Clashes and confrontations have returned once more to southeast Turkey, known for its large Kurdish population, after a two-year truce with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This ceasefire had been preceded by a political truce with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan who currently remains in prison.
It seems that the approach taken by the Ankara government and the country’s Kurdish community and the calm situation that has prevailed over the past two years has not been enough to completely resolve matters in a region of Turkey where the people have grown accustomed to living in the shadow of a volcano that could erupt at any moment.
So, just how can we explain the recent Kurdish protests and demonstrations that have erupted in Turkey’s Diyarbakir province, ostensibly over the construction of a military base in the region?
Is this the direct result of the PKK’s declining influence, particularly its ability to affect the decisions of Turkey’s Kurdish community at a grass-roots level? Or is this the result of the failure of the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government to meet the demands and aspirations of Turkey’s Kurdish community?
What about the Turkish soldiers who were shot at and wounded by PKK fighters in the town of Lice in Diyarbakır earlier this month, despite the declared ceasefire? What can we say about the Kurdish mothers who held a vigil outside the Diyarbakir mayor’s calling for the PKK to return their sons to them?
The recent tensions in southeast Turkey can be viewed through more than one lens and is related both to the domestic situation in Turkey as well as what is happening in the wider region. However what is clear is that this is far more than a limited security setback for the Ankara government.
PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan continues to send positive messages to all sides, stressing his commitment to stay the course that he began with Ankara. This is something that confirms that the declared ceasefire between both parties remains in place, at least on an official level. It also demonstrates that the PKK is not in a position to ignore the decisions and advice of its leader and act in opposition to the dialogue that he is leading with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AKP) government—a dialogue that aims to open a new page in Turkish-Kurdish relations.
Rather, these protests could be part of political maneuvering to demonstrate the strength of Turkey’s Kurdish community at a grass-roots level in order to put pressure on the Ankara government to accelerate the implementation of the roadmap towards resolving the Kurdish question. We must also make note that this is also happening while Turkey stands on the verge of presidential elections that the Kurds will, no doubt, play a large role in, one way or another.
Both sides are exchanging accusations and blaming each other for this escalation, but both the government and the Kurds are well aware that there are limits to this period of escalation and provocation that must not be breached. Turkey Deputy Prime Minister Bashir Atlay, who is leading the talks with Öcalan and who also happens to be one of Erdoğan’s closest allies, recently stressed that Ankara will not retreat from continuing the talks. He said that both sides are moving closer to announcing the details of the roadmap and the timetable and practical steps that must be taken to resolve this issue. Atlay framed the most recent tensions in southeast Turkey as part of attempts to pressure the government in the run up to presidential elections later this year.
The Kurdish political leadership is trying to throw the ball into Erdoğan’s court and force him to react, particularly given that the promises that the prime minister made to Turkey’s Kurds two years ago have yet to come to pass. Therefore, one could say that Erdoğan is ultimately responsible for the current situation, by which we mean the declining chances of peace and Kurdish youth continuing to join PKK in the mountains and follow the way of the gun.
The Kurds, as is increasingly clear, do not want to miss this golden opportunity to pressure Erdoğan and his government, particularly if he is preparing a presidential bid. The Kurds have announced that they are ready to nominate a Kurdish political leader to contest the presidential elections later this year. At the same time, they have also suggested that they could back either the government or opposition in return for support and assistance over the Kurdish question.
There is another option that is being put forward by the hawks of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the event that the Kurds do not receive sufficient guarantees, namely they are threatening to boycott the ballot and refuse to participate in the forthcoming elections.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has little to no presence in southeast Turkey. Turkey’s Kurdish community are well aware that CHP will also move to provide them with pledges and promises, and this is another opportunity that the Kurdish leadership do not want to miss out on. This scenario could see all of Turkey’s opposition unite to take on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP government.
The PKK do not want to completely burn Erdoğan’s cards, but they want to grab whatever they can, exploiting the domestic situation in Turkey and the regional situation at large.