Turkey’s Kurds – Put the weapon down – A call for peace by the PKK’s leader could mean a new deal for Turkey

Mar 5th 2015 | ANKARA AND DIYARBAKIR | The Economist – FOR decades Turkish warplanes rained bombs on the snow-capped Qandil mountains in northern Iraq to flush out rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who have been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984. Now Turkey is pondering operations of a different kind. “If all goes to plan we will explore for oil in Qandil,” declares Taner Yildiz, the country’s oil minister.

Mr Yildiz’s plans are part of a sea change in Turkey’s relations with the PKK. On February 28th the party’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called on his men to convene a congress this spring to declare an end to their armed campaign. Years of secret haggling between Mr Ocalan and his captors may be bearing fruit. “We are closer than ever to achieving peace,” beamed Sirri Sureyya Onder of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), the biggest legal Kurdish party, as he read out Mr Ocalan’s statement on television.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has done more than any of his predecessors to improve the Kurds’ lot. A Kurdish shift to peaceful politics would reverberate not just in Turkey but in Iraq and Syria, where the PKK and its Syrian affiliate have been receiving American aerial support in battling the jihadists of Islamic State. “Once the PKK stops targeting Turkey, it will be easier for America to justify its support for the PKK,” reckons a Western diplomat.

Mr Erdogan’s magnanimity to the Kurds may come at a price. He wants to alter the constitution to turn the presidency, which has limited powers, into a true executive presidency. His Justice and Development (AK) party needs to win two-thirds of the seats in the parliamentary election due on June 7th to make such changes on its own. Polls suggest it will fall short, leaving Mr Erdogan dependent on support from another party, probably the HDP.

The main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), says AK and the HDP have already struck a secret deal. (Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s co-chair, calls such claims “lies”.) The allegation may be linked to the fact that the Kurdish party is eyeing CHP voters in hopes of winning the minimum 10% share needed to secure seats in parliament. Should the HDP fail to clear this hurdle, AK will snatch most of the seats in its region, perhaps giving Mr Erdogan his supermajority.

Some HDP officials privately gripe that Mr Ocalan has weakened their hand: he ought to have made his peace call conditional on the government shelving a controversial public-order bill. The bill’s measures, mostly already approved by the AK-dominated parliament, grant the police sweeping new powers, including the right to shoot demonstrators. This will give the government greater leeway to suppress any street violence that may erupt if the Kurds are shut out of parliament.

But the bigger challenge to Mr Erdogan’s ambitions may come from within his own party. A growing number of AK insiders, including the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are said to be wary of their increasingly unpredictable president gathering more power to himself. A battle is looming over who will draw up candidates’ lists for the elections. Mr Erdogan is likely to prevail. Yet there are no guarantees that his handpicked deputies will remain loyal, so the executive presidency he yearns for is not yet in the bag.