By Afro-Middle East Centre
Turkey’s Kurdish question: Historic foundations and contemporary issues
After about eighty years of marginalisation and persecution, Turkey’s Kurdish population had a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the ‘Kurdish question’ through talks between the Justice and Development (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2013. The PKK had pursued an armed insurgency against the state since 1984, but proximity talks between Turkish National Intelligence Service and PKK representatives in Oslo in 2009 suggested the possibility of a new dawn. The talks developed into a dialogue with PKK leader and ideologue, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island prison since 1999. In 2013 both sides declared a ceasefire, which substantially held until 2015. In September 2015 Turkey and the armed PKK renewed hostilities, effectively terminating two years of peace talks. Since then, the Turkish military has bombed PKK bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains and implemented martial law across Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast, as a string of bombings rocked Turkish cities, and an uprising erupted in various Kurdish urban centres.
Numbering between 15 and 20 million, Turkey’s Kurds form the largest part of the Kurdish community, which is split across Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Caucasus. Since the division of these areas following the Second World War, Kurdish groups across this region have called for increased autonomy from central governments, and, often, complete secession that would allow the various parts of the Kurdish community to unite into a new Kurdish state. That discourse has changed over the past few years, with new ideas of democratic autonomy diluting the push for succession which once dominated the Kurdish national movement.
Victims of Ataturk’s nationalist project
After the First World War, with the Ottoman empire divided into several new states, a group of former Ottoman Officers headed by Mustafa Kemal, a charismatic general known among Turkish nationalists as the ‘father’ of modern Turkey, or Ataturk, led the Turkish War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In his vision for a secular republican Turkey, Ataturk pursued a programme of social and political reform which included the abolition of Islamic institutions; the introduction of western legal codes, dress, and calendar; and the latinisation of the Turkish language from the Arabic Ottoman alphabet. The reforms formed part of a Turkish nationalist project which championed the primacy of Turkishness over other ethnic identities. Secular Turkish nationalism ensured that development in the Kurdish regions was stymied, and the Kurdish language was banned in public spaces, including schools, resulting in disproportionately high illiteracy levels among Kurds. The effects of this policy persist. The channelling of state development projects to West Turkey resulted in the underdevelopment of the east, which was used as a cheap reservoir of labour. The 1950s were years of major political upheaval for the Kurdish southeast; feudal relations suffered as numerous rural uprisings took place against the state, increasing urbanisation.
Roots and evolution of the PKK
In the 1960s, educated and unionised Kurdish counter-elites gained control of the Kurdish national movement from its more traditional and conservative support base. Years of cultural patronisation and economic neglect stemming from Ankara’s Kemalist socioeconomic policies radicalised Kurdish youth. The combination of socioeconomic factors and renascent Kurdish cultural idioms produced a new Kurdish movement. Soon the leadership began to use a Marxist discourse, mainly within trade union movements – the only legal avenues for Kurdish political thought and action. In 1978 Ocalan and a number of radical Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals established the PKK with the aim of seceding from Turkey and joining with other Kurdish regions to form a Kurdish state – a call which grew stronger among Turkish Kurds after military rule in 1980. In 1984 the PKK’s armed wing, The People’s Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARKG) began an armed insurgency against the state. Although the armed campaigns enjoyed rural support, there were also Kurds who were opposed this strategy. This section of the Kurdish community was mostly tribal, conservative and religious. Ankara, aware of these fissures, sought to divide support for the PKK through increased urbanisation programmes, and the introduction of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as The Village Guard, ostensibly to protect Kurdish villages from PKK insurgents. Rogue elements in the Turkish security apparatus also provided support to the Turkish Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese Hizbullah), a militant Islamist group which fought the PKK, adding another dimension to Kurdish infighting.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Turkish state was unable to destroy Kurdish identity and political expression, and the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups were unable to secede from Turkey through armed force. In 1993, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ocalan began discussing autonomy for the Kurdish regions, promoting self-rule within existing states, and abandoning the notion of secession to create a Kurdish state. This ‘Democratic Confederalism’ project, as he called it, would provide for the development of autonomous sociocultural systems with defined independent economic domains aiming to move away from the central state and parochial nationalism, diversifying governance from the ‘bottom up’, and championing localised governance whilst celebrating ethnic and linguistic difference. The PKK reframed armed resistance as ‘self defence’, and the ARKG changed its name to People’s Defence Forces (HPG). Inserted into the Democratic Confederalism discourse, ‘self-defence’ was a way to address the contradictions between the continued existence of an armed wing, and the official policy of peace.
