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Erdogan’s presidential gambit with Kurds

Almost every critic of the Turkish government received its fair share of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hate speech

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Almost every critic of the Turkish government received its fair share of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hate speech over the past year, from Gezi protesters to sympathizers of the Gulen movement. Kurds and particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed gang listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU, were not ever targeted by Erdogan since a ceasefire announced last year.

Ironically, they’re the ones who are unhappy today. Clashes in southeastern Turkish provinces have already started to claim lives and the riots are spreading to big western cities such as Istanbul. Tensions are running high across the country amid the so-called peace process - a ceasefire deal between the PKK and the government. One wonders if the peace process is falling apart.

Today’s peace process is a grand bargain for Erdogan’s presidential ambition and the PKK’s future political role

Mahir Zeynalov

Until today, the PKK announced many times that it will renew “the war against the Turkish state” if the government doesn’t honor its end of the bargain. As both sides tell each other that “it’s your turn,” people mostly have no idea who should move next in this process. The government tries to silence critics by frequently citing a year-long ceasefire, characterized by only few fatal incidents in a country where decades-old conflict claimed lives of more than 40,000 people. Who would not want peace? But it is the right of citizens to understand what kind of a deal the PKK and the government agreed on, especially at a time when it seems it is failing.

Parallel state

Turks are glad that there are no more news reports of killed Turkish soldiers in the battleground, but they’re also increasingly concerned over images of “parallel state” in the southeastern Turkey, where PKK militants block roads, tax citizens, set up checkpoints and recruit new members on the promise that they will be police in a future state of “Greater Kurdistan.” The Turkish army was ordered not to shoot and conduct operations against the PKK militants active in the region. Pro-PKK protesters even brought down a Turkish flag in a military base on Sunday, an outrageous incident that sent chills across the nation, yet prompted no reaction from the army.

I’m not opposed to the peace process, but I have deep reservations on how the government handles it and concerned that Erdogan is using the process for his own political ambitions. The project is simple: Kurds will vote for Erdogan in upcoming presidential elections and Erdogan’s government will remain silent to PKK activities in the region and move jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, to a house arrest. The government has even started to leak nice photos of Öcalan from the prison in its image-making strategy. The process is not about granting more rights and freedoms to Kurds, but a grand bargain between a non-democratic government and a militant organization that is known for its history of violence and terror.

Expecting mercy from the PKK?

Before all, governments usually don’t negotiate with militant gangs over basic rights and freedoms of their citizens. In fact, the PKK is a result of the Turkish government’s brutal treatment of Kurds and is doomed to disappear once the government treats the Kurdish minority equal with other citizens, grants their rights and takes steps to alleviate pain caused by previous unjust practices. The first stage of the peace process was the withdrawal of PKK militants from the Turkish soil, followed by a government plan to grant more rights to Kurds. The PKK halted its withdrawal and even multiplied its members by thousands of new recruits. Can you think of a government that conditions its democratic reforms for its citizens on the behavior of a militant gang? What if the PKK doesn’t ever withdraw its members or lay down their arms? Will the government step back from giving back the rights of its Kurdish citizens as it does today?

When we expressed similar concerns and leveled criticisms at the government over its mishandling of the process, Erdogan called us “blood-sucking vampires” and blamed us for being unhappy that there were no more news reports about killed Turkish soldiers. Erdogan’s accusations are obviously ridiculous and he actually deserves most of the blame for a cycle of violence that span out of control between 2011 and 2013. Erdogan had a plan in early 2011 to see nationalist party MHP fall under the electoral threshold of 10 percent and steal its nearly 80 seats in parliamentary elections in the summer of 2011. He sharpened his rhetoric against Kurds and the PKK and embraced a troubling nationalistic discourse in that period, sparking full-fledged attacks by the PKK on Turkish soldiers and military installations. Erdogan eventually failed to garner votes of the nationalists and the fire he started didn’t end by the elections. Two months after the elections, the PKK militants killed at least 26 Turkish soldiers in Hakkari, near Iraq. The incident prompted Erdogan to launch a massive military operation both in Turkey and Iraq that lasted nearly two years, resulting in the death of more than 1,000 PKK members and 100 Turkish soldiers.

Erdogan’s obsession with votes

Bitter experience in 2011 taught a lesson to Erdogan: Kurds are more inclined to vote for Erdogan than nationalists. He is now using the peace process to show himself as a leader who launched peace in the region and released PKK leader from the prison. This will allow him in upcoming presidential elections to get votes of the Kurds, who have no chance to elect their own leader. It is futile to expect Erdogan to take steps for the country’s democracy and prosperity. He sees his citizens as potential voters and all his policy items are electoral calculations, no matter how much it damages the country, tarnishes its reputation abroad and threaten lives of its people.

A true peace process is the one in which the government grants full rights and freedoms to Kurds, treats them equally with Turks and takes steps to mitigate results of the past discrimination. Today’s peace process, however, is a grand bargain for Erdogan’s presidential ambition and the PKK’s future political role. What they exploit for political ends are the basic rights of Kurds.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.