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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The future for the Kurds after the elections

Kurdish MP Sebahat Tuncel has an op-ed in today's New York Times, in which she strongly criticizes the ruling AK Party for betraying the Kurds.

Tuncel argues that in order to avoid further violence and instability, Erdoğan now must
include Kurdish lawmakers in the process of drafting Turkey’s new Constitution, provide constitutional guarantees for the collective rights of the Kurdish people and accept our demand for autonomy that will allow for self-government and bring peace.
And she warns that if the AKP insists on continuing
the policy of violent suppression that it has pursued to date... Turkey could enter a more intense period of conflict than ever before.
She concludes the article with a plea:
The unjustified arrests and military operations must come to an end and Turkey’s Kurds, after decades of struggle, must be granted the right to learn and pray in our own language and exercise self-government in our cities and towns. 
These may seem like reasonable demands, but allowing self-government in the east would be a bitter pill for the Turkish nationalists. And I don't think (although I am speculating here) that Erdoğan is likely to try to reinvigorate the "Kurdish (or "democratic") opening," which has not just stalled but suffered several serious setbacks.

The first setback for the AKP was the triumphant and belligerent behavior of a group of formerly exiled PKK fighters upon their return to Turkey made possible by an amnesty that the AKP proclaimed as part of the opening. This outraged more Turks than just the nationalists.

And then the AKP (mistakenly, as it turned out) decided that the best way to gain a supermajority in the recent elections was to steal enough votes from the nationalist right-wing MH Party to put them under the 10% threshold. This failed, and the damage caused by the nationalist panderings by the AKP during the campaign have soured relations between the party and many Kurds, as Tuncel's op-ed indicates.

At the same time, Erdoğan does need opposition support for his plans to draft a new constitution, and some or all of that support could come from independent Kurdish MPs, and he has indicated that he is willing to adopt a consensual, inclusive, approach to rewriting the constitution. The elections are over and there is no longer any need for the kind of tough rhetoric that we saw in the lead-up to the elections.

Having said that, Kurdish leaders put forth at least three key demands, none of which will be an easy sell for the AKP. First, they want Kurdish children to be able to receive an education in their own language, not just be able to take Kurdish-language classes. This is highly controversial - when the issue was last up for debate in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament), debate was not only emotional, punches were thrown.

Second, they want to get rid of the article in the Turkish constitution that defines any citizen of Turkey as a "Turk." As Bogazici political science Professor Kemal Kirisci explains, the original intent was for this word to indicate a civic identity, but Kurdish critics argue that it has been interpreted as a statement of ethnic identity that excludes Kurds. This is also a highly explosive issue since it goes to the core of Turkish identity, but it would seem to me that it is not insoluble. A clever rewording of this phrase could satisfy all parties.

Third, the issue of autonomy. Traditionally, many in the Turkish Kemalist establishment have virulently opposed any such suggestions, arguing that Kurdish activists demand autonomy but aim for sovereignty and secession. This has been a no-go as it has been seen as the first step to the division of the country, something unthinkable in Turkish mainstream politics. But, to my surprise, the leader of the social democratic party CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, did come out more or less in favor of greater autonomy for local governments, including the Kurdish south-east, during the election campaign, probably in an attempt to court the Kurdish vote that was fleeing the AKP because of Erdoğan's turn to the right.

My tentative conclusion is therefore that if there is a will, there might be a way to resolve enough of these issues in a satisfactory way for Erdoğan to be able to enlist Kurdish support for a new constitution. But this is not an easy task, and I see no scenario where everyone is happy. Satisfying Kurdish demands will enrage nationalists. But ignoring them will enrage many Kurds as well as further damage Turkey's EU prospects, so it is the least likely alternative, in my opinion. Either way, things will get very interesting in the months ahead.

Arab Spring, Kurdish Summer -


  1. Thanks for a very interesting text. It's always refreshing to read an article about Turkey that actually mentions the Kurds and the issue of Kurdistan -across the articifial borders that Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have put up between the Kurdish nation. However much they try we are one people, with one common history of oppression and genocide, with one language and one culture. And the issue of independence is only a matter of time. And the world needs to open their eyes for this - and they will, thanks to the likes of you. Great work!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Anonymous. This is undoubtedly an issue of great importance, not just for Turkey's EU accession prospects.


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