The Kurdish Initiative: Designed to Fail?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

There's been some hand-wringing in the media lately over the future of the so-called "Kurdish initiative"--a set of proposals put forth by the government of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to end the rebellion of the pro-independence PKK and create a new set of laws making it easier for Kurdish language and culture to become part of the public sphere in Turkey. This is what Yigal Schleifer writes:
As the Turkish press reports today, ten members of a group 34 Kurds who returned to Turkey last October after several years in exile in northern Iraq have been arrested after being charged with supporting the PKK. The group's return (several of them were former PKK members) was one of the first visible signs -- and tests -- of the government's new initiative (sometimes referred to as the "Kurdish opening"). More groups of exiled Kurds were supposed to come after the first one, but the heros' welcome given to the initial group and the fact that jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said they returned at his command, turned the whole thing into something very costly for the government, and plans for further returns were put on hold.
I think the "Kurdish initiative can be viewed primarily in two contexts. Firstly, it's part of a larger effort by Erdogan's government to overhaul the system in Turkey. The threat of Kurdish separatism and the threat of Islamist rule have for decades constituted the two bogeymen that Turkish political and civilian rulers have invoked as explanations for defending authoritarian rule. As the leader of a party that is derided by its opponents as "Islamist," Erdogan has systematically worked to undermine a number of the taboos that have formed the basis of Turkish political culture since the 1980s (and earlier, in some cases). Thus we have not only seen a "Kurdish opening" and efforts by Erdogan to create a larger place for Islamic piety in the public sphere, but also an "Armenian opening ," an "opening" towards Arab states in the region like Syria, and--most importantly--a concentrated effort on the part of government-supported authorities to crush the influence of the military in politics through the kangaroo-court process known as Ergenekon.

The second context of the "Kurdish initiative" is more prosaic--it's an effort by Erdogan to win the support of Kurdish voters in the conservative southeast who are already inclined to vote for a religious-oriented party like Erdogan's AKP. While the AKP holds a majority in parliament, support for the party has been slipping for some time. Last year, in nationwide municipal elections, the AKP won about 39% of the vote, down from the 47% share they'd won in national parliamentary elections in 2007. One part of the country where the AKP needs to do better if the party is to hold on to power after the next parliamentary elections is the southeast, where the Democratic Society Party (DTP), a party that was associated with the cause of liberalizing laws pertaining to Kurdish culture and language in the public sphere, was particularly strong. 

In the municipal elections of March 29, 2009, the DTP received just 5.42 percent of the vote nationally, but scored some important victories in the southeast of Turkey, where they took four important municipalities from the AK Party. The AK Party had tried hard to win Kurdish votes in the southeast, including an attempt by the AK Party governor of the province of Tunceli to distribute more than 5 million Turkish Lira's worth of applicances and electronic goods to voters. Ten days before the elections, Prime Minister Erdogan pledged to set up a Kurdish-language radio station and even spoke Kurdish himself at a campaign rally (something which is against the law in Turkey).

A Kurdish-language banner prior to last year's municipal elections.  

In December of 2009, the DTP was closed down, ending a legal process which had begun years earlier. In my opinion, the "Kurdish opening" to a large extent constituted an effort by Erdogan to position the AKP to receive Kurdish votes in the southeast in response to the political vacuum that the closure of the DTP has created.

As was the case with Turgut Ozal's discussion of his Kurdish roots in the 1980s, however, the "Kurdish opening" has been largely symbolic. Foreigners writing on Turkey and AKP sympathizers in the Turkish media have made a big deal about it, but the "Kurdish opening" never addressed structural challenges to the Kurdish cause that exist on just about every level of society in Turkey. Creating Kurdish-language radio and television were overdue moves, and allowing Kurdish villages to change their names back to the original Kurdish created good press. But it also appears clear that, at the local level, little has changed. People are still harassed by local officials, and even children are brought up on charges for crimes related to Kurdish expression.

The "Kurdish initiative" may have struck some people as a harbinger of real change, but to me it seems like a rather cynical ploy to win some people's votes and other people's approval without really changing anything. While the steps that were taken in this initiative were without question welcome, it's hard to see what has really changed in a conflict that continues to tear at the very heart of Turkey.