Kurds key to current Turkish politics; domestic and foreign

Kurds key to current Turkish politics; domestic and foreign

Developments in Turkish foreign and domestic politics have entered a dangerous collision course, less than two months before the first round of presidential elections on Aug. 10.

The common denominator of developments in current Turkish foreign and domestic politics is the Kurdish issue. In domestic politics, the role of the Kurdish issue in the presidential elections is becoming more visible every day. There are a number of scenarios in the Ankara corridors regarding the possible role of Kurds in the presidentials.

It is no secret the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sees the elections as an opportunity to force Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan into a bargain for autonomy rights. Most of the municipalities in the predominantly Kurdish-populated towns and cities of the southeast (either bordering or near to Syria, Iraq and Iran) were won by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the March 30 local elections, now changing its name to the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP).

The Erdoğan initiative to carry out talks with the PKK through National Intelligence Agency (MİT) Chief Hakan Fidan in order to pursue a political solution to Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem (which had claimed over 40,000 lives in 30 years) has cautious public support.

The PKK has stepped up its military activities in the last few weeks in order to persistently remind of their presence and demands to Erdoğan. A protest by the PKK against building stronger military stations in the Lice township of Diyarbakır turned into a clash where two people lost their lives.

Those demands include not only autonomy rights, but flexible prison conditions for Öcalan such as house-arrest, if not release. But when a PKK militant grabbed a Turkish flag from a major base of the military, (which has been under the influence of coup-plot trials like Ergenekon and Balyoz), and successfully escaped, Erdoğan was subject to strong criticism by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and even from some within his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).

The capture of Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul by the radical organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took place amid heated debates in Turkey over the Kurdish issue. ISIL is engaged in a fierce fight in Syria against the Bashar al-Assad forces and also against other opposition forces including the Kurds, (the Syrian branch of the PKK), who hold a piece of land they call “Rojava” by the Turkish border. The Turkish opposition has been accusing the Erdoğan government of secretly helping Islamist forces in Syria, which they claim increase the risk of more terrorist activity in Turkey.

Moreover, ISIL raided the Turkish consulate in Mosul, taking 49 people there, including the consul general, hostage, together with 30 Turkish truck drivers.

On top of that, the federal forces of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq took advantage of a dispersing Iraqi army in the north and captured the disputed city of Kirkuk within hours. For Barzani, Kirkuk is the “Jerusalem of Kurds,” but for the Turkish government it is a Turkmen city.

The advance of ISIL over the weekend included Telafar, another city where both Sunni and Shiite Turkmens live. Turkmens in both Mosul and Kirkuk have been seeking refuge in the KRG areas, which gives Ankara mixed feelings: The Turkmens have been saved, but saved by the Kurds. Together with the capture of Kirkuk, developments give Barzani a stronger hand not only with the Turkish government but also against the PKK in their competition for power.

As the contacts between an alerted Iran and the U.S. have started with the possibility of joint operations, Erdoğan is not in the most comfortable position.

That picture might get more complicated if the BDP (or now HDP) comes up with a strong candidate for presidency. That would mean if Erdoğan does not agree for a bargain and does not accept the Kurds’ demands before the elections, the Kurds will run a campaign against Erdoğan to prevent him from getting at least 50 percent of the vote, which is necessary.

If he does bargain, then the BDP could withdraw its candidate before election day. If not, and if Erdoğan (of course if Erdoğan stands for candidacy) does not win the first round outright, the plan of the Kurds is to raise the stakes for the second round. However, if Erdoğan agrees with the demands of the Kurds he risks losing some of his nationalist/conservative voter base.

The outcome will definitely affect the position of Kurds in Iraq regarding Turkey, as well as the Turkish position over there. That is why it is possible to say that the Kurds are holding the key to Turkish foreign and domestic politics at the moment, which are on a collision course.