Kurdish participatory politics
Between 1993 and 2008, Kurds attempted to create political parties which could contest Turkish parliamentary elections. Seven were launched in this period, and all were banned by Turkey’s constitutional court. They also suffered state repression in the form of imprisonment and assassinations. Although some parties had ties to the PKK, many were banned due to their policies of autonomy – consistent with the Democratic Confederalism model – which they attempted to institutionalise in municipalities that their members controlled. Since 2005 the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which promotes Democratic Confederalism through assemblies and grassroots participatory politics, has expanded its operations. With a similar objective, the Democratic Society Congress, a brainchild of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) – one of the seven banned parties, was formed in 2007, aiming to further autonomy in Kurdish areas.
By 2007 Kurdish political leaders regarded the hegemonic Kurdish nationalist discourse as the cause for poor performance at the polls, and for consistent legislative attacks from the state. In order to address this, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) aligned with twenty socialist parties to form the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK); it won thirty-six seats in the 2011 general elections. In 2013 HDK was given a historic opportunity to push its pluralist agenda to an even broader audience after the Gezi Park protest movement erupted in central Istanbul, driven by objections to gentrification in Istanbul and deteriorating press freedoms. The Gezi Park movement offered the HDK a mouthpiece within Turkish urban centres. In October 2013 the HDK established the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most inclusive Kurdish-led political party thus far, which appealed to anti-austerity, socialist and progressive Turks who had found a platform at Gezi.
As Kurdish political parties grew throughout the 1990s, Islamist Turkish parties emerged. The roots of these parties lie deep within the Turkish social fabric, and date back to the founding of Turkish nationalism, when Turkish identity was founded as a derivative of Islam. The military junta played a role in the mid-1980s in laying the ground for the entrance of Islamist political discourse into the fiercely secular Turkish political scene. As part of its attempt to combat the rise of left-wing politics, it introduced ‘Islamisation from above’ policies which included compulsory religious education, and the reopening of religious schools and institutions. More profoundly, it fused Islamic symbols with nationalism in the hope of combating the revolutionary Islamic thought emanating from post-revolutionary Iran. It also introduced deregulation reforms which strengthened the emergence of an Anatolian bourgeoisie which had strong roots in Islamic culture. This, together with the elitism of Kemalist parties, resulted in the emergence of the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor to the AKP.
In1997 eighteen ‘28 February Recommendations’ by military and Kemalist leaders were issued, designed to stem the growth of Islamism Turkish politics. The military gave the Welfare party-led coalition government an ultimatum over issues regarding secularism and political Islam. A year later the Welfare Party was outlawed. Despite the retaking of the political realm by Turkey’s military elite, the growth and popularity of Islamic politics had been established, and it had captured the imagination of groups of people – particularly conservative or religious Turks and Kurds – who had been marginalised by elitist, secular fundamentalist and nationalist politics. The AKP emerged in 2001 within this context, and secured substantial Kurdish support by utilising the influence of religious Kurdish groups, particularly the Naqshbandi Sufi order. From the 2002 to the 2007 parliamentary election the AKP doubled its support in the southeast due to the support of conservative and religious Kurds.
The 2012 Peace Process
AKP victories at the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections symbolised the return and victory of Islamist politics within Turkey. These electoral wins were secured partly through consistent support from the southeast, where the Kurdish electorate saw the AKP as the only party willing and able to resolve the Kurdish question and to secure a lasting peace with the PKK. To address the Kurdish issue decisively, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened a dialogue with Ocalan and the PKK high command in late 2012. He wanted to finally resolve the problem of Kurdish marginalisation, while securing a diplomatic coup for his party. The PKK claims, cynically and in retrospect, that he also wanted to create a peaceful environment in the run up to the 2014 elections, and to build support for a presidential system in Turkey among Kurds.
The emergence of the HDP as the voice of participatory and radical Kurdish politics, however, challenged the AKP’s position as the sole political force for peace. The HDP could not be ignored in any peace process, and was chosen as a courier between Imrali Island and Ankara, and, at points, to represent Ocalan in negotiations with government. A February 2015 meeting between HDP leaders and the deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, at the Domalbache Palace resulted in a ten-point roadmap for a final resolution. Erdogan, however, rejected the Domalbache agreement, blaming continuing violence between state security forces and the PKK, and criticising the HDP for not condemning the Kurdish group.
