BRUSSELS — Landmark presidential and parliamentary elections that will determine the future course of Turkey, a major regional power and a critical member of the NATO alliance, are due to take place on May 14.
Turkey will either continue its downward spiral into economic decline and authoritarianism as it drifts ever closer to Russia under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or shift back toward the democratic path and economic orthodoxy under a new government. For the first time, after more than two decades of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, the opposition led by Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has a shot at winning both races. However, it can only do so with the support of Turkey’s third-largest faction, the Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party (HDP).
One of the biggest challenges currently facing Kilicdaroglu is how to secure the HDP’s backing without alienating nationalists within his own party, the six-party opposition alliance known as the “Table of Six” and the broader public.
The HDP is facing closure on the grounds that it takes its cues from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a claim HDP leaders deny. Scores of HDP lawmakers have been prosecuted and jailed on those same charges, together with democratically elected HDP mayors who were ejected from office and replaced by government appointees.
There is no denying that broad swaths of the HDP’s electorate harbor varying degrees of sympathy for the PKK, support that dips and peaks depending on the level of state repression. There are few families in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region who do not have relatives, either distant or close, jailed for alleged links to the PKK or for fighting in their ranks.
What the PKK and its affiliates have to say about politics still resonates with many ordinary Kurds.
The challenge facing the HDP is having to take those views into account while setting clear boundaries with the Abdullah Ocalan-inspired movement.
In recent years the HDP’s own success, scoring a record 13.2% of the vote in the June 2015 elections under its now-jailed former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, inspired new generations of Turks and Kurds in Turkey and the diaspora alike.
Direct peace talks between the Turkish state and the imprisoned PKK leader and a mutually observed cease-fire ignited hopes for lasting peace. However, the talks collapsed in 2015 and two and a half years of cease-fire ended in July that year. A historic opportunity was squandered over Erdogan’s personal ambitions, PKK overreach and state paranoia over Kurdish gains in neighboring Syria.
The Turkish army has since escalated its war against the PKK using its fleet of killer drones to target top-level cadres in Iraq and Syria. Since 2016, Turkish forces and their Sunni opposition proxies have carried out three major ground offensives against the PKK’s Syrian allies: the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which form the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The PKK is on the defensive in Iraq. Its operational capacity inside Turkey has been curtailed. The PKK’s urban uprising in 2015 that led to the leveling of entire neighborhoods across the southeast alienated many Kurds. Recruitment within Turkey has reportedly waned.
Despite concerted campaigns to get delisted, the PKK remains formally designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
For all such setbacks, the Ocalan-inspired Kurdish movement has expanded into a global network spanning several continents, with its sympathizers holding municipal and parliamentary seats in European towns and capitals and organizing on university campuses in the United States. The success of the YPG’s women fighters against the Islamic State catapulted them to universal acclaim and partnership with the US-led coalition that defeated the jihadis’ proto-caliphate in Syria, with the PKK effectively working with US forces on the ground.
However, global attention is now focused on the war in Ukraine and many Kurds worry that the United States may eventually withdraw its forces from Syrian Kurdistan or “Rojava,” leaving the Kurdish-led autonomous administration there exposed. Would a change in government in Ankara accelerate the unravelling of the US-SDF partnership as the United States seeks to turn a new page with Turkey? The question is a pressing one.
Amid such uncertainties, the PKK’s military and civilian leaders are plotting a new course.
On Feb. 10, citing humanitarian grounds, the PKK declared that it was calling a unilateral cease-fire in the wake of the massive earthquakes that devastated Turkey’s southern region on Feb. 6. Coming just months before the elections, the cease-fire has broader implications and PKK leaders acknowledge that their main focus remains Turkey.
To discuss all these developments, Al-Monitor sat down separately with the two top civilian leaders of the Ocalan-led political and military organization, Zubeyir Aydar and Remzi Kartal, in Brussels on March 9. Their assessments were measured, their tone moderate — a far cry from the rigidly ideological rhetoric that is commonly espoused by the PKK’s commanders in the field. Their message was clear: Erdogan is not interested in peace with Turkey’s Kurds. Turkey urgently needs a change in government.
The first interview, presented here, is with Zubeyir Aydar, whose formal title is executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union. The following is the text of the interview that was conducted in Turkish and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Al-Monitor: The PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire on Feb. 10, citing the need for all parties to focus on humanitarian relief in the aftermath of the Feb. 6 earthquakes. Can you give us further insight as to the reasoning behind this decision — which is valid solely within Turkey’s borders, is that correct?
Aydar: The earthquakes directly affected 20 million people in Turkey and Syria. This huge disaster naturally affected both countries at every level. We as a movement could not just stand by passively. We could not say, “Let’s take advantage of this situation and carry out different military operations.” We could not have carried on as before and added to people’s suffering. We had an internal discussion and decided to pause our activities. We were not acting in response to any demand by any party or the like.
We would, however, have liked the opposite side [the Turkish state] to comply and reciprocate. This is not the first time we've made such a decision. We did the same following the big earthquake in 1999. We have decided to pause our operations not only in Turkey but in all the theaters where we are active. We called on all our armed forces to stand down and to refrain from attacks unless attacked themselves.
