The Kurdish dilemma
It seems that Kurdish-origin voters are going to play an important role in Turkey’s upcoming referendum for a shift to an executive presidential system, while the Kurdish problem is also gaining importance in efforts to find a lasting peace in Syria. The latter concerns not only Turkey’s internal balances but also the overall political equation in the Middle East.
At the regional level, a major byproduct of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 was the development of an autonomous Kurdish region in the north, bordering both Turkey and Iran. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established by the traditionalist Masoud Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while the modernist Kurdistan Patriotic Union (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani was made president of Iraq. That was considered one consequence of the Iraqi Kurdish parties’ collaboration with the U.S.-led occupation forces after the Turkish Parliament rejected taking part in it.
The question today is whether the Syrian civil war and another American intervention produce another Kurdish autonomous region, next to the one Iraq and also bordering Turkey. If such a region does emerge it would be governed by a different Kurdish party, the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has waged an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984, during which more than 40,000 people have been killed with the aim of forming a “united Kurdistan” from territories carved out of four neighboring states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
One major dissimilarity between the cases of Iraq and Syria is that the PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S. Another dissimilarity is that the Iraqi constitution permitted federalism before the U.S. occupation and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What’s more, the KDP and the PUK in Iraq were not in a fight with the Turkish government - on the contrary they were looking for better relations and still do.
After the Barack Obama administration turned down NATO ally Turkey’s offer to jointly fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), without the PYD, the U.S. picked the PYD and its militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as its ground partner. The PYD and YPG share the same chain of command, budget, arsenal and human resources as the PKK, which is based in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq.
With Turkey’s pressure, the PYD was not included in the ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, brokered together by Russia and Turkey with the help of Iran.
But after the Astana talks, the Russian Foreign Ministry invited PYD representatives to Moscow, signaling a new Syrian constitution including a kind of autonomy for the Kurdish population there.
That process is still in the making and Turkey - with its 910 km border with Syria - still has a say in the developments ahead of the Feb. 8 talks in Geneva.
This whole process has coincided with moves ahead of a major constitutional referendum on shifting Turkey to an executive presidential system.
In order to realize President Tayyip Erdoğan’s biggest political project, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) last month passed a draft from parliament with the help of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to take the shift to a referendum, probably on April 9 or April 16.
Despite the obvious majority of the combined votes of the AK Parti and the MHP in the most recent parliamentary election in November 2015, (a total of 62 percent), neither Erdoğan nor the two parties are completely comfortable.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the divide within the MHP, as some Turkish nationalists are not happy with the idea of giving all executive power to Erdoğan, having worked against his presidency not so long ago.
The second reason is the Kurdish votes within the AK Parti. Despite claims of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which partly shares grassroots with the PKK line, not all Kurds in Turkey vote for it, with many conservative Kurds voting for the AK Parti.
As more deputies from the HDP are arrested one after another – or detained and released after giving their testimony - over alleged links with the PKK, this has the potential to increase the sympathy among MHP voters towards the presidential system. Simultaneously, however, these arrests and detentions will damage support among the AK Parti’s Kurdish-origin voters. In particular, the arrest of a senior Kurdish politician, Ahmet Türk, has prompted condemnation from within the AK Parti.
It seems the Kurdish dilemma in and around Turkey has created an unprecedented political atmosphere, which will make the referendum process more difficult for President Erdoğan and the AK Parti.