From counter-insurgency to stability

From counter-insurgency to stability

Thirty years have passed and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK, problem is now in a new phase. The conflict took so long that the world, the region and Turkey have all changed. Recent attacks have divided society and made ethnic and religious identities more visible. They have transformed political and psychological expectations. In the meantime, the government once again reluctantly sat down at the table with the PKK.

The process poses serious risks for the AKP. Erdoğan knows these risks and is trying hard to minimize them. Still, his preferred method of “open negotiations” puts him in a difficult position.

The most important factor making the management of the process immensely difficult is divided public opinion. Erdoğan not only faces the reaction of the opposition, but also trying to keep in line three different groups under the AKP umbrella. First, there are the “Turks,” the vast majority of the AKP electorate. They have so far preferred to silently watch the process, but we can still feel their discontentment. Secondly, there are the “integrated Kurds” facing the biggest challenge. They live side by side with the Turks and fear being subjected to social, political and economic discrimination if the PKK gains more legitimacy. Finally, there are the “Islamist Kurds,” the historic and ideological rivals of the PKK.

Erdoğan has very limited means to keep all these groups in line. Though not in perfect shape, one useful tool is the multi-party political order. This is the means by which Erdoğan has been able to gather different identities under the same political roof.

The second and most important strategic tool is, of course, the free market economy. The growth of the Turkish economy together with the development of a middle class despite the global crisis provides common ground for different groups. Wealth cements them around the principle of “political stability for common economic interest.”

The third tool is Islam and the mosques and graveyards where it is practiced. Erdoğan’s whole discourse stresses Islam as a common denominator in reference to the Koran and the Prophet’s life. Mosques play a critical role insofar as they bring together people with different origins five times a day, load them with common emotions, and release them back into everyday life.

Although his leadership capacity and preference to take and implement decisions quickly with a small team confer Erdoğan particular advantages, such an approach might not be suitable for managing public opinion in the face of a fragile and complex ethnic problem. Come what may, Erdoğan is giving it another shot and might be taking deadly risks.