New era with old concerns

New era with old concerns

Turkey is going through some very challenging times. Will it be possible to steer the Turkish transatlantic ship smoothly through the drastically difficult Kurdish problem’s rough waters with icebergs floating around or laden with mines? Will it be possible to put an end to not only the almost half-century-old Kurdish separatist terrorism campaign but also to the Kurdish problem of this country?

Will it be possible to move on to a “new era” as heralded by separatist chieftain and jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan, who has been serving an enforced life term since 1999 at the high-security İmralı Island prison?

Öcalan’s call, a two-page letter he sent to the Diyarbakır Nevruz celebrations, called on the PKK gang to convene its congress “in the spring” in order to decide on laying down arms and “determine political and social strategies and tactics in accordance with the spirit of the new era.”

On the day of the Nevruz celebration in 2013, Öcalan, in a similar letter, had called for a ceasefire and asked the PKK to withdraw from Turkish territory. While the ceasefire has been mostly in effect, rather than withdrawing from Turkish territory the PKK preferred to benefit from the “non-confrontation” orders of the political authority to the Turkish military to consolidate itself in many provinces.  Thus, over the past two years, while the Turkish military, respectively, became non-visible, the Kurdish gang de facto became a major political force in most southeastern provinces of the country. The development, while encouraging the PKK and Kurdish micro-nationalist politics to demand more “autonomous governance” power in the so-called ambiguous “Kurdish opening,” created some raw nerves among Turkish nationalists that the Islamist government was helping Kurds disintegrate the country.

PKK-related violence has claimed over 35,000 lives over the past four decades and there has been a very strong national urge for a peaceful civilian resolution to the problem. Yet, Turks remain sensitive to the national and territorial integrity of the country. Not only has the ambiguous nature of the process been creating concerns, despite the strong urge for a negotiated civilian resolution, but also the flip-flops of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Now, the PKK chieftain’s call for the laying down of arms (not disarmament) will probably add momentum to the fragile process, with the Kurds expecting to reap the political benefits of the improved atmosphere by getting for the first time over ten percent of the national vote in the upcoming June 7 vote, while the AKP is hoping its sails will be filled with the winds of optimism and carry it to an electoral victory with at least 50 percent of the vote and over 300 seats in parliament. Naturally, the two cannot happen at the same time. Thus, almost at the same time Öcalan’s “new era” message was being read at the Diyarbakır Nevruz celebration, in the Western city of Denizli, Erdoğan boldly declared that there was no Kurdish problem in Turkey.

Naturally, Kurds and some opposition party members immediately asked the president why his government was conducting a Kurdish opening with Öcalan, the PKK and Kurdish politicians if there was no such problem in the country. The motivation behind the rather nationalist statement of the president, as well as his recent statement that he opposed the “selection of some wise people as a third party in the Kurdish negotiations,” will get underway soon.

Is the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Erdoğan playing the good cop, bad cop game? Would it be wrong to assume Davutoğlu will continue pressing for a Kurdish deal and try to implement the controversial 10-point statement – jointly released by the Kurdish party and the government last month – while Erdoğan will try to appease the nationalist sentiment and help minimize probable vote loss? It is no secret Erdoğan wants to go even further than 50 percent of the national vote and win 400 seats in the unicameral parliament, more than enough to make constitutional amendments without the need to go to a referendum. With nationalists if not antagonized, in deep confusion because of the Kurdish opening and worsening economic conditions making the average Turk far more pessimistic than ever, the approval rating of the ruling party must be waning. Indeed, in the latest opinion polls the AKP is floating around 35-42 percent levels, substantially lower than the 2011 or the March 2014 local election levels. It is of course no coincidence there appears to be a surge in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ratings.

If Erdoğan’s aspiration to become the ultimate sole power of the country fails because of the Kurdish opening concerns, perhaps there is something worth celebrating. Thus, has Turkey ushered into a new era this Nevruz? Even if so, this new era has started with old woes and concerns.