Erdoğan’s message: Presidential system or no deal

Erdoğan’s message: Presidential system or no deal

The recent Newroz declaration of the jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan contained many ambiguities, but it could still be considered a positive step on the path of the so-called “peace negotiations.”

Nevertheless, first the concomitant public denial of the “Kurdish question” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan damaged the optimistic mood, while the subsequent row between deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç and Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek overshadowed the Newroz message altogether. After Arınç initially criticized the president’s remarks, Gökçek attacked him, taking the side of Erdoğan; things finally got out of control when Arınç accused Gökçek of selling Ankara’s land to the movement of Fethullah Gülen.

As the political scandal began to dominate the political debate, the starting point of the debate - Öcalan’s declaration - was almost forgotten. In fact, the debate was also started as a result of the division of opinion between the government and the president over the handling of the Kurdish peace process. Erdoğan stated that there is no longer a Kurdish problem and no need for the kind of “negotiation committee” proposed by Öcalan and agreed on by the government. Erdoğan added that under his leadership the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had “solved the problems of Kurds” to a great extent, so now the only remaining problem is the disarmament of the PKK, as was promised at the beginning of the peace process. It took Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoğlu a few days to intervene in the debate, calling for a halt to the internal row, but he did not clarify his own stance on Erdoğan’s remarks on the Kurds.

It seems that Davutoğlu had to comply with the president, as Erdoğan did not step back from his position and the prospects of the peace negotiations remained unclear. As a result, some political observers have started to talk about an intra-AKP division on the Kurdish question. Others have consoled themselves with the idea that Erdoğan’s recent remarks are “only” an election strategy to prevent the loss of Turkish nationalist votes to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); thus, the situation is only temporary and will not endanger the peace process. 

Nonetheless, even if there is a division and conflict of interest between Davutoğlu and Erdoğan, it seems that it is the president who has won the game - as usual. That is why Davutoğlu had to announce recently that the AKP will campaign for a “presidential system” in the coming election. Indeed, I think the whole saga was actually about the presidential system. As the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) needs to emphasize its stance against changing Turkey to a presidential system, Erdoğan wanted to remind them that this change is in fact a main part of the peace deal. 

I have previously written about the paradox of the HDP, and about how on one hand it is an actor in the negotiation process and part of the team that regularly visits Öcalan, while on the other hand it is supposed to act as an opposition party. The ruling AKP expects the HDP to be compromising as an actor in the negotiations, while the same HDP is expected to convince prospective voters that it will hinder the presidential system project if it manages to get into parliament. I had predicted that a post-election crisis would result from this paradox, but it seems that this crisis has happened earlier, despite the fact that few are willing to acknowledge the inconvenient truth of the peace process.  

In fact, Erdoğan did not address his own party as he criticized his government’s negotiation committee project, but he did address the Kurdish party by objecting to the project and by totally denying the existence of a Kurdish issue. He meant to reiterate that if there is no support for the presidential system, there will be no peace deal. This means that Erdoğan’s interference is a more serious matter than is currently being discussed in terms of petty political analysis; but nobody is eager to engage in more serious discussion on the matter. After all, since the beginning of the peace process, leftist-democrats have been accused of being “anti-peace” if they raise their concerns on the matter. Kurds, meanwhile, are also ultimately reluctant to acknowledge the paradox of their situation. As for the ruling AKP, it is the most unwilling party to engage in an open debate on the Kurdish issue and the peace process.

Finally, as long as we have a prime minister who believes in that the “state means secrecy,” as he stated after his recent meeting with the president, and as long as we have a president who believes “l’etat, c’est moi,” we are not supposed to discuss - let alone question - any major issue anyway.