The PKK’s main complaint about the peace process was that it only guaranteed the rehabilitation of PKK fighters, and gave few guarantees regarding demands for autonomy. This strengthened an environment of distrust, intensified when Ankara began building military bases as PKK fighters were withdrawing. As a result of this PKK scepticism, its military units began to return from the Qandil Mountains in 2014, enforcing checkpoints and imposing taxes, resulting in pitched battles between PKK militants and the army, and skirmishes between PKK youth and Kurdish Islamists. By late 2014 the PKK had accused Ankara of negotiating in bad faith, and of marginalising the HDP. This saw an increase in militancy within the PKK and other groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), with them undertaking bombing campaigns and armed attacks. The situation exploded early 2015 with Erdogan’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State group’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, which was controlled by PKK-affiliated Peoples Protection Units. This perceived complicity in the siege saw two dramatic developments for the tattered Kurdish peace process: the PKK called on youth in the southeast to rise up against the state, and the significant Kurdish vote the AKP had enjoyed gravitated to the HDP and another Kurdish party, Huda Par, in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
Future for Turkey’s Kurdish question
In the subsequent October 2015 elections, the HDP lost a large number of votes to the AKP and lost twenty-one of its eighty parliamentary seats. With armed battles and deep suspicion now characterising the relationship between the PKK and the state, it is unlikely that talks between them will resume anytime soon. In this context, the AKP hopes to solve the Kurdish issue unilaterally, without negotiating with Kurdish representatives.
With the HDP’s loss in the October election, many frustrated Kurds that had been drawn to the party’s participatory narrative became more amenable to PKK militancy. However, the PKK does not enjoy complete support in Kurdish areas, and has made a number of strategic errors in 2015. Its call on urban youth to revolt, for example, failed to attract broad support among Kurds. The instability on the Syrian border, and the emergence of the PKK-linked PYD as a potential power broker in any Syrian solution has complicated the Kurdish question for Ankara. Failure to engage meaningfully with the political forces ranged against it has emboldened those in the PKK who advocate a violent response.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports of secret meetings between Israeli and Turkish officials in Switzerland in February suggest Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) is softening its attitude towards Tel Aviv. Any rapprochement will likely include compensation for the Turkish victims of the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010, access to Gaza for Turkish aid ships, and a Turkish statement to crack down on Hamas operations from within Turkey. Less public agreements will likely include a reopening of arms deals between the two former allies, a united front on the diplomatic stage concerning Iran’s regional influence, possible energy deals concerning Israel’s eastern Mediterranean gas reserves and the exchange of intelligence on various non-state actors, particularly Kurdish groups. The talks in Switzerland may signal a watershed, but broader strategic imperatives, overlapping rivalries and new geopolitical realities have been coalescing behind the scenes to nudge Turkey towards Israel.
The killing of the nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara – part of the Freedom Flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010 – had been preceded by a dip in relations caused by a tirade by then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Trade Forum in Davos in 2009.
Benefits for Turkey
In 1998 the Turkish government planned to invest 150 billion dollars over twenty-five years in the modernisation of the country’s armed forces. Turkey’s main strategic goal during this time was to develop its local arms industry through the acquisition of advanced military knowledge, technology and materiel from suppliers who placed no conditions on sales. Israel was perfect since it chose to ignore Turkey’s egregious human rights record at the time, unlike EU arms suppliers. Israeli arms companies supplied Turkey with over 389 million dollars in weapons between 2001 and 2014, including ten Heron drones purchased under an AKP government. With old and new threats to Turkish security emanating from the resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Islamic State group (IS) respectively, Turkey seems to again be aiming to diversify its arms’ procurement. The Turkish defence minister sent a special envoy to meet with Israel’s security establishment on 1 March to negotiate financial terms on a number of weapons deals which reportedly will include drones. The planned purchase is a major component of the rapprochement.
Israel’s position as a world leader in cyber-security will also entice capital from interested public and private parties in Turkey. Turkish Ministry of Transport and Communications report covering 2013-2014 stated that Turkey was developing a comprehensive cyber-security programme. The fact that Syrian regime ‘hacktivists’ were able to wreak havoc on top-secret Turkish agencies in 2013 and 2014 suggests that this programme is still in its infancy. Thus, sourcing technology, expertise and equipment Israel until its own programme is underway could be useful for Turkey to counter the cyber threats it already faces.
There are also energy-related reasons that Turkey would want to upgrade ties with Israel. Russia’s entry in the Syrian civil war in support of the regime creates an energy dilemma for Turkey, which imports about fifty-five per cent of its natural gas supplies from Russia (and another eighteen per cent from another of Syria’s allies, Iran). Turkey is opposed to Moscow’s backing of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and has genuine fears that Russia might use gas as a geo-strategic bludgeon, not least to keep open the strategic Bosphorous strait which is the throughway for Russian ships taking supplies to Syria, and which, under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, is under Turkish control. The discovery of billions of cubic metres of gas off Israel’s coast, and in Gazan waters controlled by the Israeli navy, provides the possibility of an alternative energy source for Turkey that could make it less reliant on Russia. Israel is not poised to immediately satiate Turkish demands due to various complications over Israel’s development of these fields. Nevertheless, energy diplomacy remains a factor bringing these two states closer together.
