Erdoğan can’t afford failure this time

Erdoğan can’t afford failure this time

If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can pull it off and end a terrorism campaign by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has lasted over 25 years through a negotiated settlement, he will most certainly enter the history books. Ultranationalists are trying to denigrate his efforts of course, accusing him of “treachery” for going down this path, as it allegedly feeds into Kurdish separatism and risks the unity of the republic.

Erdoğan has, nevertheless, said he is willing to down a chalice of poison hemlock if this means it will bring peace. It is unlikely that he will have to resort to hemlock, though. Opinion polls conducted by the government show he has support from a large portion of the general public. One has to trust these polls because this is not a subject the government can afford to manipulate.

In addition to this, Erdoğan also has a strong mandate, having come out of the June 2011 general elections with one out of every two votes cast. The significance of that landslide victory was that it came after the Erdoğan government’s first attempt, in 2009, at a negotiated settlement to the PKK problem.

That effort, known popularly as the “Kurdish opening” was botched because it was ill-prepared and mismanaged. Although that had given nationalists a field day against Erdoğan, it had little bearing on the outcome of the 2011 elections in the end.

Of course, Erdoğan did appear to swing the other way after the botched attempt of 2009 and started playing to the nationalist gallery himself, alienating the Kurds this time who had voted for his party in the past. But he and his ministers continued to insist they had not given up on the “Kurdish opening.”

Meanwhile, PKK attacks not only continued but peaked after that attempt – having also been energized by the “Arab Spring” – thus providing further fodder for those opposed to the idea of negotiating with terrorists.

Erdoğan has swung back now, even boasting of “trampling nationalism underfoot,” and signaling a determination to go all the way for the sake of peace. But the risk for Turkey this time is not that he may succeed. The risk is that he fails. It is unlikely that the country can survive another debacle like the one in 2009.

Failure will mean that the PKK returns to its bloody campaign and Turkey will have little choice but to respond militarily, thus deepening the ethnic divide as Turkish and Kurdish blood continues to flow seemingly endlessly.

Speaking in absolute terms, the idea of “talking to terrorists” is abhorrent by its very nature, of course. The PKK has caused much bloodshed among Turks and Kurds while costing the country billions of valuable dollars that could have developed the predominantly Kurdish southeast.

But this group did not emerge in a vacuum. Neither was it purely “a foreign invention designed to destabilize Turkey,” as is often portrayed by nationalists, even if foreign governments and elements have used it against Turkey.

The fact that Öcalan lived freely in Syria throughout the 1990s, while senior PKK figures have enjoyed the safe havens of European capitals, attests to this. The murders in Paris in January of Sakine Cansız, a co-founder of the group, and two other PKK female activists are cases in point.

But it is not possible to disregard the mistakes by the state and the injustices perpetrated against the Kurds either. Even high-ranking officers who were involved in the war against the PKK at the time admit to these mistakes today.

Neither is Turkey going down a unique path here. Ireland and Great Britain have traveled this road with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and many in South Africa had to swallow some bitter pills over the African National Congress (ANC) for the sake of peace.

So, if one is to repeat it, if Erdoğan pulls it off this time, he will enter the history books.

He seems to have little choice but to succeed, given that the price of failure will be high for Turkey, whatever the political cost for him may be personally.