Saturday’s joint announcement by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) and the Turkish government of a new agreement on the peace process between Turkey and the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan—‘Workers Party of Kurdistan’) is a big surprise. Though the peace process and the cease-fire have been under way for almost exactly two years, until today it looked very much as if they had got stuck with neither side willing to make a move and talks had effectively been suspended.
The Kurdish movement and the government now have a joint agenda to take them up to the next Turkish general elections on 7 June — one which may well influence their outcome, especially the key question of whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins a large enough parliamentary majority to enable him to introduce an executive presidential system in the country.
Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s leader and undisputed head of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, has been held in an island prison south of Istanbul since his capture in Nairobi in 1999. But from his cell, he exerts growing political influence, meeting senior politicians from the HDP regularly and even publishing books. It was after the most recent of Öcalan’s meetings on Friday this week with the HDP that the party held a conference in Istanbul at noon on Saturday. Official approval was shown by the fact that the conference was held in the Dolmabahçe Palace, the former home of the Ottoman sultans, and that it was attended by the Deputy Prime Minister, Yalçın Akdoğan, who is responsible for Kurdish matters, and Efkan Ala, Minister of the Interior.
Sırrı Selim Önder, a prominent HDP parliamentary deputy from Istanbul, read out a message from Öcalan. Not many years ago, it was a criminal offence in Turkey to quote the PKK chief in any shape or form, but he is now accepted as being at the heart of politics.
“I am inviting the PKK to call an extraordinary conference during the spring months to take a strategic and historical decision about ending the armed struggle,” Öcalan announced in the message to his followers.
Though a message of this kind will be welcome to the PKK’s civilian wing in the HDP who are hoping to pick up non-Kurdish left-of-centre voters in the June elections, it will probably have a mixed reception in other parts of the Kurdish movement. Exiled leaders in European cities who are struggling to get the PKK removed from the list of terrorist organizations will probably be supportive. Germany still regards the PKK as terrorists but formal ending of the armed struggle might lead to a change in the German attitude.
But PKK armed militants in the Kandil Mountains in Northern Iraq, led by Cemil Bayık, have been pressing for nearly a year for a resumption of attacks and carried out several raids during the autumn, though these were halted after an appeal for peace by Öcalan. The new agreement means that remaining fighters in Turkey must leave and the cease-fire will be “reinforced.”
The Kandil leaders will want a high price for finally laying down their arms – probably including an amnesty for exiles and the right of return: conditions which will be controversial in most of Turkey where many families mourn sons killed in the three decade terrorist campaign between 1984 and 2013.
Öcalan is clear that he is not thinking in unilateral terms. Though he has not raised the issue of autonomy—something which the AKP could not possibly be seen to accept—he set out a ten point agenda calling for the introduction of democratic politics, and calling for ‘definition of the national and local dimensions of a democratic solution.’ They include guarantees of free citizenship and of women’s rights, and the search for ecological and cultural ones. Most important of all there must be a new constitution, redefining conceptions of democracy and nation.
The ten points are all, no doubt deliberately, very vague but they appear to point in the exact opposite direction to many existing AKP policies which are designed to reinforce executive authority. In particular there is the question of homeland security powers. The HDP has been in the vanguard of the attack on new Homeland Security Powers legislation introduced in February, giving police and local governors much greater power to crack down on dissidents. Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s charismatic joint leader, hinted to reporters that the new legislation had obstructed the latest stage of the peace process.
This sounds like a difficult pill for the AKP to swallow but both sides seem convinced that it is an historic advance. The Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, immediately hailed the agreement as opening the way for deeper democratic politics in Turkey.
Observers, already puzzled by the contradictions in the peace process, have been taken back by this agreement. It is clearly aimed at setting in place a deal between the PKK and government to give both sides peace of mind in advance of the June elections. President Erdoğan and the AKP need outside votes to enjoy a two thirds majority in the next parliament and the Kurds hold the balance of power for this. However Turkey has a tough 10% national barrier for the votes needed for a party to get into parliament: they could well fail to win this.
If a deal can be clinched before June and both sides stick to the bargain, then the PKK goes into the elections knowing that it will get increased local powers. The AKP will know that, regardless of whether or not there is an HDP group of deputies, it has a good chance of introducing the constitution it wants.
But both sides are taking risks. The agreement may not stick and in any case revealing its details could be politically disastrous. Turkish public opinion might reject concessions to the Kurds by the government. The proposed PKK special congress might not behave as expected. But it is unlikely that today’s announcement would have been made, if there was not already agreement between the sides on the basic framework of a constitutional deal.