In politics, every move can produce unintended consequences that could be far more important than any initial objectives. This is what may be happening in Turkey where a group of Kurdish political prisoners are ending a 68-day hunger strike in exchange for concessions from Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government.
Started by a handful of prisoners, the strike quickly developed into a cause celebre attracting support not only from ethnic Kurds but also within broader Turkish public opinion. Some public figures joined the strike and many others, including opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, expressed support and sympathy.
Erdogan’s critics on the radical right claim that he has been forced to end the crisis from a position of weakness.
His critics on the left accuse him of having prolonged the crisis solely to flatter his own macho image.
Turkish media are full of “who won, who lost” speculation.
But what if this particular political stand off went beyond the “who won, who lost” cliché?
Is it not possible that Turkish democracy might be the winner in a game that has no losers?
It has taken Turkish democracy decades to develop a credible mechanism for resolving political conflicts through compromise rather than the use of violence and counter-violence.
In its first decade, Turkish democracy hardly merited the label, if only because a one-party system was in place. In the second decade, a one-and-a-half party system emerged in which one party governed while the other made occasional noises in opposition. In the third decade, a multi-party system was more or less accepted with the proviso that ideological uniformity be maintained. The armed forced acted as guarantors of that uniformity, staging coups whenever they thought a governing party was stepping out of line.
It was not until it was in its sixth decade that Turkish democracy also accepted ideology, enabling the crypto-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form the government. However, AKP continued the authoritarian tradition by trying to keep diversity within strict limits while surreptitiously purging the state from elements that did not share its ideology.
Nowhere has AKP’s campaign against diversity been more consistent than against the Kurds who account for at least a sixth of the population.
To be sure, AKP’s Kurdish policy has not been as repressive as that of its predecessors. This is partly because the party owes much of its electoral success to support from the predominantly Kurdish areas of southeastern Anatolia. And, yet, AKP has not been able to shed the Pavlovian reflex of using force to deal with the tougher aspects of the Kurdish issue. For a decade it has ignored repeated appeals by the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, the historic leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to initiate a process of negotiations to disentangle this Gordian knot of Turkish politics.
Erdogan’s friends claim that Ocalan, an ageing has-been, may well be fishing for personal relevance. If that is, indeed, the case, one might wonder what is the use of keeping an old and sick man in jail for much longer?
Though some participants in this complex game of brinkmanship may be adepts of the Machiavellian school of politics, a number of points are clear.
First, there is ample evidence that a majority of Turkey’s Kurdish community do not want secession. Nor to they share the PKK’s anachronistic dream of Proletarian Dictatorship. Many Kurds, perhaps even a majority, who would never vote for PKK, are, at the same time, not ready to endorse the policy of iron fist in their regard. This is not unusual. A majority of Corsicans in France reject the secessionist groups but do not agree with the policy of crushing them by force. This is also the case in Spain where a majority of ethnic Basques protect the secessionists while never voting for them.
Next, it must be clear that PKK’s strategy of armed struggle has failed. It has achieved nothing but decades of war that have claimed 50,000 lives. That strategy has also discouraged economic development in Kurdish-majority parts of Turkey, making them the poorest in the country that has enjoyed a dramatic transformation in the past decade.
Third, the Turkish government’s iron fist strategy has also failed. The PKK and its allies among professional bandits have shown their ability to continue a low intensity war for as long as imaginable. Intermittently backed by mischief-making neighbours such as Syria and Iran, the PKK could pursue its deadly business without great difficulty.
Prime Minister Erdogan should seize this opportunity to unveil a new strategy for dealing with the Kurdish problem. The first step in that direction is to accept that such a problem exists.
Next, he should embark on a pedagogic campaign to garner popular support for the new strategy.
He should tell his people that Turkish democracy is now strong enough to regard diversity as a source of strength rather than weakness. The Kurds’ desire to speak Kurdish and read official documents in their mother tongue is no threat to Turkey’s integrity as a united republic. Spain has not been harmed by the fact that a chunk of its citizens speak Catalonian. Nor is France’s unity undermined by the availability of official documents in the Breton dialect. The existence of over 500 languages, not to mention scores of different cultures, has not weakened the Indian democracy over the past six decades.
Democracy is also about the acceptance of the other in a framework of citizenship under the rule of law. Because Turkey is a democracy, even angry Kurds have no excuse for taking up arms against it. For the same reason, the Turkish government has no excuse to respond to the peaceful demands of its citizens by force.
If used properly, this new opening could deal a blow to the double myths of revolutionary violence and state-sponsored repression. And that could be good news for the whole region.