Turkish flags and soldiers in Nusaybin
As voters in Turkey prepare to go to the polls on Sunday to decide whether to legally expand Erdogan’s powers, it is still too close to call which way the nation will swing. It is debatable how much Erdogan’s supporters understand about the true nature of what it means to make the proposed constitutional amendments that will change the country from parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency, and indeed whether they care so long as their man stays at the helm. However, there is little doubt that the referendum outcome will have widespread repercussions in the region whichever way it goes. But what will it mean exactly for the Kurds?
The way Erdogan reacted to AKP failing to reach a majority in the June 2015 elections, mainly due to Kurds switching their votes to the pro-Kurdish HDP, is a clue as to how Erdogan now views them. The state escalated the conflict with PKK from July 2015 onwards to garner nationalist votes to win back the majority in the snap November 2015 elections, and expanded the “dirty war” that has left the majority of towns of Cizre, Nusaybin, Silopi, Sur and Silvan lying in ruins. Close to half a million civilians have been displaced in less than two years, 1200 civilians killed and widespread human rights violations have been committed by the state according to UNHRC.
In parallel, the state targeted Kurds on multiple fronts. Thousands of HDP members have been jailed since, with their leader Demirtas facing 143 years behind bars, pro-Kurdish TV channels have been shut down, theatres targeted, municipalities seized, thousands of teachers dismissed and much more.
Regaining the majority in the November snap elections has not altered Erdogan’s treatment of Kurds, so there is little hope that a win on Sunday’s referendum will do so either. In fact, the Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, has warned of further escalation of war after April. The state already associates Kurdish politicians, teachers, journalists and civilians with the PKK, so one can only imagine what the threat means.
However, we must not dismiss the latest wave of oppression of the Kurds as simply a plot by Erdogan to win elections. What the results of the June 2015 elections indicated was that the state’s assimilation project of the Kurds had failed. When the Kurdish language was banned under Ataturk at a time where less than five percent of Kurds spoke Turkish, the state had begun pursuing a project of assimilation of Kurds through enforced nationalism, and it continued with the Language Ban Act of 1983. When this failed, the war against PKK was escalated in the 90s and resulted in thousands of villages being razed to the ground with hundreds of thousands displaced. Erdogan’s project of using Islam to assimilate the Kurds also failed when HDP entered the parliament by breaking the 10% threshold in the summer of 2015. The ensuing destruction of Kurdish towns is merely another chapter in the premeditated plan by the state of mass displacement of Kurds, on top of aiding Erdogan’s political goals.
The failure of Turkey to resolve the Kurdish issue however is more an indication of the inability of Turkey itself to reform, rather than due to the failures of various heads of state. The deep and potentially catastrophic divisions between the Kemalists and Islamists that have been revealed since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, is not an ordinary political rivalry. The mob lynching of soldiers taking part in the coup attempt last year, including the public murder of one, indicated the simmering tensions between staunchly pro-AKP supporters and the traditionally Kemalist military. That event was preceded a few weeks earlier by the astonishing claim by AKP’s Mehmet Metiner that Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the pro-Ataturk opposition party, “is more dangerous than ISIS”.
In truth, Turkey has not evolved to accommodate political, cultural or ethnic pluralism. The secularists may well feel under attack from Erdogan, but the time to defend democracy and human rights was when Kurds as citizens of Turkey were repeatedly being denied those very rights over decades. Had the nation demanded Kurds be afforded equal rights when it had many opportunities to do so, Turkey may well have by now matured into a system where everyone is protected from Erdogan’s assault on the liberties the citizens took for granted.
As for the Kurds, the April referendum is in effect meaningless. Cemil Bayik, one of the leaders of PKK, had a point when he requested international mediation over the Kurdish issue, because Turkey does not have the capability to resolve it alone. Whether Ankara is occupied by a secularist or an Islamist government, not much has changed for the Kurds and is unlikely to do so. When there was muted response to the aforementioned murders in Cizre or any number of human rights violations that took place in the south east since HDP’s election success, it was a sign that the country is already emotionally separated. The state’s presence in Kurdish regions is looking increasingly like a military occupation rather than a governing entity.
A strong Erdogan will not bring stability to the region, only a strong system, and the resolution of the Kurdish issue is the key to that.
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