The Kurdish-AKP Alliance
When it comes to Turkey’s Kurdish movement, pragmatism has been the norm. While maintaining a secular discourse, belligerents of the movement have often cooperated with the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
When Turkey’s infamous Gezi Protests broke out in May 2013, Selahattin Demirtaş, then head of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), claimed that the protests were moving to channel a social movement into a coup attempt1. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the militant organization with which Turkey has been in conflict since 1984, claimed that he was the one to save Erdoğan during the Gezi protests2.
When corruption allegations against Erdoğan came to the forefront in December 2013, Demirtaş continued to side with Erdoğan. He regarded allegations as attempts on the part of the so-called Fethullah Gülen movement to overthrow the government through coup plots3.
From Allies to Foes: A New Strategy
In March, the BDP dissolved itself, and its members joined the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in order to pursue a new strategy. The PKK renounced its interest in establishing an independent Kurdish state. Hinting at a federal arrangement, a new understanding was identified, whereby nations would integrate themselves into democratic life and practice self-determination. The Kurdish problem was to be resolved within the context of Turkey’s greater democratic deficit. For many, this change was a result of the need to engage the non-Kurds to strengthen the movement4.
Demirtaş became leader of the HDP and took a U-turn during his presidential candidacy. He incorporated corruption concerns and minority rights, as well as gender issues into his discourse. During his campaign, he presented himself to stand for the ideals of the Gezi protests, while attacking Erdoğan on corruption allegations. With 9.7 per cent of the vote, Demirtaş nearly approached the 10 per cent threshold that is required for entry into Turkish parliament, demonstrating that the HDP could have a serious say over the 2015 General Election.
Kobane and Further Tensions
The distance the Kurdish movement put between itself and the AKP strengthened following the rise of ISIL and the struggle over Kobane. Firstly, the parties were antagonized by Ankara’s refusal to take a stance against ISIL throughout August and September, and then the refusal to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border into Kobane. Meanwhile, Ankara had lobbied for a buffer zone at the Turkish-Syrian border, which was seen as an invasion of Kurdish homelands.
Tensions further escalated during the Kobane protests in October and November. The HDP called on its base for unlimited street protests. The events that followed led to 30 deaths in over 40 cities. HDP supporters clashed with Islamist Kurdish forces in the east, and Turkish nationalist groups in the west.
Following the protests, Aysel Tuğluk, a prominent MP of the Kurdish movement, called to question whether responding differently to the Gezi protests, the corruption allegations, and the developments in Kobane would have altered Turkey’s current balance of power5.
Cemil Bayık, one of the PKK’s founders, warned that if Erdoğan does not alter his policies, Turkey would either face a coup as in Egypt, or a civil war comparable to Iraq and Syria. He called on the people of Turkey to engage in a struggle for democracy against the government6. Öcalan echoed Bayık’s coup threat, while maintaining that it was possible to resolve the Kurdish issue within 4-5 months7. It is unclear what either party means by ‘coup’.
The Kurds and the AKP’s Future
The AKP is desperate to rewrite the Turkish constitution following the 2015 general election. However, doing so without need of a national referendum requires 367 seats in parliament. Given recent polls, it is far from certain that the AKP will secure the number; the AKP’s votes are likely to fall as low as 37 per cent (from the current 49.8 per cent). According to findings on the votes of other parties, these results could even force the AKP into a coalition government8.
The expected fall in AKP votes is coupled by recent applications to the Constitutional Court regarding the abolition of the 10 per cent threshold for parliamentary elections. President Haşim Kılıç announced that if the court found the threshold to violate the Turkish constitution, the annulment would apply to the 2015 general election. The issue has initiated a national debate9.
The Kurds will prove as an integral support base for Erdoğan in the likely event. Firstly, Kurdish voters are often quoted as one of the main reasons that the AKP was able to increase its votes from 34 per cent in 2002 to 46 per cent in 2007; they are a group that maintain the party’s votes, let alone support it. Erdoğan’s need for Kurdish support is further strengthened by the fact that he only just managed to get elected in the first round of the presidential election in August with 51 per cent of the vote. Had the opposition candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu proved more popular, the elections would have gone to a second round where Kurdish support for Erdoğan would have been the decisive factor.
The Republican People’s Party?
Meanwhile, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main party in opposition, is rebranding itself before the 2015 general election. A key example is that the party abstained from voting to legalize the PKK negotiations, rather than voting against them as would be expected by the party’s traditional Kemalist stance. Leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stated that talks with Öcalan are an option, and that cooperation with the HDP in the 2015 general election is not off the table11. However, an alliance between the Kurdish movement and the CHP is unlikely, given that the CHP is unlikely to make a significant increase in its vote base, especially as it lost significant support during the presidential election.
The Future of the Kurdish Movement
Arguing that the Solution Process is on the verge of collapse would be rather short-sighted, given the strengthened position of the Kurds following the ISIL crisis, and the AKP’s need of Kurdish support. The negotiations were already legalized by the Law to End Terror and Strengthen Social Integration (known as the Solution Process Law) in July. While PKK figures such as Bayık have often announced termination of the process, Öcalan and the HDP still have faith. Despite acknowledging the slowdown, Ankara also has faith. It is unlikely that either side will give up on the political opportunities offered by the process.
Close cooperation with the AKP has cast doubt on the sincerity of the Kurdish movement’s often pronounced belief in democracy, given the AKP’s record of undemocratic and rights-violating policies. As long as the Kurdish movement backs the AKP in order to further its goals, it will be ceding to Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and injustices. The movement cannot argue that it is fighting for democracy and civil rights while cooperating with a regime that is increasingly attacking them by the day.
Given considerations for continued cooperation and the consolidation of Erdoğan’s presidential rule, the Kurdish movement will have to ask itself how it played a role in consolidating the repressive regime prevalent in Turkey today, that it often criticizes, threatens, and protests. Beyond doubt, this will require a clarification of what ordinary Kurds want out of the process.