BACKGROUND: On April 11, as the campaign for the June general election got under way, the Turkish General Staff published a statement claiming that five militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had been killed and four soldiers wounded in a PKK attack close to the town of Diyadin in the eastern province of Ağrı. If true, the incident would have been the first concerted attack by the PKK since it announced a unilateral ceasefire in March 2013. It would also have severely damaged the chances of the HDP – which is regarded by both its opponents and its supporters as being closely associated with the PKK – of attracting the votes of Turkish liberals that are vital to its hopes of overcoming the electoral threshold.
AKP officials, including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, immediately seized on the incident to claim that it demonstrated that neither the PKK nor the HDP was committed to a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. When HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş put forward an alternative version of the incident, including maintaining that the wounded soldiers had been carried to safety by the local people, Davutoğlu accused him of lying. But the official account of what happened at Diyadin raised more questions than it answered.
The PKK has no reason to stage an unprovoked attack against the Turkish security forces –not only because it would damage the HDP going into the election but because a large proportion of the PKK’s military units are currently deployed in Syria and Iraq, leaving it with insufficient resources to resume a sustained insurgency in Turkey. Nevertheless, it has occasionally staged operations to make its presence felt in southeast Turkey, such as setting up checkpoints on roads or harassing construction projects for military bases and hydroelectric power plants. But it has tried to avoid causing casualties. For example, both the PKK and the HDP have long opposed the building of a hydroelectric power plant at Silvan in Diyarbakır province. On April 8, a PKK unit opened fire on a convoy carrying supplies to the dam construction site. But the militants directed their fire at the Kobra armored car accompanying the convoy and would have been aware that their semi-automatic rifles would not penetrate the Kobra’s armor. The soft-skinned vehicles in the convoy were not targeted.
Similarly, even though they have not announced an official ceasefire, since March 2013 the Turkish security forces have scaled back their patrols and avoided offensive operations, while continuing to track the movements of PKK units by means of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and monitoring their radio traffic.
The April 11 statement of the General Staff said that the security forces had been deployed to Diyardin following an order from the governor of Ağrı and had come under attack when they intervened to prevent the PKK from trying to pressure the local people to vote for specific candidates – presumably a reference to the HDP – in the June general election. Under Turkish law, the PKK remains a proscribed terrorist organization. As a result, the security forces not only have the right but are legally obliged to apprehend any suspected PKK members.
It soon became clear that the firefight in Diyadin occurred as the local people were preparing to participate in a tree-planting ceremony organized by the HDP. The same ceremony had been held in 2013 and 2014. On each occasion, members of the local PKK unit had attended. The security forces had been aware of their presence and had chosen not to intervene. However, eye witnesses reported that this year the Turkish security forces suddenly launched an attack in the early hours of the morning. Local sources were unanimous in reporting that only two people had been killed, a PKK militant and a former head of the local branch of the HDP. Photographs also appeared that confirmed Demirtaş’s claim that the local people had carried the wounded soldiers to safety. However, AKP officials continued to repeat their original version of the incident, maintaining that they could substantiate it with documents and photographs. These have yet to be made public.
However, the General Staff has already backtracked. On April 13, it issued a statement effectively contradicting the AKP’s version of events by thanking the local people for coming to the aid of the wounded soldiers. On April 16, Musa Işın, the governor of Ağrı, told the BBC that he had not taken the initiative in deploying the security forces to Diyadin but that it had been a political decision taken after “consultation with state institutions”.
IMPLICATIONS: In its campaign for the last general election on June 12, 2011, the AKP focused primarily on trying to drive the MHP below the 10 per cent threshold. At the time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still prime minister. But he was known to be planning to run for president and then replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with one in which all political power was concentrated in the presidency. If the MHP could be prevented from entering parliament, the AKP stood to win sufficient seats to change the constitution.
