Did Erdoğan signal a new dialogue process with the PKK?

Did Erdoğan signal a new dialogue process with the PKK?

Before denouncing the EU as an “alliance of crusaders” that keeps “lying to Turkey” on April 2 in Ankara, President Tayyip Erdoğan was in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır on April 1 as a part of his “Yes” campaign for the April 16 on shifting the country to an executive presidential system. 

At one point he addressed the locals in Kurdish when asking for “Yes, thousands of times,” and also slammed the terror created by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), claiming it has links with the network of U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

The more-royalist-than-the-king pro-government media reported Erdoğan’s words as if he said “We’re ready to talk to anyone if they have no gun in their hands,” hinting at a new dialogue process with the PKK if the outcome of the April 16 referendum is “Yes.”

Perhaps this hint was a result of reports from the local organizations of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) that even among their own grassroots there was an expectation of a resumption of dialogue with the PKK. 

Back in 2012, then-prime minister Erdoğan ordered National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan to carry out talks with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan. Subsequently, during the now-collapsed peace process, MPs of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) acted as a bridge between Öcalan, the government and the PKK headquarters in the Kandil mountains of Iraq. During that dialogue, a de-conflicting atmosphere prevailed and losses of lives were at a minimum, but the dialogue ultimately collapsed in mid-2015. The PKK resumed its acts of terror and the security forces responded massively; thousands of people have lost their lives since then, and the effects of the Syria civil war on Turkey have been amplified.

Under the state of emergency declared by the government after the July 2016 coup attempt a number of HDP deputies, including its co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been arrested, accused of links with the PKK. Demirtaş announced last week that he was going on a hunger strike in protest at prison conditions. That announcement coincided with Erdoğan’s speech in the HDP stronghold of Diyarbakır. 

The HDP is standing against the constitutional amendments promoted by Erdoğan, but on March 30 Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who took an active part in the dialogue process as an intermediary, said he and fellow HDP MP Pervin Buldan would soon be meeting with Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ - the first such public contact between the two parties for a long time. After Önder announced this appointment, Demirtaş ended his strike on March 31, a day before Erdoğan’s speech.

Perhaps under those circumstances, the AK Parti and its supporters were signaling to attract more “Yes” votes from within the HDP. But Erdoğan did not explicitly say that another dialogue process would start if the outcome was “Yes.”

“The cleansing of the state from ‘FETÖ’ [Gülenists] is underway. There would be no one from within the state who would push you into the arms of the organization [PKK]. Our only counterpart is you,” he said. 

“We are ready to talk, meet and walk together with anyone who has something to say, or a problem to explain. We have just one condition: No one will have a gun in their hand,” he added.

 It is true that Erdoğan’s rhetoric before the start of the collapsed peace process in the fall of 2012 stressed that there must be no dialogue before the PKK abandons arms. But this time he is saying that he is completely ruling out the concept of talking to any organization and wants to listen to his people directly, stressing that there is no need to talk to any organization “between him and his people.”

So the answer to the title of this column is “No.” Erdoğan did not give any signal that he wanted to start a dialogue with the PKK, either directly or indirectly after the referendum.

There is also the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) factor to consider. Erdoğan does not want to make MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli upset before April 16. Bahçeli is known to be against any dialogue with the PKK, with or without arms, and his stated motivation in backing Erdoğan’s presidency project is to not let “separatists take over the state.” But after the referendum, the MHP’s influence on Erdoğan and the AK Parti is expected to be much less than today, regardless of the outcome.

Erdoğan was hopeful that he had found a partner in Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani in March, when he hosted Barzani in Ankara. But the hoisting of the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk and Barzani’s recent call for referendum for independence have disappointed and upset Erdoğan. Still, Ankara has not voiced a strong reaction against Barzani as it did in even minor cases before. 

The reason might be related to the April 16 referendum. Erdoğan is disappointed with the performance of the MHP and does not want to alienate traditionalist, tribal-based Kurdish votes in Turkey who may have some sympathy with Barzani.

So is it possible for Erdoğan to re-evaluate the circumstances and start a new dialogue process with the PKK, considering the situation in Turkey, Syria and Iraq?

That cannot be seen today, but the current situation regarding the Kurdish problem is very difficult to sustain. Ankara may well want to regain the initiative in the Kurdish situation after losing it with the collapse of the dialogue process in 2015.