The combination of détente with the West, and its presence in Syria – through proxies and its own forces – has granted Iran considerable weight in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the USA and Russia. This has sent Turkey’s Syria policy into a tailspin, as the ISSG’s fixation on battling IS has contributed to a ceasefire which technically grants Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces the right to fight Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebels. The more pressing issue, from Ankara’s perspective, is that the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has gained from Russian bombing campaigns along northern Syria. PYG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the main militia for the Kurdish Supreme Committee whose autonomous canton of Rojava in Syria is regarded by Ankara as a security threat because it serves as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and because the Rojava model for Kurdish autonomy is inspiring for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Israel’s close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, with which Turkey already good relations, is useful to Turkey as the KRG is a competitor to the PKK-PYD for leadership of the Kurdish movement. Ankara sought to exploit these rivalries during the IS siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobane in 2014 when it allowed KRG Peshmerga forces access to liberate the town in an attempt to prevent a YPG-PKK symbolic victory. Israel is also able to provide Turkey with intelligence on the YPG and PKK.
Benefits for Israel
Military agreements between Israel and Turkey during the 1990s reaped considerable dividends for Tel Aviv. The 1996 signing of the ‘Military Training and Cooperation Agreement’ between the two states enabled Israel to participate in war games with NATO members, and granted it a strategic alliance with NATO. Israel was able to deepen its strategic depth abroad through utilising Turkish airspace, which it often exploited to monitor events in Lebanon and Syria. The downgrading of these relations in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid left Israel more vulnerable at its northern frontier, with an inability to exploit airspace to monitor Hizbullah and Syrian personal movements. Recent Israeli artillery and war games around the Lebanese border reflect this insecurity. Israel is now looking to shore up its capabilities in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal and Hizbullah’s reported procurement of advanced Russian ballistic weapons, a return to the past agreement in which an informal military alliance is in place is not imminent, but the Israeli defence establishment will remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a return to the tacit military pact of the 1990s would benefit Israel as the Syrian quagmire deepens.
Turkey’s diplomatic capital with Syriane opposition groups, particularly Islamists, and members within the Gulf Cooperation Countries and their allies provides Israel with a critical ear among Muslim states opposed to Iranian ambitions. With the paranoia in Israel that the nuclear deal with Iran between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) has imperilled Israel’s monopoly of force in the region, the diplomatic capital gained by Israel through improved relations with Turkey cannot be overstated. Coordination with the GCC, and especially Saudi Arabia, in countering Iranian ambitions will be a foreign policy objective for Israel in the coming years. Despite bilateral (albeit secretive) alliance building in the gulf by Israel, official links with Ankara can develop these links without further compromising Riyadh, Doha and Dubai, which require the pretence of aloofness from Israel for reputational purposes.
Furthermore, Israel hopes that Turkey’s influence on Hamas will provide it with a partner that can pressure the group when needed. Turkey has played patron to Hamas, and wields some influence within the group’s politburo.
Implications for the Palestinians
The Palestinian issue plays an important tactical role in the AKP’s foreign policy, and Turkey was in the throes of a diplomatic crisis with Israel at the apogee of Erdogan’s national and regional popularity. His public admonishments of Israel have been common spectacle, especially with regards to the situation in Gaza, a cause celebre for the Turkish population. Erdogan will want to rebuild his shattered image within the region, and he will therefore want a renewal of relations with Israel to be premised on agreement for at least one Turkish aid ship to Gaza. The situation in Gaza is reaching breaking point, with the territory going into its ninth year of siege and on a ‘disastrous trajectory’, according to the UN.
A complete removal of the blockade as a result of Turkish demands is unlikely, but Israel may allow limited entrance of Turkish aid into the besieged territory. Israel would prefer Hamas having Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as patrons rather then Iran, and thus Israel’s allowing a trickling of Turkish aid into Gaza is possible. Furthermore, tepid comments from the US State Department with regards to Israel’s human rights transgressions have frosted the historically special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. By allowing Turkish ships, possibly after being searched and monitored by Israeli agents, to enter Gaza, Israel will portray itself as a benevolent force granting its subjugated population a limited reprieve. The humanitarian public relations coup this could bring for Israel could be significant, as could be the ammunition it provides its supporters in the USA.
