How Turkey’s Institutions and the AKP’s political ambition prevents peace with the Kurds

By now several articles have described the connection between the end of the PKK talks, the military intervention against both the Islamic State and the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK), as well as the recent political pressure on the Kurdish party HDP. (In addition to my own post, see also here, here, and here). But beyond the recent resumption of violence, there is a broader link between the persecution of the Kurdish political movement and the PKK talks that remains relatively unexplored (with a few exceptions, see for example this article by Jake Hess from 2012, and this article by Alex Christie-Miller from 2010).

In retrospect, the cyclical crackdowns on the Kurdish political movement (in which I include both banned organizations like those of the PKK, as well political parties like the DTP, BDP, and now HDP, who share similar goals as the PKK but pursue them through politics rather than violence), have often coincided with disappointing election results for the AKP in the Kurdish region.

Seen in this light, recent pressure on HDP politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ are less a sign of an acceleration in Turkey’s authoritarian turn than a foreseeable outcome of AKP’s long-running political strategy for the Kurdish problem.

Undoubtedly, the AKP has in many ways pulled ahead of the curve on Kurdish cultural rights. Nevertheless, the AKP period has concurrently witnessed extensive repression of Kurds. Separate from military engagements, there’s also been recurring persecution against Kurdish political activists, brutal responses to demonstrations, controversial air strikes against civilians, systematic abuse of children by security forces, party closures, removing the right to stand for public office, and frequent ultranationalist rhetoric by the AKP leadership.

So then, what explains why the AKP has on one hand appeared willing to pursue some reform for Kurds, yet on the other has facilitated extensive repression against them? Or, in other words, how did the AKP lose its position as the party that “represents the Kurds”. To understand this, it’s important to first go through what’s at stake in the negotiations themselves.

In practice, the negotiations have focused more on a PKK withdrawal from Turkish territory, against the backdrop of each side’s main demands. Whereas the Turkish government has repeatedly made clear its insistence on PKK laying down its arms, the PKK’s demands for an end to the conflict have, with some variation, focused on several key demands. These include allowing education in mother’s language, amnesty for PKK members, reforming the justice system (in particular the anti-terror courts as well as the legal definitions of “membership” and “support” for terrorist organizations), and reforming political institutions including lowering the ten percent threshold for parliamentary representation as well as a form of vaguely defined “democratic autonomy”.

From a political standpoint, many of these demands have arguably been difficult for the AKP to fulfill due to the existing institutional constraints as well as AKP’s own political ambition:

  • The issue of amnesty is particularly thorny for the AKP as even partial amnesty of PKK, not to mention making Kurdish provinces “autonomous,” would likely result in a nationalist backlash eroding AKP support among their ethnically Turkish base. Passing legislation implementing any of these concessions could, in principle also leave the AKP open to legal prosecution for violating laws as well as the constitution.
  • Reforming the anti-terror laws would not only remove a key instrument in the fight against terrorism but would also have put it in direct conflict with a state security apparatus infused with Turkish nationalism and significant corporate interests themselves. Moreover, this would have further added to the AKP’s ongoing court battles on other legal issues, such as corruption, risk of closure, persecution of political opponents (see, for example, here and here).
  • A broader democratization would have removed a key political advantage of the AKP. The ten percent threshold as well as the limited constraints to executive power, available to Turkish governments largely due to the authoritarian institutions imposed after the 1980 coup, is what has allowed the AKP to pursue its agenda in the first place. Furthermore, any reforms improving on Turkey’s democratic deficit would leave the AKP with little expected electoral gain if voters would then desert AKP for new, first-best political choices. Especially for the Kurds, this would almost surely mean Kurdish parties and politicians.

Consequently, regardless of whether the AKP initiated the PKK talks with a sincere intent to establish a sustainable peace or not, institutional and political barriers meant AKP would have internalized most of the political cost without commensurate political gain. Combined with the ongoing struggles the AKP was engaged in with the secular elite, blanket concessions to Kurds could very well have risked its own end.