Al-Monitor: Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told the Washington-based Kurdish Peace Institute in an interview that unnamed “interested parties” had conveyed their calls to the PKK to declare a cease-fire through him. The Syrian Democratic Council President, Ilham Ahmed, confirmed that one of those parties was the United States.
Aydar: I am not in a position to comment on that and I am not privy to such information. Our call was prompted by the earthquake. It was a humanitarian gesture.
Al-Monitor: Your cease-fire call does not bind the Syrian Democratic Forces, though, does it?
Aydar: The Syrian Democratic Forces have never adopted a hostile posture toward Turkey. They are not at war with Turkey. Turkey is attacking them unprovoked all the time. The SDF is in a defensive posture. Turkey is playing dumb, turning a blind eye to our cease-fire decision. Indeed, the Turkish government justified the army’s delay in participating in rescue efforts in the earthquake zone on the grounds of its war against us. If anything, it is escalating the war against us on all fronts.
Al-Monitor: You said you paused your activities after the 1999 earthquake. Did the government at that time respond differently than the current one?
Aydar: No, it did not. Our armed forces were pulling out of Turkey in keeping with [Ocalan’s] orders. Yet they were attacking us at every opportunity. This is the mentality of the Turkish state.
Al-Monitor: Given these circumstances, how long will this cease-fire last? Will you sustain it until at least after the elections, for example?
Aydar: It would unsuitable to talk about dates at this time. When the May 14 date for the elections was first articulated, we had not yet announced our cease-fire. The elections are naturally on our agenda as well. We will therefore be debating our approach to the elections.
What I can say is that we regard the elections as being terribly important and we will do everything within our power to ensure that the elections are conducted in a democratic environment without allowing room for bad-faith actors to use us as cover for malign purposes.
Al-Monitor: What do you mean?
Aydar: Lest we forget, even before the election date was announced, Erdogan revealed his campaign strategy. The opening shot was to have been another military intervention in Rojava. The bomb attack in Istanbul that they tried to pin on the SDF? Everybody knows it had nothing to do with the SDF. Yet they were hoping to use it as a pretext to attack Rojava and they did in fact start an air campaign. They would have mounted a ground incursion as well, but they did not get a green light [from Russia and the United States] for that. There’s a pattern here. Don’t forget that prior to the 2018 presidential campaign, Turkey invaded Afrin. On that occasion, most of the Turkish opposition rallied around the government. Erdogan exploited nationalist sentiments as a propaganda tool ahead of the elections. Had there not been an earthquake, a ground attack would have ensued. But then again, the risk of one has not abated.
Al-Monitor: Are you saying there could be a ground operation against northeast Syria prior to the elections to create a rally-round-the-flag effect?
Aydar: It is hard to predict what the government will do, particularly with regard to Rojava. By creating a nationalist wave, Erdogan would be seeking to splinter the opposition, to draw away nationalist elements inside the CHP and the [conservative nationalist Iyi or Good Party].
Al-Monitor: Who do you think will win the elections?
Aydar: Based on my long years of observing Turkish politics I would say with confidence that if an election that resembles a democratic one were to be held, Erdogan will lose. Recent developments bear this out. Let’s look at [Iyi leader] Meral Aksener’s decision to walk away from the Table of Six opposition parties. In my view, that move was orchestrated by deep state actors to sabotage the opposition bloc. Let’s not forget what happened in 2018, when [then-chief of general staff and current Minister of Defense] Hulusi Akar flew his helicopter into [former Turkish President] Abdullah Gul’s garden and dissuaded him from running for president. You don’t visit people in a helicopter. That’s not normal, is it? It was a direct threat.
And we now hear that Akar met with Aksener before she sought to torpedo the opposition.
But the attempt backfired and her party almost collapsed. She was forced to return to the Table of Six because of the reaction she faced from the public and from within her own party.
This points to an overwhelming desire for change among ordinary people. People want this government to go; they want Erdogan to go. We want him to go! They, therefore, held her responsible for jeopardizing that possibility. I repeat: If there is a minimally democratic election, Erdogan will lose. What we don’t know, however, is to what extent he will resort to fraud, whether he will mobilize the state apparatus, the security forces, in his own favor. What we do know is that the ballot boxes in Kurdistan [Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces] are not secure, particularly in rural areas. Many people will be threatened in the name of the state. Many ballot boxes will be confiscated in the name of the state.
Al-Monitor: What we also know is that the opposition cannot win without the support of Kurdish voters. And we also know that Meral Aksener is opposed to cooperating with the HDP. How does the opposition square that circle?
Aydar: We cannot say if she will persist in her anti-Kurdish rhetoric. However, as I already mentioned, regardless, the Erdogan block will definitely use the Kurdish card, call it PKK, HDP, it doesn’t matter, to fracture the opposition along nationalist lines.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s nomination is of significance? He is an Alevi and is from a Kurdish-majority province, Dersim, and has Kurdish roots. Does this point to positive change in Turkey?