The Palestinian faction which will benefit most from a Turkish-Israeli accord is Hamas. Any reprieve for beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza will give the movement more popular appeal in its heartland. Former Fatah member Mohammad Dahlan, who has designs on the presidency of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has been strengthening his support base in Gaza, risks seeing his support weakened if aid enters through Hamas diplomacy. Dahlan is planning a comeback that is being funded primarily by the UAE and supported by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi has already stressed he opposes Turkish ships docking at Gaza’s port. Sisi and Erdogan already have a tempestuous relationship after the former’s coup which overthrew President Mohammad Morsi in 2013.
Developments in the region have compelled Ankara to reorganise its foreign policy, and new and resurgent security challenges have compelled it to reconsider its alliances and its source of high grade military technology. Its overreliance on Russian energy has also made it wary, and made the possibility of sourcing gas from Israel more attractive. Erdogan’s grip on Turkish foreign policy has resulted in some disastrous decisions which have scuppered his reputation as a darling of the region. Supporting besieged Palestinians in Gaza in a manner no one else is able to is a good way to reassert himself regionally and attempt to reverse some reputational damage.
Israel has little to lose by rebuilding ties with Turkey. A ready customer for its gas and weapons will provide the economy with a rich windfall. Closeness with a NATO country, especially after a very public spat between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and disagreements with the EU, would be warmly welcomed in Tel Aviv, especially in defence circles.
For Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is unlikely to result in any significant and medium-term improvement in their living conditions. There will be short-term humanitarian benefit (and political benefit for Hamas) from a Turkish aid flotilla – the best possible scenario for Gazans, but that will not lift the siege. And even such aid is not certain; it still needs approval by a hawkish Netanyahu cabinet, whose objections will be bolstered by loud calls from Cairo, and quieter calls from Ramallah where PA and Fatah leaders would be loathe to see aid reach Hamas-controlled Gaza.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The outcome of Turkey’s 1 November snap election was an unexpected surge in support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which will comfortably dominate parliament with 49 per cent of the vote (up from 41 per cent in the June election) and 57 per cent of parliamentary seats. This is in stark contrast to the results of the June election that had produced a hung parliament and led to five months of political and economic instability. This latest outcome sets a different scene for the country’s future social, political and economic agendas as the AKP takes 317 of the 550 parliamentary seats.
With large numbers of refugees arriving in Turkey daily, the Syrian crisis certainly influenced the the socio-economic environment and the election, but there is little doubt that the resumption of violence between the state and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) was extremely crucial in how votes would be cast. While opposition media, particularly those aligned to the Gulen/Hizmet movement, portray the outcome as a personal victory for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the results highlight the collective weakness of the three main opposition parties, underlined by the spectacular losses suffered by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which shed 40 parliamentary seats – and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – with a decrease of 21 seats. Both parties could have been king-makers in a coalition government after June but, like the AKP, they gambled on securing more seats in the second election. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintained its position, losing only two seats.
The AKP’s revival as majority party with four million votes more votes than in June can be attributed mainly to a popular desire for ‘stability’ which, many voters believed, can be delivered only by the ruling party. Further, the Kurdish issue and related violence loomed large, and coalition governments in Turkey have historically failed to help in resolving the Kurdish question. Turks became instinctively distrustful of coalition governments after the turbulent 1990s when frequent military interventions into politics became the norm. This week’s outcome can, thus, also be read as an attempt by voters to prevent a situation where Turkey can only be governed by a coalition. Five months ago analysts and exit polls predicted the AKP’s decline as a result of internal and external pressures, particularly because of contestation between the party and its former ally, the Fethullah Gulen movement. The Gulenists’ withdrawing support from the AKP in June strongly influenced the party’s poor showing.
In five months the HDP, which celebrated in June for the 13 per cent of the vote it had received, lost three per cent, while its leadership aimed for 20 per cent. To voters for whom stability was a priority – especially conservative Kurdish voters, the HDP’s unwillingness to distance itself from and condemn the PKK was a major factor for its losses. Votes that the HDP received in June from those who viewed a strong HDP as a check on the AKP’s exercise of power, especially in light of corruption allegations against AKP officials, now switched to the AKP. Some observers suggest that the shock decline in AKP votes in June was a result of punitive voting because of a stagnant economy and rising instability brought on by the Syrian crisis. And nationalists wanted to punish the AKP for its seemingly-dovish approach to the PKK. Images of armed PKK members at check points in Kurdish areas such as Cizre stirred anti-AKP sentiment even within its traditional support base.
