Report: Turkey presidential election 2014

Turkey-Kurd peace process faces uncertain future as Erdogan stands for president

Lawyer Edip Yigit in  Diyarbakir
Lawyer Edip Yigit in Diyarbakir Tony Cross

Turkey’s Kurdish minority has high hopes of the peace process started under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is standing for president in Sunday's election. But, with turmoil over the border in Iraq and Syria and Erdogan using divisive rhetoric in the election campaign, it may not be plain sailing.


Diyarbakir lawyer Edip Yigit is defending several Kurdish activists arrested in 2009 and the ensuing years.

They are being released now because of a new law banning holding people without charge for more than five years.

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Although they were members of the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the guerrilla movement that took up arms to win a separate Kurdish state decades ago, he says they posed no threat to security.

PKK leader Abduallah Ocalan, currently detained by the Turkish state, has declared a truce and they are loyal followers of the party line.

“These people had clean records,” he says. “In court they could find no crime to charge with them.”

The cases are a late example of a dirty war against the PKK that reached its height under a secularist coalition in the 1990s.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is negotiating with Ocalan.

“Today there is a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurds and so, to me, this was a big mistake,” comments Yigit.

He blames the arrests on “parallel structures” in the Turkish state, which are running on automatic, regardless of the moves towards peace.

Kurds welcome the peace process - and most prefer Erdogan's AKP to its secularist rivals - but remain suspicious of the Turkish state’s intentions, notably because of the heavy military presence throughout the country, especially in the south-east, which leads them to suspect that the army remains ready to start a new anti-PKK offensive.

The AKP’s openness to negotiations is usually attributed to several factors – pressure on human rights from the European Union, which the government was trying to join, a less firm commitment to the nationalism of Turkey’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the Ocalan’s capture putting the government in a strong bargaining position.

But the narrative in the south-east, which Yigit appears to agree with, is that Ocalan took the initiative.

That’s the argument of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the latest mutation of the left-wing pro-Kurdish-rights party, that is backing Selhettin Demirtas in the presidential election whose first round is on Sunday..

“I can tell you that we are the guarantors of this peace process,” says HDP official Meral Danis Beshtas. “Because if there was no Mr Ocalan or HDP fighting for this peace process it wouldn’t work on its own.”

Erdogan is dragging out the process, she claims.

“He wants to make it longer all the time but we are struggling against him.”

Demirtas voters sums up their aspirations in a call for “democracy”, by which they tend to mean equal treatment by the state and an end to discrimination and they are deeply suspicious of Ankara-based parties.

“In the past even the Kurdish language was forbidden, because of one word you could be put in jail for 20 years.” recalls Kasri, a labourer hanging around in Dyarbakir’s bazaar. “Not only this, they killed people, they tortured people for many years, so how can I believe these parties democratic?”

He’s happy about the peace process but wants it to bring change.

“For about one year nobody is dying. It means a lot that people can sleep, people can be happy, people can work. But one thing, we want democracy – for everyone, not only for Kurds or Turks, for everyone who lives in Turkey.”

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent as local peshmerga and Syrian Kurd fighters fight the Islamic State (ex-Isis) armed fundamentalists and the Iraqi state loses ground to the south, might be expected to strengthen Turkey’s Kurds.

But that would be to discount the Kurds’ long history of internecine squabbles.

Regional government President Massoud Barzani, who is reported to have been acting as a facilitator in contacts between the PKK and the Turkish government, has proved an inconstant ally to the PKK and seems to regard Ocalan as a rival rather than a comrade.

Economic considerations may also undermine his status as an honest broker. Iraqi Kurdistan is now more than solvent thanks to exports of oil to Israel that must pass through Turkey.

Little wonder then that Barzani has promised Erdogan to “play a pacifying role in eastern Turkey and […] help the Turkish Kurds to take their place within the Turkish nation” and that Turkey has granted legal recognition to a new Turkish branch of Barzani’s Kuridsh Democratic Party (KDP-T).

“Today the Turkish state understands that it cannot challenge the Iraqi state and so they had to accept these people,” comments Yigit. “On the other hand, it was very good for Turkey to have trade with these people and get a warm relationship with them. Why? Because of petrol.”

Even with Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government security forces reportedly trying to prevent fighters opposed to the peace process passing into Turkish territory, there have been sporadic clashes between the Turkish military and armed groups, whose affiliation is unclear, undermining confidence in the peace process in the eyes of some Kurds and even elements in the Turkish general staff.

Erdogan has not hesitated to use divisive rhetoric during the election campaign, pointing out that Demirtas is from the Yazidi minority as well as lashing out at Alevis, Armenians and Jews, indicating that change of tack on the Kurdish question is possible if he is elected president.


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