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…