But the return of violence on a daily basis – with bombings in Turkey’s major cities, and the Turkish army at war with both the PKK and Islamic State group and with deaths on both sides of the state-Kurdish conflict – turned a large number of voters away from the HDP back to the AKP. Most HDP votes this week came from Turkey’s east, suggesting that Kurds in other areas switched their votes back to the AKP. The ruling party seems to be considered by many as a safe bet during tumultuous times. Some critics argue that the AKP manufactured ‘instability’ in the past five months in order to return precisely the result that this election did, that while the government has not been responsible for all the violence, it created the conditions for it and helped paint the PKK (and politicised Kurds more generally) as Turkey’s enemy – in order to win back the parliament.
If this criticism is correct, it is possible the AKP might consider reviving talks with the PKK now that it is again politically secure. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, will likely face increased pressure from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which will want him to support a political solution to the conflict. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, the assumption would be that the PKK strategic leadership centre had shifted to the commanders in the Qandil Mountains, and that Ocalan had become irrelevant.
HDP leaders will face similar pressures. To continue to be recognised as the political voice of Turkish Kurds (at least by the state), they will be expected to distance themselves from the PKK. It will also have to consider how it might strengthen its appeal both to Kurds and to Turkish leftists who supported it in June, but might have deserted it in November. As with all parties, the HDP’s survival partly depends on the Turkish economy. This will be a critical factor for the HDP which won most seats through votes obtained in the east where the economy has been particularly hard hit as a result of the government-PKK battles. To complicate matters further for the HDP, it will have to navigate its ‘debt’ to the Gulen movement whose members voted for the HDP as a way of blocking the AKP and opposing Erdogan.
But with the Kurdish question again becoming the most pressing domestic issue – especially with the renewed war between the state and the PKK, the government will want a strong Kurdish political partner that can be an interlocutor with the PKK and encourage it back to the negotiations table. The AKP will likely see the HDP as such a partner and will want to change that adversarial relationship into one of cooperation.
Paradoxically, the AKP also retained votes from supporters who had been critical of the party’s negotiations with the PKK, but who did not shift their votes to the hardline Turkish nationalist MHP; and it won the votes of MHP nationalists who were encouraged by the government’s recent (deadly) confrontations with the PKK. The MHP’s identity-based policies are viewed by many as incapable of dealing with the new reality, including that of Kurdish parliamentarians, and is losing even leaders because of this. The AKP, then, succeeded in winning the votes of both conservative Kurds (from the HDP), and nationalist Turks (from the MHP) – even though that seems counter-intuitive.
Another factor contributing to the AKP’s success was the revision of its candidate lists since the June election. Many well-known leaders who had reached their three-term limit were unable to stand in June, but, having ‘missed’ an election, became eligible again. In a period of uncertainty the electorate seems to have taken comfort in personalities from the past who are tried and trusted.
While in most elections a weak economy results in the incumbent ruling party losing support, in Turkey it has meant that voters supported the incumbent because they believed it could rescue the economy – as it did over a decade ago.
While the Syrian war is ever-present for all Turks – especially since Turkey hosts two million Syrian refugees who have been partly blamed for the country’s economic woes – it and other foreign policy issues were less important in this election than the PKK issue.
With the question of parliament’s make-up settled for another term, there have been two broad perspectives on a future under the AKP. The optimistic view is that the government, with a secure majority, will be able to deal with the economic, foreign policy and Kurdish issues. The other is that the vote was unfair because of repression, and that the AKP will become more authoritarian, further restrict free expression and increase polarisation.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister and AKP’s chief, acknowledged in his victory speech that polarisation was a problem, and he pledged to form a government that will embrace all Turks. Will he seriously address the problem? Will he reflect that pledge in a new cabinet that includes members of other parties? For many critics of the AKP, the big concern is what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarian tendency and his desire to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. Whether this desire or Davutoglu’s pledge will trump will have long-term implications for Turkey.
By Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
On Thursday, 13 August, after a short meeting between Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Davutoglu announced the collapse of talks between the parties to form a coalition government. Following several weeks of marathon negotiations, last week’s meeting was expected to be decisive. Three days earlier, Davutoglu had met Kilicdaroglu for more than four hours to attempt to bridge the earlier gap. The leaders had agreed to meet again after briefing their respective leadership councils. It is now clear that it was impossible to bridge the gap.
Within hours of the announcement, the Turkish Lira fell to its lowest level against the US dollar in more than a decade, and the Turkish stock index fell significantly. This week, after a meeting between Davutoglu and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, the MHP also rejected a coalition with the AKP. Clearly, Turkey faces a political crisis. Why did the negotiations for a coalition government with the CHP fail, despite the climate of optimism? And where is Turkey headed politically, considering that the only certainty now seems to be another parliamentary election?
