‘Whoever wins Turkey's election must face Kurdish reality’

‘Whoever wins Turkey's election must face Kurdish reality’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
‘Whoever wins Turkeys election must face Kurdish reality’ The dynamics of the Kurdish issue have changed so much that whoever wins the upcoming election will have to face a new Kurdish reality, according to prominent security expert Nihat Ali Özcan. 

“The negotiations on the issue have reached a level of acceptability in society. After the elections the process will have to start from where it left off. It is no longer possible to rewind the film,” Özcan told the Hürriyet Daily News.

When you look at the election manifestos of the four parties, what is your general evaluation about the Kurdish issue and its effect on the elections?

The ballot box will determine the composition of parliament. But there is another actor beside the ballot box that has an organic link to one of the parties in the ballot box: The [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK, which has a grand strategy. The PKK has tools at its disposal other than the tools used in politics, such as arms. 

So these are not just elections where political parties compete with each other. There is also an external political/ military element that will interfere in the system beyond the competition of the parties. This element has forces outside of Turkey’s borders, like in Iraq and Syria. The elections are important in that sense.

But the PKK was always a factor in the past too.

Yes, but there are changes. Three of the four main parties and Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] are different in terms of who they are accountable to. But the HDP needs to be an actor in the system while also acting in accordance with the PKK’s [jailed leader Abdullah] Öcalan and Kandil [the mountain range where the PKK’s armed wing is located].

Elections are important for the three other parties because if they lose they will assume the role of opposition and wait for next elections. But the HDP will continue to play a role that broader politics have designed for it. This role could be played in the legitimate grounds of parliament, but there is another dimension: The streets. When you go even further it extends to the mountains and even beyond the borders. Therefore, this election will not solve the Kurdish issue. But it will determine how it will evolve. 

If we look at the rhetoric of the parties, the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] totally rejects the ruling Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] approach based on negotiated sharing of sovereignty. The MHP says a solution cannot be found without pushing the armed elements outside the system, arguing that otherwise the current process will lead to the dissolution of Turkey.The Republican People’s Party [CHP] shyly supports the negotiations between the government and the PKK that are conducted behind closed doors.

What is important here is how the AKP and the HDP will act after the election. As before, the HDP will not act independent of Öcalan and Kandil. 

The AKP has vowed to solve the issue through negotiations. The aim at the end of negotiations is to share sovereignty: In other words on one side you have the Turkish state and on the other side you have the Kurds. The discussion will be about how the country will be governed by two ethnic groups and how the constitution will shape this architecture. So you come up with a new state model and this requires a new constitution.

But the government weakened its negotiating position by pulling the army out of the process and minimizing operations against the PKK, which has not moved its armed elements outside the borders. The PKK has therefore become an important authority in the region. This weakens the hands of the government, because its proposal for sovereignty-sharing is at the minimum level: It sees it as strengthening local administrations. If you look at the rhetoric of the PKK, however, its expectation is at the maximum level, toward a more confederal structure.

I believe that debates on how the gap between the PKK’s maximalist approach and the government’s minimalist approach will intensify after the elections. 

Also, the government’s scheme for a new constitution involves changing to the presidential system, while on paper the PKK rejects the presidential system. But when you look at Öcalan’s approach and his tactics, he will accept the presidential system.

You keep talking about the PKK. Does that mean we should look at what the PKK says, instead of the HDP?

Precisely. If you look at the HDP’s election manifesto it overlaps with the PKK’s confederal demands. The HDP is not in a position to say anything different from the PKK. Therefore, politics after June 7 will not be shaped according to the results of the election, but according to the strategy of the PKK. Perhaps even the HDP will not interfere.

Meanwhile, there is an ideological problem with the AKP. When a party that defines its identity based on religion or sect starts discussing an ethnic issue, each step it takes will run counter to it. If those who are sat on one side of the table are accepted as an ethnic group then those sitting on the other side can no longer be define as Muslims, they will be Turks. This means the start of a serious crisis within the AKP, which uses religion as the main unifying umbrella.

But if that’s the case then the AKP should have already been experiencing this crisis for some time.

Until now only the soft dimensions of the issue have been debated. When the whole process comes to a more concrete state, things will start looking different, as we have seen in the discussion on the Diyanet [the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which the HDP has pledged to close]. That’s why debates after certain stages of the process will bring about ideological fractures.

What effect will the HDP’s performance have, if it remains below or rises above the 10 percent threshold?

Passing the threshold could be important personally for the individuals working within the HDP. But if you look from the perspective of the PKK, it is not important. It’s tactical. A HDP that has entered parliament is a more suitable tool for the PKK’s long term strategy. 

However, the HDP’s entry or non-entry is important for the other parties. If the AKP is able to form the government by itself, then this [Kurdish issue] is negotiable. If it cannot form the government alone, then its interlocutors will change. So parliament’s composition is important for the three other parties, but it is not important for the HDP or the PKK. As the Kurdish issue has come to a stage where it can pressure the system, all parties will have to face the Kurdish issue. 

Can you elaborate on that?

Negotiations have reached a level of acceptability in the society. The PKK is being treated as the representative of all Kurds. After the election, the process will have to start from where it left off. It is no longer possible to rewind the film. So whoever forms the government, the HDP will like to continue the process from where it was left. The other sides have no chance of starting the process from scratch. 

In addition, looking at developments around Turkey, the fact that the PKK has started to gain international legitimacy, for instance, means that whoever forms the government will have to face some new realities in this process.

The process will shape the action of whichever party comes to power. In other words, even if the MHP were to come to power alone, it will need to face the weight of reality and follow a different strategy. This issue cannot be dealt with as if the same conditions of a decade ago still exist today.

So does that mean the process will definitely continue, one way or the other?

This process can continue either as a conflict or on the table. What I mean is that, for the PKK, it does not matter whether the HDP makes it to parliament or not. Independent of that, the PKK will force any government to widen the gains it has won up to now, because it has the tools. That could come through terrorism, or it could come through guerrilla warfare. But its capacity to use these tools is higher than it was a decade ago.

Who is Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan?

‘Whoever wins Turkeys election must face Kurdish reality’

Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan is an associate professor at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara and a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).

He is a retired major from the Turkish Armed Forces, and received his bachelor’s degree from the Military Academy of Ankara. After graduating from the Army Transportation School, he served in a number of different units of the land forces between 1979 and 1998. He also graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law. 

Dr. Özcan’s master’s degree and PhD were completed at 9 Eylül University in Izmir. He was an Academic Visitor at the Changing Character of War (CCW) program of Oxford University’s History Faculty from October 2010 to May 2011.

He has extensive publications on Turkish military, terrorism and counterinsurgency issues.