The deadline for applications to run for parliament closed on April 25, 2011. Two days later, covertly recorded videos of two members of the MHP engaged in extramarital sexual relations were posted on the internet. On May 7, 2011, two more videos involving two other members of the MHP appeared on the internet. By late May 2011, ten MHP parliamentary candidates – including nine of the 16 members of the party’s National Executive Committee – had been forced to resign. The campaign failed as the MHP eventually won 13 percent of the vote. The videos were clearly the product of a sophisticated organization that was able to draw on considerable resources and technical expertise. This should have been a major concern for the police and intelligence services. But no attempt was made to identify the culprits.
For the HDP, the incident at Diyadin is proof that the AKP is once again deploying state resources to try to prevent a party from overcoming the 10 per cent threshold – albeit this time at the cost of lives rather than mere reputations.
In recent weeks, Erdoğan has repeatedly attacked the HDP and warned against making any concessions to Kurdish nationalist demands unless the PKK disarms first. On April 15, the AKP announced its 352-page election manifesto. It included a commitment to realizing Erdoğan’s dream of introducing a presidential system. But there was no mention of the dialogue initiated by the AKP with imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan in late 2012 in an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue. When questioned about the omission, Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan – who formerly served as Erdoğan’s chief adviser -- tartly replied: “The manifesto is not a recipe for a meal where you have to include everything.” On April 19, Davutoğlu announced that the original draft of the manifesto had included some pages on the dialogue but that they had “slipped out” on the way to the printers. If true, it is unclear why it took Davutoğlu four days to realize.
The incident has fuelled speculation about a power struggle between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. From the HDP’s perspective, it has reinforced the suspicion that the AKP only initiated the dialogue with Öcalan in order to force the PKK to declare a ceasefire while the talks continued and that the government never had any intention of addressing Kurdish nationalist demands. Nor has the apparent disingenuity of Davutoğlu’s claim about pages “slipping out” of the AKP manifesto encouraged Kurdish nationalists to trust anything else he says. Yet trust is critical to any hopes of Turkey achieving political stability in the period after the election.
Although no one doubts that the AKP remains the most popular party in the country, its victory in the local elections of March 30, 2014 were marred by widespread allegations of electoral fraud – some of them, particularly in Ankara, apparently well-founded. Opinion polls currently suggest that the HDP is running very close to 10 per cent. Both publicly and privately, HDP officials maintain that the party is comfortably above the threshold. In addition, over the last two years – and particularly since the defeat of the so called “Islamic State’s attempt to capture the Syrian town of Kobane – Kurdish nationalists have become increasingly convinced that history is finally moving in their direction. If the party fails to win any seats in parliament on June 7, it will be difficult to find many HDP supporters who believe that the result reflects the votes cast at the ballot box.
CONCLUSIONS: Free expression is already in accelerating retreat in Turkey. The judicial system has become highly politicized. The prosecution and conviction of critics of Erdoğan and the AKP are now commonplace, as are media blackouts on any news that is embarrassing to the government -- while the AKP’s own media organs regularly publish distortions and patent fabrications. As a result, even if voters in Turkey can still exercise a choice at the ballot box, it is difficult to argue that it is an informed choice. If trust in the ballot box is also eroded, the consequences could be dire.
If the HDP fails to enter parliament in the general election, its supporters will assume that its exclusion is the product not of fair means but of foul. There is high risk not only they will join the PKK units in the mountains but that they will take to the streets, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country.
If the HDP does enter parliament, the AKP will have insufficient seats to change the constitution and implement Erdoğan’s absolutist ambitions. Nor is there any possibility of the AKP striking a deal with the HDP. Apart from anything else, the HDP distrusts both Erdoğan and the AKP. In addition, one of the HDP’s key demands is for some of the powers of the central government to be devolved to local authorities. This runs counter to the main thrust of Erdoğan’s ambitions, which is to concentrate all power in his own hands.
Yet neither can Erdoğan be expected to meekly accept the demise of his dreams. Instead, he is likely to try to consolidate what – since he was elected president in August 2014 – is already a de facto presidential system. But any failure to establish a de jure presidential system would embolden and galvanize Erdoğan’s opponents both inside and outside the AKP movement. The result could be considerable political turbulence.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Scott Sutherland)