Possibility of coalition government
Between 1960 and 2002 Turkey experienced twenty coalition governments, with the longest lasting three-and-half years. The last was from 1999 to 2002 when the Democratic Left Party, led by Bulent Ecevit, failed to obtain the majority that would qualify it to rule independently; it therefore formed a coalition with the MHP and the Motherland Party. The legacy of coalition governments has, however, not always been positive or reassuring. On the contrary, they have been overwhelmingly unstable and not reflective of good governance. Some dragged the country into complex economic and political crises, while others led to military intervention.
After nearly thirteen years of political stability under the AKP, the current need for a coalition government resulted from the AKP failing to achieve a sufficient majority in the June parliamentary election, which could have allowed it to govern on its own. The ruling party won 41 per cent of the vote, giving it 258 seats in the new parliament – 18 seats less than a parliamentary majority. The CHP won 25 per cent of the vote (132 seats), the MHP received 17 per cent (80 seats), and the HDP 13 per cent (80 seats). Clearly, the Turkish people wanted to send a message of protest to the AKP, which had appeared confident of victory, and whose leaders and cadres had become accustomed to winning at low cost.
The main change (and surprise) in the election was the success of the pro-Kurdish HDP – which contested elections for the first time – after it crossed the critical ten per cent threshold necessary to enter parliament. With the HDP getting 80 seats it is more difficult for the AKP to obtain half of the seats in the Turkish parliament, the Grand National Assembly. The HDP’s resounding success was not only because of Kurdish voters, but also because of the votes of many non-Kurds who sought to prevent the AKP from obtaining a parliamentary majority. Without this majority the AKP cannot govern alone, nor is it allowed to draft a new constitution – one of the objectives of the AKP in its attempt to change the political system to a presidential one.
On 9 July, after new members of parliament were sworn in and after the election of the parliamentary speaker, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested Davutoglu, as leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, to form a government. Constitutionally, a government must be formed within forty-five days. If the party requested by the president to do so fails to form a government comprising a sufficient parliamentary majority, the president must declare new parliamentary elections within ninety days thereafter. The deadline to form a new government is, thus, 23 August.
Why coalition-building attempts failed
Davutoglu’s efforts to form a coalition government included meeting with leaders of the other three parties. Given links between the HDP and the PKK, which the Turkish state regards as a terrorist group, and that the HDP’s position on the Kurdish peace process and disarmament of the PKK is unclear, the option of forming a coalition government with the HDP was not initially on the table for the AKP, and the HDP had also indicated that it would not entertain such an option.
On the other hand, the MHP was unwilling to join a coalition government and preferred new parliamentary elections, hoping that new elections will result in the exit of the HDP from parliament. The Kurdish question occupies a central place in the MHP’s platform. It opposes the Kurdish peace process and negotiations conducted by the AKP government with Kurdish leaders, especially PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The MHP demands an end to the process and seeks, instead, to crush the ‘terrorists and Kurdish separatists’. This issue thus prevented the MHP and AKP coming together because of the AKP government’s engagement in the peace process.
The AKP’s only choice, therefore, was a coalition with the CHP. However, there are substantial differences between the two parties, in terms of both domestic and foreign policies. The parties formed delegations for detailed policy discussions. Although their meetings took place in an atmosphere of optimism and were marked by a desire for convergence, their views on education and foreign policy were too divergent. The CHP wanted the education portfolio in a future government, and expressed its intention to make radical changes in the structure of the educational process and in the curricula. It also wants radical change in Turkish policy towards Syria, Egypt and Israel – seeking Turkey’s withdrawal from the Middle East in favour of a greater involvement in Europe.
For the AKP, the divergence between the parties’ positions widened to the extent that it believed a stable coalition government to be unachievable. Davutoglu thus proposed a short-term coalition government to the CHP leader, who rejected the proposal, leading ultimately to the collapse of the talks, with no hope for a new round.
The Erdogan factor
The CHP’s explanation for the failure of the talks differed significantly from the AKP’s, however. Kilicdaroglu and other party leaders placed the greatest responsibility for the collapse of negotiations on Erdogan. The CHP argues that Erdogan continues to exercise considerable influence in the AKP, and that he does not want a coalition government because such a government would end his exercising an extra-constitutional role. Erdogan’s only opportunity to continue doing so, or to revive the project for a new constitution, is early elections. The president hopes new elections would give AKP the majority it lost in June, and thus allow it to govern alone. The CHP, supported by the liberal-secular media, claims that Erdogan encouraged the recent sudden escalation in the confrontation with the PKK – inside Turkey and in Iraq – as a means of restoring the popular support lost by the AKP.
