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Turkish opposition courts Kurds in trip to Erbil

The Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s main opposition party, has sent a senior delegation to Iraq's Kurdistan Region, perhaps because popular elections have become difficult to win without Kurdish votes.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey’s main opposition party has embarked on an unprecedented tour to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in a bid to shed its anti-Kurdish image in the run-up to nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in 2023.

Senior figures from the pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) were received at the highest level in the Kurdistan Regional Government, meeting in turn with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP), Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and President Nechirvan Barzani.

KRG sources described the encounters as cordial and said the delegation had voiced its support for a democratic solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem with a consensus forged in the parliament for addressing the Kurds’ demands for greater autonomy.

They expressed “contrition at not having made the journey far earlier,” one of the sources told Al-Monitor.

The KDP and Nechirvan Barzani in particular, have very close ties with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Diversifying those relations is in the Iraqi Kurds’ interests as well, particularly at a time when the Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are looking electorally fragile.

Roj Girasun is the founder of RAWEST, a research and polling outfit based in Diyarbakir, the Kurds’ informal capital in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey. He said the CHP’s trip to Iraqi Kurdistan would resonate positively among Turkey’s Kurds. “It will give them greater faith in future steps the CHP takes with regard to the Kurdish issue. At the same time, it sends a message that the CHP acknowledges that the Kurdish issue is one that transcends Turkey’s borders and creates the feeling that the CHP can in the future take a bolder stand on Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] as well,” Girasun told Al-Monitor.

Nurullah Edemen, the president of the Diyarbakir Industrialists and Business People’s Association, said the CHP’s Erbil trip was an “overdue” yet significant portent of change in Turkish politics.

The delegation is being led by CHP deputy chair Oguzhan Salici, who together with the Istanbul provincial chair, Canan Kaftancioglu, engineered a tactical alliance with the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the 2019 municipal elections. The alliance allowed the CHP to topple incumbent AKP mayors in Ankara and Istanbul for the first time since 1994 and showed that Erdogan is not as invincible as he seems.

The consensus now is that popular elections are difficult to win without Kurdish votes. Recent opinion polls suggest that support for the AKP has shrunk to as low as 25%, a first. Unsurprisingly, Erdogan is now scrambling to woo back the pious Kurds who until recently voted for him in droves.

Senior AKP officials have been sending out feelers in Diyarbakir in recent weeks, suggesting that talks may resume with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but without divulging details of their potential substance. All that’s been shared is that the old format no longer applies, meaning the HDP and the PKK won’t be at the table.

Talks between the government and Ocalan collapsed along with a two-and-a-half-year cease-fire in July 2015 because of a number of factors. One was the fear generated by a US-backed and PKK-linked Kurdish group that expanded its control over northeast Syria. The other was the HDP’s refusal to back Erdogan’s plans for greater presidential powers, which he managed to wrest anyway in a controversial and narrowly won referendum in 2017.

The AKP has since unleashed an all-out military campaign against the PKK, with much of its fury trained on Iraqi Kurdistan, where Ocalan’s top lieutenants are based. Equipped with its increasingly sophisticated drones, Turkey has put the PKK squarely on the defensive, picking off a string of medium-level commanders in targeted strikes in recent months.

The PKK’s setbacks work to the KDP’s advantage, too, as the group has begun to pose a burgeoning challenge to its popularity.

Back at home, the Turkish government has forced out dozens of HDP mayors and arrested large numbers of HDP officials and lawmakers, most notably its charismatic former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas. Some 12 former HDP lawmakers and six former mayors are currently in prison. The HDP is facing closure over specious terror charges. Expressions of Kurdish identity are once again under assault.

Erdogan, who once famously said he would “drink hemlock” if need be to resolve the Kurdish issue, claimed during a recent visit to Diyarbakir that the peace process wasn’t over.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how he is going to persuade the Kurds of the idea without easing the repression. The catch is that any gestures toward the Kurds would alienate the AKP’s allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It was perhaps to create space for Kurdish maneuvering that the government has drafted legislation to lower the threshold to win seats in the parliament from 10% to 7%.

The change means that the MHP, whose numbers have also melted, can get into parliament without running on a joint AKP ticket and also frees up the AKP to flirt with the Kurds without hurting the MHP. Or so Erdogan believes.

Erdogan also seems to be banking on the PKK’s weakness in the battlefield — the militants are desperate for a cease-fire — and Ocalan’s continued sway over the group to allow him to dictate the terms of any deal that he could sell as a major win ahead of the elections. The question of why Ocalan would risk his popular legitimacy without securing major concessions remains unanswered.

Teaming up with the Kurds is not risk-free for the CHP either. Indeed, when a delegation of opposition lawmakers traveled to Washington recently, the HDP was not invited. Catering to its nationalist constituents, the CHP applauds Turkey’s military forays against PKK-linked groups in northeast Syria and it opposed the Iraqi Kurds’ 2017 referendum on independence. The CHP calls its Kurdish outreach unit the “East Desk,” presumably because the term “Kurd” remains radioactive.

In a similar vein, the CHP delegation in Iraqi Kurdistan insisted that one of its main purposes was to share the party’s proposal to establish a “Middle East Peace and Cooperation Organization” that would bring together Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq “to discuss and resolve” the region’s problems. The news reportedly elicited a broad smile from Masrour Barzani, who reminded his visitors that whenever those countries teamed up it was generally “at the  Kurds' expense.” 

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