Is fate of Kurdish issue tied to Erdogan's future?

Key Kurdish figures tell Al-Monitor the Kurdistan Workers Party is now the sole representative of the Kurdish people, and that they will not be satisfied simply with recognition of their cultural and linguistic rights.

al-monitor Plainclothes police officers tear down a billboard with a picture of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Diyarbakir, Feb. 11, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

turkey-pkk talks, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, kurds, kurdistan workers party, elections, abdullah ocalan

Apr 17, 2014

Despite sending strong signals that he intends to run for the Turkish presidency in August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again asserted that he remains undecided. He gathered his party’s lawmakers on April 16 to discuss the matter and announced, “I have not made my decision yet.” He added, “And I don’t approve of announcing names [for the presidential bid] at this point. There will be no chaos in the party if I decide to run or choose to stay [as the prime minister]. The most important thing is the institutional structure of our party.”

Erdogan’s stated position, however, defies reality simply because of his control-oriented, and some would say self-centered, leadership that dominates all aspects of his party and members’ actions. The party’s success is explained more by Erdogan’s leadership than its institutional structure. In fact, many party insiders tie the fate of the resolution of the Kurdish issue to the prime minister’s political future. They consider the Kurdish vote to be in Erdogan’s pocket if he decides to run in Turkey’s first direct election of its president.

Al-Monitor talked to some of the key Kurdish figures selected by Erdogan’s government to play a role in resolving the Kurdish issue. Their voices could reflect the way in which the government decides to approach this controversial issue. 

“There is no doubt that Erdogan will receive Kurdish support if he runs for the presidency,” said Sahismail Bedirhanoglu, head of a business association in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir and the man who put together a contact group aimed at fostering dialogue on Kurdish issues with the consent of the government. “The thing is, we concluded one election [on March 30] and stepped into the sphere of the presidential election. And this ongoing election season makes it more difficult for the government to take some crucial and much-needed steps to assure the advancement of this process. That raises the risk of this issue sliding once again into violence.”

Zubeyde Teker, a member of the government-appointed Wise People Commission, agrees. “Look, the Justice and Development Party [AKP] could consider this process as being equivalent to Erdogan. We don’t see it that way. They scared the people [by telling them] that the graft probe targeted this [Kurdish] process, but the truth is that corruption has always been widespread in this country, and the moral ground in the country is sinking lower everyday,” she told Al-Monitor. “In all sincerity, we couldn’t care less whether Erdogan gets the presidency or not. This process does not depend on Erdogan’s person, because the state decided to keep this process ongoing. [At the same time], we don’t feel like being dependent on this process to get our well-deserved rights.”

Defining the problem of the government as lacking ideology, Teker praised the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for its ideological standing. “The main thing about Zubeyde,” said Teker, referring to herself, "is that she loves [the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan very much. It is so fulfilling, especially as a Kurdish woman, to take the ideological walk with Ocalan,” she said to Al-Monitor. “I have stated this numerous times. I believe the state owes us an apology. The best way of doing that is to write a new civilian constitution that brings about real democracy.”

Teker heads the Federation of Law Solidarity Unions for Prisoners' and Convicts' Families and is the spokesperson for the group Freedom for Ocalan. “If the state carried out a coup on Feb. 28 [1997] against the Islamist politicians, then this government launched a coup against the Kurds’ legal political movement, Koma Civaken Kurdistan, on April 14, 2009. They have now released 48 of them [on April 13] and expect us to be happy about it. That just makes us feel more aggravated,” Teker said. “The state started to talk with Ocalan in 2006, and these people were not imprisoned then. They are playing a cat-and-mouse game with us. If they are sincere, all the PKK prisoners should be immediately released.”

Bedirhanoglu told Al-Monitor that the Kurds are now all united in support of the PKK. “I have argued against violence for many years, but the state failed to take a step toward the Kurds during the cease-fires since 1993, and that wiped out all other influential Kurdish voices. Ocalan and the PKK now represent the Kurds in this country. No one should be fool enough to deny it,” he asserted.

Sedat Yurttas, a former parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish Democracy Party (banned by the Constitutional Court in 1994), agreed. Yurttas, who works closely with the government by taking part in meetings of nongovernmental organizations, said, “We are witnessing a process of Ocalan walking in the footsteps of [the late South African leader Nelson] Mandela,” he told Al-Monitor. “Since he was imprisoned, he expanded his sphere of political influence. He improved his ability to analyze. He reached out to more people, including Turks, more than ever. It would be misleading to characterize him solely as an imprisoned individual.”

The question now is whether the PKK will be satisfied with full recognition of the Kurds' cultural rights. “This would be a very narrow perspective. One can only say such a naive thing if one is totally ignorant of what the PKK or the KCK [Kurdistan Communities Unit] is all about,” Teker said. “The issue is an all out democratization of this country, tearing down the old republic and rebuilding a whole new one.” Bedirhanoglu concurred, stating, “The Kurdish people will not settle on an agreement that [only] recognizes its cultural and linguistic rights. This is a political movement seeking a political outcome.”

Yurttas sees the situation in the same light. “Former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in 2004 vetoed the local governance law proposed by this government. People create a tempest in a teapot [now] when we talk about autonomy, but that law was going even beyond that. In five to 10 years, it will get easier to talk about these issues,” he told Al-Monitor. He added, “I attended a closed-door meeting in March 2013 where Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke. He is a visionary man, and he talked about the artificial borders that divide Kurdistan [spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria]. He talked about the need to make these borders irrelevant, just as they are on the European continent.”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Turkey

Cracks in Turkish-Russian ties begin to show
Semih Idiz | Defense/Security cooperation | Oct 23, 2020
Turkish lira hits new record low as central bank holds rates
Ayla Jean Yackley | | Oct 22, 2020
Turkey’s withdrawal in Idlib may be omen of war
Fehim Tastekin | | Oct 22, 2020
Trial in Turkey over death of prominent Kurdish lawyer postponed
Diego Cupolo | | Oct 21, 2020