Turkey’s Kurd paradox

In last Sunday’s general election Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic, centrist, Justice and Development Party won a substantial victory at the polls, returning it to office for the third consecutive time, making his the strongest presidency since Attaturk.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Sat 18 Jun 2011, 12:16 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

The Kurds who live mainly in the south east, although there are substantial numbers both in Istanbul and Ankara, voted in large numbers for the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party- giving them nearly six per cent of the vote and 35 seats in parliament. This was also a substantial achievement, even though the urban Kurds, as always, voted in large numbers for the mainstream parties.

The Kurds have had a chequered history in modern Turkey. First, they tried passive protests against their inferior position and the draconian rule of Ankara which didn’t allow them cultural freedoms- the right to have their own Kurdish language, media or to teach Kurdish in schools. Then, out of frustration, some turned into guerrillas under the banner of the PKK. The PKK was ruthless. But so was the army, destroying hundreds of villages and torturing at will. A decade ago the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalen, from his jail cell ordered the insurgents to implement a cease-fire. But as the years passed he too became convinced that the government was not serious about implementing the reforms it talked about. It wasn’t and under the leadership of Ocalen’s brother the fighting began again.

Some 20 million Kurds live in the rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. There are another million overseas, some of who fund the PKK. In Turkey many Kurds are in prominent positions in many walks of life and a Kurd was prime minister not that many years ago.

In Turkey’s 1995 general election the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (since banned), despite the sympathies of some of its members for the PKK, was allowed for the first time to contest the election without harassment. But out of six million potential Kurdish voters only one million Kurds voted for it. The Kurds voted principally for mainstream parties, and there was a significant rejection of Kurdish nationalism, even of the democratic variety, much less that of the PKK, then at the height of its powers.

The message for the PKK was that the cause it pursued and the means it used were not widely shared. But for the authorities there was also a message, one they have never fully absorbed - that they have exaggerated the potency and popularity of the PKK. Through one administration after another—and Erdogan’s is no exception —-- have misled the public on why they had to be so unsparing and tough on those Kurds who did rebel, violent or non-violent.

Under Erdogan many promises have been made - allowing Kurdish in the schools, a Kurdish TV station and the economic development of this very poor region. But many the promises have not been satisfactorily implemented. Most importantly, there is not much investment or development. Although the PKK guerrillas and their methods don’t speak for the mass of the Kurds they do represent their anger. That is why the insurgency has re-started, albeit still on a low level scale compared with before.

Erdogan blames the PKK for its provocations. Yet it is the army that often has done the provoking, even on occasion using agents provocateurs, and dragged the government into the fray. Erdogan has often had to bow before the army to keep the generals’ urge to run Turkey in check.

If Erdogan ever wants the European Union to allow Turkey’s election he has to do much more for the Kurds. He has no excuse now. He has subdued the political influence of the army. He has an overwhelmingly strong mandate. The national economy is doing well. If he fails to do what is right and just for the Kurds he will only have himself to blame if the insurgency flares up again.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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