Erdogan’s Kurdish dilemma isn’t going away

Turkey’s Kurdish question crossed a new threshold with a milestone statement by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the CHP. He said: “We can solve the Kurdish problem in parliament with the People’s Democracy Party,” the pro-Kurdish HDP.

This was an important threshold that the political parties have hesitated to cross, because it has always brought accusations from the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, of separatism and cooperation with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.

The first reaction to Kilicdaroglu’s statement came from the HDP. Sezai Temelli, a former co-chairman of the party, made a comment that could be interpreted as a split within the party. Although he does not have any official title in the party at present, he said: “The address for the democratic solution of the Kurdish problem and its real interlocutor is Abdullah Ocalan” (the founder of the PKK who is serving a life sentence in a Turkish jail).

In the past, the Erdogan government has sent emissaries to Ocalan to negotiate a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish problem, but he has denied that he cooperated. Leaks subsequently proved that various Turkish officials had in fact negotiated with him.

Then, the former chairman of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş, who is in jail despite the binding ruling of the European Court of Human Rights to release him immediately, stepped into the debate, saying: “The HDP that I know aspires to resolve all problems of Turkey, including the Kurdish question; it is a political actor of its own will and it is – of course — an interlocutor. The place where it is to be resolved is naturally parliament.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan refered to the Kurdish question in a comment on Sept. 23: “There is no such a problem in Turkey. We have already solved this issue, overcome it and ended it.”

The re-opening of the Kurdish question could prove a Pandora’s box for Erdogan.

Yasar Yakis

Of course, a problem does not disappear when a leader says that it does not exist. This statement disregards what more than 10 million Kurdish voters have to say. With or without Erdogan admitting it, there is a real Kurdish problem in Turkey. It is an identity problem, and an economic and social problem. It has implications beyond Turkey’s borders, in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Distant countries such as the US and Russia are also involved in it.

There are Kurds in the AKP who wish to get rid of the constraints imposed by their coalition partner, the far right Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP.

The re-opening of the Kurdish question could prove a Pandora’s box for Erdogan.

The pro-Kurdish party is kingmaker in Turkey. It has proved its capacity to make a difference when necessary. In the last municipal elections in Istanbul in 2019, the government wooed the Kurdish voters of Istanbul. It asked Ocalan to make a statement encouraging the Kurdish voters of Istanbul to remain neutral (that is to say, not to vote in favor of the main opposition CHP). It also invited his brother Osman to appear on pro-government TV channels to make a similar statement. Osman Ocalan was on Turkey’s “wanted” list when he appeared on state TV. Despite such unorthodox measures, Kurdish voters turned out in force for the main opposition candidate. The 13,729-vote margin of victory for the CHP in the first count increased to 836,014 in the repeat election. The Kurds of Istanbul were a key factor in this increase, and thus proved that they can make a difference when they decide to do so.

With 58 seats in the parliament, the pro-Kurdish party is the third-biggest in parliament and can hope to be a major actor in finding a solution for the Kurds. It recently issued a statement that kept the door open for cooperation with the opposition parties, without giving the impression that it would act in tandem with them on all issues. It is still keeping its options open, because it suspects that disagreements may arise as the process will unfold.

In the recent debate, the opposition parties were able to steal the issue of Turkey’s Kurdish problem from the government’s control and point to the parliament as the legitimate place to debate it. However, they will want to be cautious in handling problem that remains highly sensitive for many Turks.

*Yasar Yakis

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