticized by opposition parties, who weren’t also consulted on legislation that removes some limitations on Kurds’ rights, as well as other segments of Turkish society like pious conservatives, Mr. Erdogan’s voter base. With the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, preparing for local, presidential and general elections that kick off in March and end in June 2015, BDP leaders said it will become increasingly difficult to meet their demands. Key Kurdish conditions include improving Mr. Ocalan’s imprisonment conditions, designating a third-party observer for the process, and including an already-stalled constitutional rewrite in the peace negotiations to enshrine basic rights in the charter.

“The prime minister has a pragmatic side and that’s why he strategically puts nationalism at the forefront when it’s election time. This is a risk, a Turkish-Islamist prime minister makes it seriously difficult for Kurds to manage the peace process,” Mr. Demirtas said during a meeting with journalists in Istanbul. “If the government takes quick and brave steps, the process can continue uninterrupted and the risk of renewed war will diminish. We can keep talking in between the elections.”

Mr. Erdogan’s office couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The premier ramped up his nationalistic rhetoric in the lead up to the 2011 general elections, when the AKP secured a third term with 50% support, the highest share since it came to power in 2002.

After the vote, however, Turkey experienced the most violent clashes with the PKK since the 1990s, with about 1,000 people killed in the year following the June 2011 election. During that time, Mr. Erdogan even suggested revoking Turkey’s ban on the death penalty, hinting that Turkey may seek capital punishment for Mr. Ocalan, who then became central to the peace talks.

“The peace process isn’t yet over, it’s ongoing. Every step we take is a product of this continuity,” Mr. Erdogan told the AKP’s provincial leaders during a Friday meeting in Ankara. The premier has repeatedly said the government won’t back off from the talks, asserting the state’s determination to see the talks through and dismissing criticism that officials are shying away from concrete reforms.

Kurdish politicians said they aren’t discouraged by the process despite its shortcomings, and vowed to continue pressuring the government to enter into direct negotiations to resolve Turkey’s so-called Kurdish issue. The matter, BDP leaders said, doesn’t only illustrate domestic problems, but also hiccups in Ankara’s foreign policies.

The government is pursuing sectarian policies based on Sunni Islam, which makes it difficult for Turkey to enact domestic democratic reforms or conduct an effective foreign policy in the Middle East, the BDP leaders said. Ankara is enforcing an embargo against the Kurds in Syria while directly supporting extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda, Mr. Demirtas and Ms. Kisanak said. The government’s effort to contain Kurdish influence along its longest border and topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus may backfire as jihadist groups target Turkey, they warned. Instead, Ankara should seek to engage Kurds throughout the region in a mutually beneficial way, the BDP lawmakers said. “Kurds currently want the same thing in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran: to enjoy basic rights and freedoms, and get involved in the political lives of those nations in an autonomous manner,” Ms. Kisanak said. “This is a moment, and if you miss this opportunity, there’s no guarantee that Kurds will continue to maintain the same stance.”