Barzani’s visit and Turkey’s referendum saga

Barzani’s visit and Turkey’s referendum saga

Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) President Massoud Barzani’s visit to Turkey last week created a minor controversy amid Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli’s fury over the KRG flag. Bahçeli described the KRG flag as a “rag” and condemned the raising of “the so-called flag” in Ankara during Barzani’s visit.

He also, however, underlined that the issue is unrelated to his party’s support for the government in the upcoming referendum on shifting Turkey to an executive presidential system. It seems that Bahçeli was using the opportunity to please nationalists through his anti-Kurdish stance against intra-MHP opponents rather than targeting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

Obviously the AKP understood this stance well, with both Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and other government official avoiding a serious reaction against Bahçeli’s harsh words. Yıldırım’s response was very mild, simply recalling that it was a diplomatic rule to hang the flag during Barzani’s visit. 

In fact, the AKP’s referendum strategy is based on huge hypocrisy concerning the Kurdish issue, as it needs the votes of both Turkish nationalists and Kurds. On one hand, the AKP adopts a very nationalistic and militaristic discourse to appeal to nationalists, while on the other it tries to ensure Kurds that this coalition with the nationalists is a temporary referendum tactic. That explains why the AKP’s Kurdish-origin officials have kept silent on the controversy over the Kurdish flag, despite the fact that most of the AKP’s Kurdish politicians are pro-Barzani and supporters of the KRG. Instead, they are trying to persuade Kurdish voters that after the presidential system is firmly installed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be powerful enough to take positive steps on Kurdish rights and that is his real intention.

Kurdish votes remain crucial for the referendum, as many Turkish nationalist opponents of Bahçeli seem to have enough support to ensure a considerable “No” vote among MHP supporters. What’s more, the Kurdish-majority southeast has always been a power base of the AKP, which many conservative Sunni Kurds vote for.
 There is also thought to be more chance to get more Kurdish votes after the Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lost a lot of appeal after the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) restarted military attacks and engaged in politics of confrontation, as I mentioned in my article last week. 

So the current situation is a big chance for those who believe that only someone as powerful as Erdoğan can make a deal with Kurds. These people are not necessarily conservative or even direct supporters; after all, it was the iconic Kurdish politician Leyla Zana who claimed that “only Erdoğan can solve the Kurdish problem” a few years ago. All pro-Barzani circles, whether in public or not, share this view and accuse the HDP of allying with Turkish leftists and democrats. In their view, Kurdish politicians should prioritize Kurdish interests rather than running after democratization and should therefore avoid any confrontation with Erdoğan. Barzani’s visit to Turkey gave this group a good opportunity to claim that they have the right view. 

Personally, I think any peace deal with the Kurds is better than military politics, and I want to believe that at least Kurds may have more rights under the rule of the “New Turkey.” However, still I cannot comprehend how one may think that an presidential system will deliver more rights for Kurds while reducing the rights and freedoms of everyone else living in Turkey. But we should remember that Barzani could even once make a deal with Iraq’s deposed leader Saddam Hussein at the time; probably this is what they call “pragmatic politics.”