Aydar: We hope that the CHP does change. There is some change, but it’s far from sufficient. It’s been 100 years since the CHP was founded. It needs to keep in step with the times. But it has a long way to go.
Al-Monitor: What does the HDP or the Kurdish movement writ large expect at a minimum from the opposition in order to lend its support?
Aydar: All of Turkey’s problems cannot be solved with a single election. But this election can open the door to change. If the existing regime remains in power, Turkey will descend into chaos and become more of a dictatorship. Turkey will become another Syria. To avert this outcome, there needs to be a change in government. The responsibility to effect that change lies on the opposition bloc of six parties, not on the HDP. Everyone needs to act cautiously.
Al-Monitor: The main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said he would be visiting the HDP.
Aydar: That’s perfectly normal. The opposite would not be. The HDP’s views and demands need to be taken into account. This is a party that commands 15% of the vote, which in turn will determine the fate of the elections. So a simple courtesy visit is clearly not enough.
Al-Monitor: What are the minimum demands that need to be fulfilled in order for the HDP to back the opposition?
Aydar: Look, I cannot speak on behalf of the HDP. But Turkey is mired in corruption. There is no rule of law. All of its institutions have been hollowed out. Human rights abuses are widespread and routine. The economy is collapsing. Change is needed for all Turkish citizens, not just the Kurds. But at a minimum, to borrow your language, the Kurds’ right to education in their mother tongue needs to be granted. The opposition says the Kurdish problem needs to be solved within Turkey’s boundaries and within the parliament. Kemal Kilicdaroglu has promised to heal wounds. If so, he must do so first and foremost with the Kurdish people. Until you fix the Kurdish problem, new dictators will always be produced in Turkey.
Al-Monitor: Let’s assume the opposition does win and it seeks to solve the Kurdish problem via parliamentary consensus. If an agreement is struck, one that satisfies the demands of the PKK — and what I mean by that is if the conditions that led to the emergence of the PKK are no longer present — would the PKK even need to be part of that process?
Aydar: No. You cannot have peace by sidelining the PKK and least of all Abdullah Ocalan. If you are seeking to solve the Kurdish problem, all the relevant actors need to be part of that process. The HDP’s means are limited. You cannot get the HDP to decide what the fate of the [PKK’s] armed forces will be. The HDP does not have that authority.
Al-Monitor: But the HDP can serve as a mediator, as it has in the past?
Aydar: Yes, it can. But without speaking to the ones who carry the guns and the ones who paid such a high price to this day to secure their rights, you cannot solve the Kurdish problem. You can’t say, “I am going to solve the Kurdish problem but Abdullah Ocalan and his comrades can remain in jail.” That is no solution.
Al-Monitor: What if in addition to the scenario I described, a political amnesty were granted? Could that be a start?
Aydar: We are a seasoned organization and have sat down and negotiated with the state in the past. We would not rebuff any step that helps to secure a solution. But it is too early to speculate and provide firm answers. In principle, any step that serves peace would be positively received by our movement. But it would be wrong to say, we would agree to this or that at this stage. We are not starting from scratch. There are documents, road maps from previous negotiations with the state. There is sufficient data and knowledge of the stances embraced. It’s a matter of having the will to see the process through.
Al-Monitor: Does the status of the Kurds in northeast Syria need to be part of the Kurdish peace process in Turkey?
Aydar: The Kurdish problem is not restricted to a single country. It concerns Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria and it affects their relations with other countries. If you recall, when the last peace talks were still ongoing, Erdogan made clear that Syria was a red line for him. He was fiercely opposed to the Kurds in Syria being granted political status. The Kurdish issue in all of these countries are interconnected. You cannot say, "I will seek a solution with Turkey’s Kurds but I will do my best to ensure that the Kurds in Iraq and Syria remain repressed.”
If Turkey is hostile to Kurds beyond its borders, that is because it is hostile to those within in its own borders. Thus, when Turkey makes peace with its own Kurds, this will naturally be seen by the rest of the Kurds as a message of friendship, as a sort of bridge. When the peace process is resumed there will of course be an order of priorities. But peace in Turkey will give it enormous openings with the rest of the Kurds. Turkey will go to them with culture, with trade, not with guns. The common borders will no longer be ones where dead bodies are exchanged. We felt the fruits even during those unsuccessful peace talks. Our leader Abdullah Ocalan has always said that the Kurds outside Turkey also need to be involved in the peace process in some way. Otherwise, the peace process cannot succeed.
Al-Monitor: But Turkey cannot legislate the future of the Kurds residing in other sovereign states.
Aydar: All that is being sought of Turkey is to withdraw its armed forces from [Iraqi] Kurdistan and from Syria and to stop attacking Kurds. We aren’t telling Turkey to give the Kurds in neighboring countries this or that right, though we do support the demands of the Kurds for democracy and full equality in Syria.
Al-Monitor: Final question: Do you believe there is any chance that Erdogan will reach out to the Kurds again in the hope of drawing their support in the elections?
Aydar: No, he won’t. When he came to us in the past, Erdogan was never sincere. It was always tactical. We gave him a chance. Relying on past experience, I can say that while he may play some games, he will never come to the Kurds with true intentions of making peace.