Brinkmanship from Erdoğan ahead of elections?

Brinkmanship from Erdoğan ahead of elections?

There is no doubt Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan excels in brinkmanship, both internationally and domestically.

On the international front, he lashes out against the European Union. When he goes to Brussels, everyone expects Erdoğan to do or say something that will break apart relations; but then all of a sudden he is no longer the angry man.

On the domestic front, he has used that brinkmanship especially on the Kurdish issue. On the eve of the general elections in 2007, Erdoğan used an extremely hostile rhetoric against the Kurds after his government’s opening on the Kurdish issue did not proceed the way he wanted. He even lashed out against the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), asking them why they had not hanged Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Öcalan had escaped the death sentence due to the consent of the MHP, which was part of the coalition government when the PKK’s leader was caught and brought back to Turkey. Many believed Erdoğan had parted from his earlier more “pacific/democratic” approach to the solution of the problem.

Yet it was the same person a few years later who took a historic, bold step, by instructing the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) to conduct peace talks with the PKK.

With big aspirations to become a regional leader important enough to assume global roles, the Justice and Development Party, (AKP) believed in the necessity of solving Turkey’s internal problems, as well as problems with its neighborhood, in order to fulfill these aspirations. You can’t have big ambitions on international fronts if you have a serious domestic problem tying your hands. So it was only natural to see the AKP coming up with a Kurdish opening that would require a democratic approach.

Being a shrewd tactician, one cannot know whether Erdoğan calculated that he would need the votes of the Kurds to get elected president. But what we know today is one cannot think of the peace process independent of the presidential elections. Obviously, he needs to be careful not to alienate the nationalist-conservative voters who usually prefer a hawkish stance on the Kurdish issue. However, I have not come across political analysts who believe that a pacifistic approach to the problem has cost Erdoğan votes. One should not expect big swings as far as nationalist conservative voters are concerned due to the Kurdish problem.

Yet, Erdoğan also definitely needs the Kurdish voters who are loyal to the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and sympathizers of the PKK. The Kurdish camp knows this too. So, most probably, the two sides are increasing the stakes in order to get a better deal. We should perhaps look at the recent tension in the southeast with that background in mind.

As Erdoğan needs the Kurds’ votes and as the BDP – the pro-PKK camp - is convinced that it cannot get a deal with the other parties at Parliament, it would not be a surprise to see a compromise right before the presidential elections. It might not be public officially, and we might not know the details, but Erdoğan will use all his brinkmanship skills at this very historic conjuncture for himself, trying to recruit Kurds’ votes without giving what may look like detrimental concessions.

But for a peace process to succeed, it needs to be endorsed not only by half of the society, but by all of it. The MHP leader’s address in Parliament showed that nothing has changed in this party’s attitude on the issue. The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) efforts, on the other hand, are so dim that their impact remains insignificant. So this leaves only the two main actors in the process. Let’s hope that the process is not hijacked by the personal political career ambitions of just one person.