Our guest author is Robert Hatem. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from George Washington University. Several of his articles are currently under review and pending publication with academic journals; all focus on Turkey and the Kurds. He currently works for the Moroccan American Center for Policy. This article is his second in an original series for Al Ajnabee. See also his post from June 8, “Closer Ties Push Baghdad Away.”
Something that’s making a splash in Turkish politics over the last few weeks has been the collaboration between traditional political rivals, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP). What’s brought these two parties together? The Kurdish problem.
The AKP has traditionally been the periphery party within Turkey while the CHP has been the party of the center. The AKP represents the rural, religious poor of Turkey while the CHP is more the party of the urban secularists. The two parties, while relatively recently formed due to Turkey’s history of coups, represent conflicting trends in Turkish politics dating back to the foundation of the state. Perennial losers in elections, the AKP’s party ancestors, like the Welfare Party (RP), finally managed to take power within a coalition government in 1996 but was quickly forced out by a coup in 1998. The 2002 elections that brought the AKP to power were a major shift in Turkish electoral politics and marked a major defeat for the CHP. This was the first time that a religious-oriented party had taken power within secularist Turkey. In elections since then, the AKP has managed to decisively increase its share of the vote mostly at the expense of the CHP.
With the coming to power of the AKP in 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempted to push forward a new solution to the Kurdish problem that sought to move away from the purely military-based approached of the past. This move resulted in several important reforms. Some restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language have been lifted and Kurdish can now be broadcast. Kurdish can even be taken as an elective course in school.
In 2009 the AKP pushed harder beginning a “Kurdish Opening,” which envisioned amnesty for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members. This Opening failed, as Kurds took advantage of the freer political space to start advocating for autonomy, and PKK members began openly returning to the country and inciting violence.
Now, however, a new non-military approach is being advocated by none other than the CHP and its ancestors—the party largely responsible for the military approach that has been favored by Turkey since the state’s founding. The CHP is the party that instituted a brutal emergency rule for 15 years in the southeast from 1987 to 2002, when they lost power to the AKP. They’ve also long denied that Kurds even exist, referring to them instead as “mountain Turks” until 1991. This marks a major shift in the CHP platform, which traditionally has feared any non-military solution would eventually lead to a division of Turkey.
The CHP plan advocates forming two committees, one within Parliament with all parties participating, and another outside of Parliament formed by a group of “Wise Men.” As for specifics, there really aren’t any. Any specific initiative would have to flow from the committees, and it’s not clear how the two committees would work together, which would be in charge, or what their powers would be. The CHP wants all of these issues to be solved by the committees themselves. Not exactly a recipe for success.
The AKP, however, has welcomed this plan. The meeting between Prime Minister Erdogan and CHP chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu on June 6 to discuss the plan went favorably by all accounts. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the Kurdish party within Parliament, also views the plan very favorably. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—the ultranationalist party—looks on the plan with much less favor, declaring that the move is “treason”.
This 10-point plan, unfortunately, is unlikely to amount to very much. Even if the committees are formed, an unlikely prospect given MHP objections and political differences between the parties, the agenda for each committee is just massive. The CHP has also failed to put forward any blueprint or guidelines beyond simply forming these committees. Not only do these committees need to agree on their own working procedures and responsibilities but they also have to agree on a non-specified new solution to the Kurdish issue, which has bedeviled Turkey for almost its entire existence. The solution ultimately put forward must also be one that can garner support from all political parties and the population at large. This is simply too large a task with too little direction.
This 10-point plan still offers some hope for the future. Most importantly the plan shows some movement away from the military-focused response to Kurdish issues by the CHP as well as a continued interest in such matters by the AKP. Also importantly, most parties have rhetorically accepted this idea of a new, non-military, cross-political, approach to the Kurdish issue. These are hopeful, if purely rhetorical, signs. Let us hope that Turkey acts on them.