Expanding the AKP’s Kurdish support base has therefore been a key component of its political strategy, as wresting voters away from more Kurdish parties would have helped on several fronts. It would have served to pressurize the PKK into accepting an AKP deal with fewer concessions involved, as well as making up for any potential Turkish-nationalist electoral shortfall likely to occur after a deal with the Kurds. In addition, a larger Kurdish electoral base would also have worked in favor of the AKP’s grand design on Turkey’s institutions and especially the executive presidency so coveted by Erdoğan.

But despite significant early electoral gains, after 2007 the AKP’s Kurdish support began to shift toward the Kurdish political movement, first DTP, then BDP, and finally the HDP. Ever since, Kurds have increasingly proved unwilling to endorse the AKP, perhaps because of their inherent preference for a genuinely Kurdish political representation, perhaps because AKP’s promises were never seen as completely sincere.

This created a dilemma for the AKP as further reforms to Kurds without their ensured electoral support risked putting the party’s political dominance in question. And so, in an attempt to weaken the Kurdish parties, as well preventing Turkish nationalist drainage, the instruments of state repression were applied to the Kurdish political movement, in an attempt to beat it into submission while also showing its Turkish constituency that it was not weak on national security.

As an example, in 2009 Erdoğan suffered two personal humiliations within just a few months. First, in the March local elections his party failed to win over the central Diyarbakir municipality, which instead voted for the DTP’s Osman Baydemir who carried two-thirds of the votes compared to the AKP’s one third. Second, in October an initiative to return home PKK militants ended in fiasco; the Kurdish political movement had used the homecoming as a political rally to bolster their own prestige, leaving the AKP red-faced and seen as cowing to terrorists in Turkish public opinion.

Even though the DTP later announced afterwards to act “more sensitively” to the returning of PKK militants, the damage was already done. The closure case against the DTP was filed in Constitution Court in November 2009, and a month later it was banned from politics amid violent demonstrations.

Furthermore, during the period between 2009 and 2011 roughly 8,000 individuals were detained on charges of membership of the KCK, an umbrella organization controlled by the PKK. While some of the individuals detained were likely tied to the PKK in some way, others appeared to have been “guilty of nothing more than being Kurdish.” That is, Kurds with a membership of either the DTP, or later on, its successor the BDP. Among the detained were several elected Kurdish mayors, journalists, academic professionals as well as human rights activists including the head of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association in Turkey, Muharrem Erbey. During this period, around half of all journalists jailed in Turkey were Kurds. Moreover, among the defendants in the trial was none other than Osman Baydemir, the Kurdish politician who embodied the Kurds’ electoral humiliation of Erdoğan. At the time, Baydemir faced charges that could have resulted in up to 36 years in prison.‘ As noted by Alex Christie-Miller in an article from 2010, this not only smacked of revenge, but also exemplifies an inherent political schizophrenia in the government’s Kurdish policy:

“Even as it speaks of peace and dialogue, the Turkish government seems intent on cutting off the legal face of Kurdish activism, on locking up perhaps the only people who can spare it the necessity of negotiating directly with the PKK. This prospect, politically toxic because of the intensity of Turkish nationalism, the government wishes to avoid at all costs. The Kurds, meanwhile, have received a depressing message from the omnipresent image of their democratically elected mayors in handcuffs, flanked by police: The path of non-violence is a dead end.”

As I’ve shown in an earlier blog post, since the reforms of the anti-terror courts in 2006, arrests on terror-related charges have skyrocketed back to levels not seen since the 1990s, but without the commensurate uptick in observed attacks to necessarily warrant such a crackdown.

With the political witch hunt against Kurdish activists underway, clashes erupted in the Southeast. Negative international attention, facilitated both through Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws, as well as a series high-profile hunger strikes in prison, dented Turkey’s flawed image as a ‘role model’ for the region. Especially serious was the suffering of many Kurdish children under the Turkish security apparatus, now detailed by several sources including, amongst others, journalists Jenna Krajeski and Ece Temelkuran, as well as human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch (HRW). The AKP’s previous reforms to the anti-terror laws had played a key role in the now ensuing persecution of Kurdish kids. In 2006, the Turkish parliament, then with an AKP two-thirds majority, amended the Anti-Terror law “with particularly serious consequences for juveniles” (HRW). According to a report filed by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV), over one year “more than 4,000 children aged between 12 and 18 were taken into police custody and/or were kept in prison for the duration of between two months and four years.”

