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SEMİH İDİZ >Erdoğan’s credibility gap

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s populism is no doubt one of the main reasons for his spectacular rise to power. The same populism, however, seems to have left him with a credibility gap today in terms of the most important development for Turkey currently underway.

That is the talks between the state and Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) acting as intermediary. Öcalan has thus become a vital part of Erdoğan’s plans for Turkey.

Less than two years ago, however, Erdoğan was saying that if his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was one of the coalition partners when Öcalan was tried and sentenced to death in 1999 by a Turkish court, it would have supported the carrying out of the sentence. He was clearly using populism to pander to Turkish nationalist sentiments at the time.

In the same vein Erdoğan was vowing less than a year ago to lift the parliamentary immunity of certain BDP members so they could be tried for aiding and abetting the PKK. Those BDP members have also become a vital component of Erdoğan’s efforts to end PKK terrorism today.

This is the kind of zigzagging that is haunting Erdoğan and shedding a bad light on his credibility as he maintains the negotiations with the PKK. Of course no one really knows what is being discussed with Öcalan. Erdoğan is even loath to admit that there are “negotiations” underway.

If you take his statements at face value, all that is being discussed are the technical modalities for the PKK to leave Turkey and stop its attacks against Turkish security forces.

On the Kurdish side, however, the belief seems to be that the talks involve much more, and include a new political model for Turkey that could go all the way to being a federal arrangement with the Kurds. The Kurdish belief also appears to be that if successful another result of these talks will be an amnesty for Öcalan and PKK militants.

Murat Karayılan, who heads the PKK militants in the Kandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, is even giving statements to the Turkish press about his plans to enter politics in Turkey once peace with the Turkish state is secured. These are heady notions which anger Turkish nationalists.

Given this fact and the ambiguity concerning the process there are those who say Erdoğan could just as easily reverse gears as far as this whole process is concerned if he sees that it is taking a direction detrimental to his political ambitions, which include becoming an executive president in 2014.

Meanwhile, judging by the English language Kurdish daily Rudaw, quite a number of panelists attending a series of conferences in Washington on the talks with Öcalan appear convinced that Erdoğan is disingenuous about the whole process. They expect him only to go along with the process to the extent that it serves his political ambitions. The result, they believe, will be more disappointment for the Kurds in the end.

Given the fact that the “Fourth Judicial Package” of reforms, recently accepted by Parliament, will not help thousands of Kurds in prison accused of being PKK activists, even though many have not engaged in any violence, Erdoğan’s credibility gap has merely grown for the Kurds.

Erdoğan and members of his Cabinet nevertheless say they are determined to continue with these talks. Erdoğan is no doubt also aware that changing tack again at a critical moment such as this for Turkey could be a costly political failure for himself too. This is why he must still be given the benefit of the doubt despite lingering doubts about his true intentions.

If, however, he fails to overcome the credibility gap he is facing at home and abroad, it is hard to see how he can really succeed in the final analysis. One way to start overcoming this gap is surely for him to start using more open and less inflammatory language when talking about what is going on and criticizing his opponents.

April/16/2013

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