Kurdish Consensus at Home Can Serve Ankara Abroad

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - Middle East Institute | Feb 09, 2012

This Opinion first appeared in The National on February 10, 2012

Despite his popularity at home and abroad, it’s not all roses for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Far from having zero problems with neighbors, Turkey these days is virtually surrounded by neighbors with problems – Greece’s imploding economy, Syria’s civil war, Iraq’s tenuous stability and Iran’s troublesome nuclear program.

And yet Turkey’s most pressing problem remains a long-standing internal one: how to deal with its large Kurdish minority and their demands for greater recognition of culture, language and status.

That’s why drafting a new constitution is so critical. A more democratic, inclusive constitution has the potential to help solve Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem.

Tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurdish community (estimated to number approximately 14 million out of a total population of 75 million) rose significantly after the June 2011 elections, in which Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a third term. They were exacerbated last month when the Turkish military accidentally killed 34 Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border. The army had mistaken them for members of the Iraq-based PKK terrorist group.

Earlier in his tenure as prime minister, Mr Erdogan signaled a stark change in Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds. In a 2005 speech in Diyarbakir, the spiritual capital of the Kurdish nationalist movement, Mr Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to admit that Turkey had mishandled the Kurdish question and to commit his government to taking a more inclusive, less security-focused approach to the issue.

In 2009, the AKP launched the Kurdish Opening (later called the Democratic Opening) which aimed to extend greater rights to all of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minority groups, including the Kurds. In addition, the government promised legal reforms to combat discrimination and lift obstacles to all-day Kurdish broadcasting by private channels.

Unfortunately, the opening stalled shortly after, when nearly three dozen PKK members returned from Iraq as part of a reconciliation deal between the PKK and the Turkish authorities. The PKK cadres were greeted with a hero’s welcome by local Kurds, a reception portrayed in the Turkish media as a victory for the PKK. The coverage created a nationalist backlash.

The initial optimism surrounding the Democratic Opening soon gave way to a spate of legal cases against the repatriated PKK members, and a wave of arrests followed. Several mayors, elected officials and thousands of Kurdish activists were put in jail. In response, the PKK attacked military outposts and Mr Erdogan’s election bus in May 2011.

The June 2011 elections were seen as a new opportunity to solve the Kurdish problem: Mr Erdogan made it a campaign issue, and his party received nearly 50 per cent of the popular vote. Since then, however, hopes for a renewed Kurdish initiative have been put on hold after the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) boycotted parliament in protest over the arrest of five of their elected colleagues, and the unseating of one member on “terrorism” charges.

The summer of 2011 witnessed more PKK violence, sparking air strikes and artillery raids by the Turkish military against PKK bases in northern Iraq. Today, the reform process initiated by the Democratic Opening has stalled, and the basic Kurdish demands remain unmet.

Take the Kurdish language, for example. Although Kurdish is no longer banned, the constitution does not allow its use in any official context. In 2009, the government allowed Kurdish institutes to open in universities in Mardin, Mus, and Bingol, but there is still no primary or secondary education in Kurdish and the government has ruled out general Kurdish language education. Turkish law still does not allow official public services to be conducted in Kurdish in cities where the majority of the population speaks mostly, and in some cases only, Kurdish.

Another contentious issue concerns the anti-terror law, which is vague, lacks clarity and is subject to arbitrary application. Since 2009, thousands of Kurdish activists, including elected officials, have been arrested on terrorism charges. These arrests not only alienate Kurds, but also marginalize the Kurdish national political movement, thereby leaving no political space for communication.

The most important tool for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question and the challenges it presents would be a new, non-discriminatory, pluralist constitution that could address all these issues. Last fall, after the BDP boycott ended, a parliamentary constitutional reconciliation commission consisting of four political parties, including the BDP, was tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Approval of a new constitution, however, requires a national consensus on contentious issues like citizenship, the anti-terror law, the right to education in Kurdish, and the lowering of the national electoral threshold: this will prove extremely challenging to achieve.

Indeed, a recent study by Has University in Istanbul indicates that such a consensus is a long way off. The study found an increase since 2010 of people who think a resolution of the Kurdish issue and PKK terrorism is possible only through military means.

Given the increasing polarization of Turkish society, it is imperative that the government exerts greater effort to pass a new, democratic constitution. After all, the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue is important not just for Turkey’s internal democratization process, but also to firmly establish Turkey as a regional power able to set an example for its turbulent neighbors.