The connection between waves of repressions and elections continued. Ahead of the 2011 general elections, the High Election Authority (YSK) banned several leading Kurdish politicians from standing for parliament. At the time, the successor to the DTP, the BDP, condemned the ruling as a means to keep Kurds out of parliament and to make sure the AKP would win the most seats in the Kurdish southeast. The same year saw a second wave of arrests in the KCK trials, as the AKP’s vote share in the Kurdish areas continued to slide to the benefit of Kurdish parties.

Nonetheless, secret talks between the AKP and the PKK continued, both in Oslo as well as with the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. At this point, uncertainties as to the legal foundation of the government’s PKK talks became a greater problem. In one of the more dramatic episode in the unraveling alliance between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement, in early 2012 Turkey’s spy chief Hakan Fidan was summoned by a prosecutor for questioning on the PKK talks. This followed mysteriously leaked voice recordings of a conversation between Fidan and key PKK members. To this date, members of the Kurdish political movement blame the Gülen movement for much of the repression of Kurds. Once again, forced to defend against the accusation of being weak on national security, Erdoğan declared in a TV interview in September 2012 that the talks had been terminated due to “insincerity in communication”.

In December the same year, Erdoğan said direct talks between the intelligence officials and Öcalan, in what is today interchangeably referred to as either the ”Imrali,” ”peace,” or ”solution” process, had started again. This, in turn, culminated in the March 2013 ceasefire in which Öcalan declared the PKK as having “reached a point in which our armed elements should pull out of the borders”. Yet two years later, little had changed as to the PKK’s withdrawal, and an attempt to revitalize the process in February this year fell on many deaf ears.

A major crux was the issue of a legal foundation for a non-violent PKK withdrawal. Whereas the PKK were expecting the AKP to pass a law allowing PKK members to exit Turkish territory without Turkish security forces intervening, such a law never came. As Demirtaş recently explained in Hürriyet Daily News:

“Withdrawal means that these [PKK] people will pass through cities, villages and towns to reach other places. Well, what will the security forces that see these people do? What will the judge, prosecutor, district governor or governor do? Will they look the other way; what will happen if they don’t? What if they are questioned in the future, saying, “Armed people passed right in front of you; why did you not intervene?” Exactly for these reasons there should be a law covering the withdrawal. And the state promised that it would make the law.”

Given the dilemma facing AKP versus its nationalist base, a law allowing the PKK to leave without interference would have been seen as a de facto amnesty, carrying with it negative electoral consequences for the crucial upcoming June 2015 national elections. Having likely accepted the limited short-term electoral gains of passing such a law, the AKP stalled, and so did the PKK.

Meanwhile, the AKP has passed multiple bills in parliament over the years expanding the powers of security forces at the expense of individual rights (see, for example, here and here), upsetting the political opposition in general, and the Kurdish movement in particular. The consequences of this new legal environment became clear following the Kobane protests in the fall of 2014. As reported by Fehim Taştekin for Al-Monitor, in just three months around 2,500 individuals were detained (of which a third were minors).

Over time, although both sides kept up the appearance that negotiations were still going places, there was precious little to show for it. Meanwhile, the PKK leadership was having difficulties keeping its more loosely connected urban “youth” organizations in check. Also, the Turkish state’s military and civil buildup in the southeastern region was generating friction between state- and PKK forces. The PKK believed several dam projects in the area had more to do with restricting insurgents movements than electricity. The construction of high-security military outposts in vacated PKK areas, were seen as an expansion of the infrastructure for torture and repression by locals. Moreover, it appears to have given rise to a security dilemma. Discussions among military PKK commanders would run along the following lines, according to Demirtaş:

 “In those guerilla areas we vacated, they started building reinforced castle-like police stations called ‘kalekol’ rapidly. Since there is going to be peace, since we are coming down from mountains, why is there a need for kalekols in the middle of these mountains?”  

