Erdoğan’s Kurdish dilemma

Erdoğan’s Kurdish dilemma

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done more than any previous Turkish government in trying to address the country’s Kurdish problem.

The social, cultural and political steps it has taken in this regard may not appear highly significant to an outsider.

They have nevertheless been revolutionary for Turkey compared with the situation a mere decade ago. Even hanging an innocent poster or sending a wedding invitation in Kurdish would land people in prison on charges of separatist terrorism.

Suggesting that the government should sit down for talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a cease-fire, moreover, would have been unthinkable.

The government must be credited for having ended these taboos.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) electoral successes also show that acknowledging that Turkey has Kurds, who have cultural and political rights, is not the red line for Turks that some thought it would be.

Despite all the accusations of treason that it has been leveling at the AKP for its Kurdish policy, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has not managed to convert this into significant political capital against the government.

The dramatic decline in bloodshed between the security forces, and the PKK, one of the key byproducts of the government’s “Kurdish opening,” or “peace process,” as it is separately called, is something that has widely been appreciated by the public.

There are no doubt countless Turkish families whose conscripted sons are doing their military service, or are going to do it, that are thankful at this turn of events. The situation is the same for many Kurdish families whose sons or daughters have taken to the mountains to join the PKK for the sake of what they believe to be a just cause.

The recent violent developments in Diyarbakir’s Lice district, however, show that there is still much work to be done for the Kurdish opening to ultimately succeed. Deep suspicions and reluctance prevail on both sides and must be overcome.

The shedding of blood again in Lice shows that a return to the bad old days is a possibility that cannot be discounted. The Erdoğan government, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and the PKK’s leadership have to therefore tread very cautiously in handling this matter.

Otherwise, ethnic violence will once again become the barrier that separates Turks and Kurds, estranging them at a time when a historic opportunity for peace has been secured. Turkey has come a long way from the days when even the existence of the Kurds was denied by the Turkish political and legal establishment. The gains in this respect must not be squandered.

Erdoğan has a lot of grassroots support from people who at other times would be inclined to vote for the nationalist MHP, but who have voted for the AKP due to its conservative values and social policies. He is clearly worried about alienating these people by pushing the Kurdish opening too hard, especially when he is preparing for presidential elections and general elections.

Erdoğan, however, is also aware that he has the support of a significant portion of the Kurdish population, due to a mix of his conservative values – because most Kurds also are conservative Muslims – and his much more flexible approach to the Kurdish question. He clearly does not want to lose this support either.

Such dilemmas can make or break politicians depending on the leadership they are able or incapable of showing in the face of these difficult and sensitive situations. Erdoğan is ultimately a populist politician and this has worked for him to date.

But there are limits to populism after which it is real leadership that counts.

How Erdoğan reacts from now on in terms of the Kurdish question in general, and in terms of the process his government has initiated with the PKK in particular, will therefore be highly significant for Turks and Kurds alike.