x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Major shift in Turkey on Kurdish problem

Even the military has voiced no objections to the government's radical proposal to find a peaceful solution to the separatist struggle.

ISTANBUL // The emergence of the Kurdish problem as issue No 1 in Ankara has started to affect the political game in the Turkish capital. After 25 years of war between the military and rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has cost around 40,000 lives but has not produced a clear victory for the state, there is a growing consensus that the conflict should be brought to an end by peaceful means. That development has political parties scrambling to find their place in a changing political landscape.

The leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, whose first name means "state" in Turkish, has become the most vocal critic of the Turkish government's initiative to end the long-running Kurdish conflict by democratic means. Mr Bahceli even attacked the position of the military, a rare thing to do for a Turkish politician. Editors are having a field day: "State against the state," ran a headline in the newspaper Taraf.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has secured the backing of several political parties, labour unions, business associations, much of the media and even that of the military leadership for work on his programme to solve the Kurdish question peacefully. In a meeting last week, the national security council, which includes the president, top generals and key government ministers, asked the interior ministry to continue with its work on the initiative. That decision has been widely interpreted as a blessing by the generals for government efforts.

The government's expected plan, to be finalised before the end of the year, foresees more rights for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds to use their own language, an economic stimulus package for the Kurdish region and possibly an improved amnesty offer for lower-ranking PKK fighters, press reports have said. For nationalists like the MHP, the third biggest party in parliament, that is pure treason. "Turkey has arrived at a vital road juncture," Mr Bahceli said in a statement posted on the party's website last weekend. "It is clear as daylight that the prime minister's project, which he wants society to adopt, is aimed at fulfilling, step by step, the demands of ethnic separatists," he said, accusing the United States and Iraqi Kurds of being behind the Kurdish initiative.

Without mentioning the military by name, Mr Bahceli also criticised the general staff for giving the green light to the government's plans in the national security council. The mere fact that the council took up the issue "does not make the issue legitimate", the MHP leader said. Mr Bahceli turned down a subsequent invitation by the president, Abdullah Gul, for talks about the Kurdish initiative. Even critics of the government have scolded the MHP and the biggest opposition force, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, for refusing to talk about a Kurdish plan. "Should we sacrifice another 40,000 children?" Zulfu Livaneli, a composer and former CHP deputy, wrote in a column for Vatan newspaper. "Even the general staff talks about this issue. Why does the opposition not talk about it? Are they more military than the military?"

Analysts say public support for an initiative to solve the Kurdish question by democratic means lies somewhere between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of the electorate. "The Kurdish initiative will change the political tableau in Turkey completely because the front lines in politics will be drawn anew," the respected pollster Tarhan Erdem told Taraf. The change is being driven by a realisation that military force has proven to be inadequate to deal with the Kurdish question and the PKK, the political scientist Dogu Ergul told Turkish media this month. "It has been understood that the methods that have been tried so far were not successful and that new methods have to be used." That is the new situation Turkey's political parties have to adapt to.

"The Kurdish issue has arrived in the centre of Turkish politics and has turned into a fundamental issue for the political parties," Mr Erdem said. He predicted that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Mr Erdogan could hope for around 50 per cent of the vote at the next general election if the Kurdish initiative proved successful. The AKP won almost 47 per cent in the last general election in 2007, but only 39 per cent in local elections in March. The CHP risks losing voters to the AKP if it does not come up with a Kurdish plan of its own, Mr Erdem said. Last week, press reports said the CHP was working on such a programme.

The MHP has stuck to its rejection of any peace plan, even though some groups on the right have supported the government's plans. Some commentators say Mr Bahceli has chosen a tough line because he is facing competitors for the MHP leadership at a party congress in November or because he is banking on increased support for his party if Mr Erdogan's approach is seen as weakening national unity. Others say the MHP is playing the patriotic card because it is in danger of losing its traditional place in politics. "There is no role for the MHP in a Turkey that has reached security," Vatan commented.

tseibert@thenational.ae