Erdogan was open, especially in his own circles, about his desire for new elections. His close associates have said that the June results convinced him of the need for a presidential system. Erdogan believes the presidential system is most suitable for this phase in Turkey’s history, and that it would protect the country from a descent to instability or uncertainty, as created by the June election. He referred to the presidential system in a speech on 14 August, after the collapse of AKP-CHP talks.
However, even before the announcement that AKP-CHP talks had failed, it seemed negotiations were on track to certain failure, irrespective of Erdogan’s influence within the AKP or his desire for early elections. The problem was not only related to the parties’ diverse ideological and cultural backgrounds, but also to the strategic nature of the issues in dispute. The AKP regards the educational system founded in 2011 as a huge legislative achievement of its administration. Accepting structural changes to the educational system would mean abandoning one of the party’s most important visions for Turkey’s future. Further, no AKP leader will accept CHP demands for strategic change in Turkish foreign policy, particularly regarding Syria, and in the Middle East as a whole.
Future of the crisis
In his media conference, Davutoglu did not refer to early elections unequivocally or decisively, but as only a possibility. The Turkish media were quick to point out that elections were inevitable after the talks had failed. In reality, Turkey still faces two paths: another attempt to form a government – regardless of whether it is a coalition or a minority government, and early elections.
Immediately after his announcement of failed talks with the CHP, Davutoglu requested a meeting with MHP chairperson Devlet Bahceli, who agreed. The meeting, a last-ditch attempt by the prime minister to form a coalition government, took place on Monday, 17 August, and Davutoglu proposed an AKP-MHP coalition. Bahceli refused. He insisted on various MHP positions: that talks with the PKK must end (though in reality they have, after Turkish attacks on the PKK in the middle of August); that Erdogan and his family must be investigated for corruption; and that Erdogan’s aspirations for a presidential system must be curbed. He also said his party opposed any amendment to the first four articles of the constitution – which include clauses about Turkey as a secular state, and states that Turkey’s language is Turkish (thus denying language rights to Kurds and other linguistic minorities).
Davutoglu indicated that he would consult with the president before resigning his position as prime minister. Erdogan will have to call new elections, to take place within ninety days from his announcement, and will have to agree with the parliamentary speaker on the establishment of a caretaker government, in which all parties in parliament will be represented proportionally. The HDP’s participation in such a government will cause great dissatisfaction to the MHP, which has rejected the participation of Kurdish nationalists in any government. How the two parties will cooperate in a caretaker government remains to be seen. It is possible that the MHP will refuse to exercise its right to join the interim structure.
The question now is whether the election will significantly change the proportions of seats in parliament, and whether it will open the way for the AKP to attain a parliamentary majority. Some recent polls indicate that the AKP will receive just over forty-four per cent of the vote – up from forty-one in June, giving it a small parliamentary majority, but insufficient for it to form a government. Opinion polls, of course, do not always provide a definite indication of trends in public opinion in democratic systems. Also, opinions can easily change in ninety days.
Those who argue that the new election will benefit the AKP suggest that Turkish voters wanted to send a warning to the AKP, but that the message was too strong. Thus, a large number of those voters, concerned about instability and a resurgence of violence in the conflict with the PKK will return to vote for the AKP. A number of AKP voters switched to the HDP and MHP, some because they believed the AKP had not gone far enough in negotiations with the PKK; others because they opposed those negotiations.
The other view argues that even if the election does not provide an adequate parliamentary majority for the AKP, it will emphasise to all parties that future governance in the country will require coalitions, and that parties must abandon political manoeuvring in their negotiations with each other, and seriously work to form coalitions. The problem with the AKP not receiving a clear majority, however, is that the current stalemate will likely be repeated after another election, laying the ground for a serious political crisis.
By Ashwin Pienaar
On Thursday 3 June 2010, South Africa announced it would be recalling its ambassador to Israel, following the latter's raid on a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza. The incident, which took place in international waters early on Monday, 31 May 2010, left nine activists dead and over 30 wounded.
In a media conference held in Pretoria on Thursday 3 June, South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, announced that, "the recall of Ambassador Ismail Coovadia is to show our strongest condemnation of the attack. This recent Israeli aggression of attacking the aid flotilla severely impacts on finding a lasting solution to the problems of the region. The South African government also joins the international community in its call for the siege of Gaza to be immediately lifted." Ebrahim added that the siege had brought "untold hardships" to the ordinary people of Gaza, making their lives "nightmarish".