On Sunday Turkey will go to the polls to vote in a referendum. A “yes” vote will clip the power of the military, give more legal rights to individuals and, most importantly, reform the high courts which have frequently blocked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s liberal initiatives.
To win this closely fought referendum, Erdogan must gather the support of the Kurds in the southeast of the country. Some 20m Kurds live in the rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet, while a further 1m live overseas. The Kurds are particularly keen for reforms of the military and a court system that often hit them below the belt during the “dirty war” of the 1990s. Last week Erdogan paid a visit to Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish region. He promised to tear down the city prison once notorious for torture. But over the last five years the government has appeared to break its promises to the Kurds, returning to the heavy-handed methods of its predecessors. Can the demolition of one prison help assuage the Kurds’ doubts about the Erdogan government? Will the Kurds come out in large enough numbers to vote in favour of Erdogan’s reforms?
Almost a decade ago, Abdullah Ocalen, the imprisoned leader of the movement for Kurdish independence, the PKK, ordered the insurgents to implement a ceasefire. But as the years passed, he became convinced that the government was not serious about implementing the reforms it talked about. It wasn’t, and under the leadership of Ocalen’s brother the fighting began again.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a casualty of the first world war, most of its peoples knew what they wanted. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama. Ataturk, the founder of a secular, postwar Turkey, thought that it would be easy to make a Faustian bargain with the Kurds, offering them citizenship in exchange for them giving up their language and identity. But as the years passed many Kurds, upset about the banning of their language in schools and courtrooms, became increasingly unhappy with this deal.
In Turkey’s 1995 general election the Kurdish People’s Democracy party, despite the sympathies of some of its members for the PKK, was allowed for the first time to contest the election without harassment. But out of 6m potential Kurdish voters, only 1m Kurds voted for it. The rest voted principally for mainstream parties, and there was a significant rejection of Kurdish nationalism, in particular the extreme nationalism of the PKK, then at the height of its powers.
The election results showed the lack of popular support for the PKK. But the authorities have never fully absorbed the message of this election. Instead they have consistently exaggerated the potency and popularity of the PKK. Through one administration after another, and Erdogan’s is no exception, both government and the army misled the public on the reasons for their harsh treatment of both violent and non-violent Kurdish rebels.
Under Erdogan many promises have been made: allowing Kurdish in schools, a Kurdish TV station and the economic development of this very poor region. But a large proportion of these promises have not been satisfactorily implemented. Although the PKK guerrillas and their methods don’t speak for the mass of the Kurds, they do represent their anger. That is why the insurgency has restarted.
Erdogan blames the PKK for its provocations. However, it is the army that often has done the provoking, even on occasion using agents provocateurs, and dragged the government into the fray. Erdogan has often had to bow before the army in order to check the generals’ urge to run Turkey. Yet if the Kurds can put aside their resentment of the government, and deliver a yes vote this Sunday, the reforms to the army and judicial system will be in their favour. If that happens, there could be a renewed opening for serious negotiations with the PKK about ending violence and a placating of Kurdish grievances. A lot hangs on this referendum for the country at large and, not least, the Kurds.
Click here to discover more about the history of the Kurds in Turkey