What is next on Erdogan's Kurdish agenda?

On Sunday, April 16th, as the results of the Turkish referendum on the constitutional changes were coming in, and the gap between yes and no votes was shrinking, Recep Tayyip Erdogan hurried to take stage to tell his supporters he had come out a winner again. He felt the need to do so as he quite rightly expected voices skeptical of the results for various reasons, mainly the narrow margin of victory and allegations of fraud. Amid this hurry, he did not forget to direct in his speech a special thanks to “his brothers and sisters in south-eastern Anatolia,” a longer way of saying the Kurds. Like many others, Erdogan had not expected that votes from the Kurdish areas would save his dream of changing the political system. 

Erdogan’s first political encounter with the Kurdish issue in Turkey came in 1991. Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), led by late prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, appointed  Erdogan, a then-head of RP’s Istanbul branch, to help gain the Kurdish vote for the party. Erdogan prepared a long report and presented it to Erbakan. The most interesting aspect of the report was where he argued that the problem in the south-eastern part of Anatolia should be named by its name – the Kurdish issue. He also argued that the Kurds are caught in between state terror and PKK terror. He presented Islamic fraternity between Kurds and Turks, and support of human rights as the solution. 

In 2006, Erdogan repeated his old thesis but this time as the prime minister of Turkey. During a meeting with Kurdish intellectuals in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, Erdogan admitted Turkey had a ‘’Kurdish issue.’’ The period between 2006 and 2015 marks the phase in which Erdogan tried to achieve his vision on the Kurdish issue. What started as a cultural opening to the Kurds ended with face to face negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan. However, the results were disappointing. Not only did he embrace the military option again, he made a U-turn on his position on the Kurdish issue. He started arguing that there was no Kurdish issue in Turkey but a terrorism issue, the exact same thing he argued against in his 1991 report. 

In Spring 2013, Ocalan wrote a letter which was read amid millions of Kurds in Diyarbkair during the Newroz celebrations. In the letter, Ocalan asked the PKK to start a ceasefire. The PKK answered positively to its leader’s call and started a ceasefire that lasted for more than two years. However, by the end of the second year, both sides had understood that a ceasefire was not good for either of them. The PKK’s Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the PYD, was making political and military gains while Turkey was under international pressure for alleged support of ISIS and other terrorist groups. The PKK felt empowered by these changes, looking at the ceasefire from the position of strength. On the other hand, the ruling AK Parti was losing ground to the HDP on one side and the MHP on the other. The ceasefire had allowed the Kurds to make bolder courageous steps. HDP’s co-leader Selahaddin Demirtas nominated himself in the presidential elections in August 2014. In the parliamentary elections of June 2015, both the MHP and the HDP made electoral gains at the expense of the AKP. The HDP passed the electoral threshold to become the first Kurdish party to do so and adopted an anti-Erdogan agenda. The MHP, on the other hand, had based its entire campaign on fueling nationalist feelings against the AKP’s peace process with the PKK. 

The peace process Erdogan had been striving for was about to cost him his power. The rise of a safe haven for the PKK in Rojava in Syria, and losing Kurdish votes to the HDP in Turkey, convinced Erdogan that he was the biggest loser in the process. It took the murder of two policemen for the AKP government to end the ceasefire and start military operations again in June of 2015. 

In the last two years, Erdogan’s rhetoric was identical with that of the MHP. He tried to win over the Turkish nationalist vote by adopting an ultra-right wing position towards the Kurds and minorities inside the country and to Europeans outside. Erdogan, a supporter of dividing Turkey into different Eyalet (different administrative states) rushed to vow that he will never back up federalism for Turkey after he was challenged by the MHP’s leader Devlet Bahceli a few days before the referendum. These attempts to appeal to the nationalists proved fruitless. Polls conducted by Gezici – a polling company which predicted the referendum results accurately – showed that only 3.5% of MHP voters cast their ballots for yes in the referendum. Most of the MHP votes were casted against Bahceli’s will and in support of his rival Meral Aksener and her partners who are also rivals to Erdogan. Being from the right, they pose a danger to Erdogan’s conservative base. He is now left without any strong partners. 

Erdogan is a majoritarian who believes that electoral victory should allow a person or a party to rule with no shackles. He met the Kurds in 1991 in his quest for votes for his party, now, he is ready to meet them again to gain votes, this time for himself. The votes coming from the Kurdish areas could lead to a policy change by Erdogan, who is preparing to return to the AKP as its leader. The new approach will aim at strengthening non-PKK Kurdish political actors on the ground. This is a position in between acceptance of the PKK/HDP as the mouthpiece of the Kurds, and rejecting the presence of a Kurdish problem at all. The current security approach will continue to be accompanied by more state investment in the Kurdish areas. He will also work on strengthening local actors such as the Islamist HUDA PAR (Free Cause Party).  By mentioning HUDA PAR several times since referendum night, Erdogan is trying to portray HUDA PAR as a real alternative. A possible split between the HDP’s nationalist and pro-PKK wings could also prove helpful for Erdogan. Political figures like Ahmet Turk, Leyla Zana, and Altan Tan are known to have less reservations of working with Erdogan. They are also not happy with the course of events under Demirtas’ leadership. Altan Tan, for example, who is a member of parliament from the HDP and has a conservative religious background, said after the referendum that Kurdish votes saved Erdogan. His statement met a backlash from HDP supporters who refuse to admit Kurds supported Erdogan.

The main priority for Erdogan in the next few months is preventing the PKK from having a foothold in Syria and Iraq in the post-ISIS period. Everything else in regard to the Kurds and the Kurdish issue will be guided by the fact that a PKK-friendly Kurdish entity in Syria equals an existential threat on the unity of Turkey. What we will see in the near future will be a combination of several steps together. A major offensive on the PKK inside and outside Turkey accompanied by a search for local Kurdish alternatives for the PKK, as well as state sponsored welfare and infrastructure programs will take place. While doing these, Erdogan has the next presidential elections in mind, after which the presidential system will take effect. Secularists and Kemalists abhor him, nationalists have little to offer, but non-PKK Kurds could be his last best hope for presidency if he manages to sideline the HDP and bring about an alternative before the next elections.   
Dana Nawzar Jaf is a researcher and writer. He is a student of MSc Sustainability, Development and Culture at Durham University, and holds an MSc in Politics and Government from the University Putra Malaysia (UPM). He has a wide range of research interests with a focus on democratization, and writes on a wide range of topics related to Middle Eastern politics. Follow him on Twitter @DanaNawzar