Can Turkish social democrats start again with the Kurds?

Can Turkish social democrats start again with the Kurds?

Thirty years ago, on Aug. 15, 1984, at around 21:30 p.m., militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) infiltrated from Iraq and raided the Turkish border towns of Eruh and Şemdinli.

Then-Prime Minister Turgut Özal dismissed the attacks as the work of “a handful of marauders,” but actually it was the beginning of one of modern history’s most ambitious guerilla warfare campaigns by the PKK, which had been secretly founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, in a village in the Lice district of the predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern province of Diyarbakır.

There’s no need to get into the details, but over 40,000 people of this country have been killed in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish security forces over the last 30 years.

Turkish security forces used to be on alert every Aug. 15 against possible PKK attacks “marking the day,” which have claimed a lot of lives in the past. However, this year there was no news of any attacks or casualties, just like the year before, thanks to the dialogue between the PKK and the government that started two years ago.

The dialogue was initiated by Prime Minister (and now president-elect) Tayyip Erdoğan in pursuit of a political solution to the Kurdish problem. Erdoğan has been carrying out the dialogue via Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), with Öcalan, who has been held in İmralı Island prison since 1999, when he was captured in a MİT operation with U.S. intelligence agency the CIA.

There were no clashes on Aug. 15 this year, and on the contrary there were three interesting developments that seem to be heralding more echoes in politics in the coming days. These developments are as follows:

1-    A statue was erected in a village near Lice (yes, the same Lice) of a PKK guerilla leader who was killed in a clash with Turkish soldiers, in a graveyard containing the bodies of many “PKK martyrs.” Soldiers did not intervene.

2-    On the same day, an HDP delegation visited Öcalan in İmralı. Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a member of Parliament who was in the delegation, quoted Öcalan as saying the following during the meeting: “We are at the threshold of historic developments. The war of 30 years is about to come to an end through a democratic negotiation.”

3-    Again on Aug. 15, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, who is coordinating the Kurdish dialogue, told reporters that the negotiations were going ahead “at full speed, day and night, and a roadmap might be ready by the end of September.”

Öcalan is still in jail, but he has become a central political figure in Turkish politics since the beginning of the dialogue process. But it is not only because of the dialogue process: It was his idea to extend the scope of the Kurdish problem-focused parties to embrace Turkish socialists, and the HDP proved this idea by almost doubling its vote base to nearly 10 percent in the Aug. 10 presidential elections.

However, the HDP might have come to a “saturation point” there, despite the reality that Kurdish politics will play a major role in the restructuring of the political scene in the immediate future. If the HDP decides to limit itself to its current position it is bound to remain a regional opposition party that could only win local municipalities in the coming elections.

Similarly, the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has its own “saturation point” problems. For years it has not been able to reach the psychological threshold of 30 percent to become the kind of opposition that can threaten Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).

Because of mistakes alienating Kurdish (and also Alevis until a few years ago) voters, the CHP as the founding party of the Turkish Republic cannot get any votes from almost a third of the country.

Almost 20 years ago, the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) - incorporating much of the CHP - enlisted Kurdish activists to its parliamentary list, but ruined its own success by firing them upon pressure from the state.

If the Kurdish problem can be liberated from the shadow of the armed campaigns through the current dialogue, a new CHP could look to the Kurdish issue as presenting a unique opportunity to form a viable modernist/secular opposition movement, which could pose an alternative to Erdoğan’s AK Parti.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the current leader of the CHP, is a politician who is working on ways to build bridges between the CHP and modernist Kurdish voters. Many Kurds, with a dominant Sunni Islamic identity, have already sided with the AK Parti. In a recent conference hosted by a Kurdish think tank in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Kılıçdaroğlu said he could convene the CHP Party Assembly there in the future, allowing them to talk face to face with local activists and NGOs.

Kılıçdaroğlu has announced an emergency congress for Sept. 5-6 - following an executive meeting ahead of the coming parliamentary elections as well as the in-party opposition regarding the defeat in the Aug. 10 presidential election. This congress might be an opportunity for Kılıçdaroğlu to renew not only the party cadres but also the CHP’s entire perspective.

For example, it may be time for Kılıçdaroğlu and the new CHP to form a delegation to go and talk to Öcalan themselves, and to ask their own questions and shape their new policies on the Kurdish issue after that.

Such a move would not only break taboos, but it could help reform both the CHP and Kurdish politics, as well as broader Turkish democracy.