PM Erdoğan’s Kurdish move before the presidential polls

PM Erdoğan’s Kurdish move before the presidential polls

The government presented a six-article bill to Parliament on June 26 to give a legal basis for the initiative of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ongoing proxy dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in pursuit of a political settlement to Turkey's chronic Kurdish problem.

The bill is the first of its kind, despite criticism from opposition parties. Some find it totally wrong and divisive, like the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); some find it insufficient, like the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP); some find it necessary but opportunistic, like the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The bill suggests that the Turkish Public Order and Security Undersecretary (KDGM) will henceforth carry out the coordination of the dialogue process, an office whose activities are subject to open inspections. The KDGM will replace the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), the secret service that has been acting as a bridge between government bodies and Öcalan’s PKK for the last two years. The bill also makes those involved in the dialogue immune before the law over those activities, since the PKK is condemned as illegal by not only the Turkish government, but also by the U.S. and the European Union, following many years of diplomatic activity of successive Turkish governments in the 1990s and 2000s.

Erdoğan also asked his AK Parti group in Parliament to use their domination of seats to extend the start of Parliament’s summer recess from July 1 to July 25, in order to complete all necessary legislation regarding the Kurdish issue (among other issues, mostly economic incentives to voters) before the first round of the presidential elections on Aug. 10.

This is actually a crucial point, as Erdoğan wants to be sure that if he declares his candidacy (most likely to take place on July 1), he can win in the first round (where 50 percent-plus-one vote is needed). He doesn’t want Kurdish voters to create an obstacle on that road, despite inner-party polls showing that he could win with a clear margin.

Erdoğan’s timing (the reason why the CHP has denounced it as opportunistic) clearly serves that target. The bill was submitted on the day that a delegation of HDP members of Parliament were scheduled to meet Öcalan at the island-prison of İmralı, south of Istanbul - with permission from the Justice Ministry after days of negotiations. They were going in order to ask his opinion about the legal package and the elections.

Having got Öcalan’s opinion, the HDP is expected to convene its Party Assembly over the weekend to decide its presidential candidate. If the candidate is a strong figure like its co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, this means that, despite Erdoğan’s legal move yesterday, Öcalan wants to keep his bargaining power for the second round on Aug. 24 by trying to keep Erdoğan under the 50 percent threshold. That would also be a wink to other two opposition parties who are supporting the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a non-partisan academic with international respect.

In the meantime, Erdoğan, knowing what Öcalan’s call will entail, is likely to have a decisive meeting with President Abdullah Gül, his longtime fellow, to finally fix the election strategy.

Yes, it is like a chess game against time. The Kurds will have a say in the result: Whether Turkey will be ruled by Erdoğan with more concentrated power in return for - now legal - promises for more autonomous rights, and perhaps better prison conditions for Öcalan.

In the background of this game, there is a fire burning in Turkey’s southern neighbors, Syria and Iraq, which have been drawn into civil wars with ethnic and sectarian actors, where the Kurds also play an important role.