This year’s June general election saw the Kurdish HDP soar though the ten percent threshold and received parliamentary seats for the first time as a party rather than as independent candidates. The increase in votes predominantly came from many socially conservative Kurds of the southeast, Kurdish migrants in the larger cities, and even a few Turkish swing-voters. As such, the HDP’s votes nearly single-handedly put an end to the AKP majority government.

The election comments of the AKP leadership, both before and after, continued to mark the connection between the rights for Kurds and AKP’s electoral success in the southeast. Currently, the AKP’s legitimacy amounts to that of a “caretaker government”, waiting for a coalition government to be formed capable of leading the country. And so, the repression of the Kurdish political movement begins anew.

Undeniably, it would be naïve to attribute every single form of repression against Kurds in Turkey to the AKP. The AKP’s attempt to conquer, rather than make peace with, the Kurdish political movement is thus also a result both the institutions in place as well as its political opponents, rather than solely the AKP’s grand design for power.

Of considerable importance has been the continued resistance to peace among Turkish state elites. Amidst these, both mainstream Turkish opposition parties CHP and MHP have repeatedly voiced opposition to the talks, due to political preferences as much as political opportunism. This has meant that any political cost of being seen as “negotiating with terrorists” would be incurred by AKP alone. The unwillingness of the political opposition to shoulder some of this burden should not be underestimated.

Moreover, the perceptions of Kurdish politicians as unwilling to distance themselves from, and acting as the political wing of, the PKK has made them a combustible partner and made overtures toward the insurgency more difficult for the government.

Overall, the actions of different members of the political opposition has ensured AKP as being politically alone in its negotiations with the PKK.

In addition, and despite a narrative to the opposite, the AKP’s limited control over the judiciary (especially before the purges of the state apparatus after the 2013 corruption charges) as well as the nationalist and anti-Kurdish position of its then ally – the Gülen movement – exacerbated the delicate talks by both reducing trust and increasing uncertainty. The Gülen movement is known to have its own designs on the Kurdish region, working to unseat the PKK from the grassroots through the education and business sectors, and widely seen as critical of the AKP’s negotiations with the PKK. Members who have dared to express support for the talks have been condemned internally and forced to apologize publicly. Its influence in the courts and police can thus be seen as deliberately targeting Kurds resisting the Gülen movement’s activities. At the onset this may have served as a complement to AKP’s own political strategy, but as relations between the AKP and the former soured, the PKK talks became an instrument in the ensuing political civil war between the two.

To make things worse for the AKP, years of decentralization by Öcalan had fragmented the PKK’s power loci across several parallel organizations, including military leaders in Northern Iraq, European activists, the legal Kurdish political parties, as well as a number of loosely affiliated groups scattered throughout Turkey. Consequently, challenges in coordination, communication, and control –across and within both negotiating parties – have all contributed to the challenges in reaching an agreement. Meanwhile, occasional PKK attacks on the Turkish state, with or without the leadership’s consent, have significantly aggravated problems in moving forward.

To what extent the most recent failure in reaching peace is the result of the institutional constraints to peace or the AKP’s own political ambition can be debated. It does, however, suggest some key challenges in coming to terms with not just and end to the violence, but also further democratization of Turkey.

As the last decade has demonstrated, Turkey’s most powerful political entities are not immune to political persecution, evident not just in the Balyoz and Ergenekon trials, but also from the Gülen movement’s fall from political power in Turkey. As long as Turkey’s institutions make sure key political disputes are settled in courts rather than elections, leaders will continue to have incentives to pursue executive and legal power at the expense of democratic freedoms. And as long as this remains, Turkey will continue to produce leaders who prefer to rule an authoritarian Turkey through instruments of repression and patronage, rather than to compete on policies in a more democratically equal Turkey.

To the extent that peace requires democracy in Turkey, the former will not be achieved without the other. And so, the country’s ‘Kurdish problem’ remains its ‘democratic problem.’