BACKGROUND: Seeking a first round victory in the presidential elections to claim a popular mandate for transforming the presidency into an administrative position with strong executive powers, Prime Minister Erdoğan actively sought to expand his voter base among Turkey's Kurds who are belived to account for around twenty percent of the population. Erdoğan became an advocate of teaching Kurdish in schools as an elective language. Most significantly, Erdoğan's government is conducting a dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed militant organization, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The Kurdish Opening of the AKP government has put a halt to a thirty year insurgency that has cost over 40,000 lives. The peace talks enjoy broad public support, but the expectations of the Kurdish political movement – chief among them the release of Öcalan from prison – causes consternation among Turkey’s nationalist camp.
The talks with Öcalan have been conducted through the auspices of Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Civilian politicians were legally prohibited from contacts with the banned PKK. To demonstrate the AKP government’s earnestness about the negotiations, one month before the August 10 elections, the Turkish Parliament approved legislation creating the legal framework for Turkish politicians to engage in the peace talks.
Although the Kurdish political movement focuses on state recognition of Kurdish identity and of the Kurdish language, the Kurdish population in Turkey is not monolithic. While the dominant political orientation prioritizes a secularist discourse of human rights, the more conservative elements among the Kurds prioritize Muslim solidarity. Erdoğan’s Islamic conservatism attracts votes from the latter but alienates the former. Erdoğan’s Kurdish Opening nonetheless created the potential for him to collect a much larger share of the Kurdish vote. At the outset of the presidential campaign, this seemed likely as the main opposition candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who was nominated the two major opposition parties, the Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), held very little appeal for Kurdish voters. İhsanoglu came across as a traditional Turkish nationalist.
However, the entry into the presidential race of Selahattin Demirtaş, the dynamic Kurdish human rights lawyer and co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) created a new complication for Erdoğan. Being the first Kurdish candidate for major national office, Demirtaş could credibly appeal to the AKP’s core base of Kurdish support. Less than three weeks before the election, Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, a Kurd and a former deputy chairman of the AKP -- announced his support for Demirtaş. Prior to Fırat's announcement, Sertaç Bucak, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party –Turkey (KDP-T) had declared his support for Erdoğan and his opposition to Demirtaş on a Kurdish television program broadcast from Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet the succesful campaign that Demirtaş ran, made clear that Erdoğan would not be expanding his vote base among the Kurds; at best Erdoğan could expect to recieve roughly the same number of Kurdish votes as the AKP traditionally had garnered in previous elections.
IMPLICATIONS: It was against this background that Erdoğan, toward the end of the presidential campaign, made an eleventh hour appeal to the Turkish nationalist base of the MHP. Dissatisfaction with his handling of the Syria and Iraq conflicts in addition to the Kurdish issue has been brewing among this base. In mid-July, discontent over Turkey’s large Syrian refugee population developed into protests and violent attacks against the refugees. The advance of the jihadist organization ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, now simply the Islamic State or IS) into Iraq’s Mosul region also has potential internal political implications. While Turkey has allowed over one million Syrian refugees to cross its borders since the civil war began, it refused to allow Turkmen refugees from the IS-captured city of Sinjar to enter Turkey, which is incomprehensible to Turkish nationalists.
It can also be assumed that right-wing Turkish nationalist voters are provoked by the Turkish government’s cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq . Comments made to Financial Times on June 28 by the AKP’s deputy chairman Hüseyin Çelik seemed to offer tacit support for a future KRG declaration of independence. However, with the commencement of hostilities between Hamas and Israel in the beginning of July, Erdoğan was able to divert public attention by stoking popular discontent against Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Amidst the prime minister’s ratcheting up of anti-Semitic and anti- Israel rhetoric, little attention in Turkey was paid to the July 11 seizure of the oil rich city of Kirkuk by the Peshmerga forces of the KRG. The jewel in the crown of Kurdish territorial ambitions, Kirkuk is home to a sizable Turkmen population and Kurdish control of Kirkuk had been an important red line for Turkish foreign policy. Much to shock of the Turkish nationalist camp, Ankara quietly acceded to KRG control of Kirkuk.
On August 4, prominent MHP deputy Sinan Oğan was physically beaten by AKP deputies during a parliamentary session after Oğan questioned the AKP government’s lack of assistance to Iraqi Turkmen facing IS attacks. AKP supporters attacked Oğan on social media and the MHP deputy received death threats. Oğan subsequently accused foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of whitewashing Turkey’s policies in Iraq. Appalled by the fact that PKK-affiliated fighters were enlisted to protect Turkmen refugees in the Sinjar mountains, Oğan declared that “this is a well-orchestrated effort by Davutoğlu, who is legitimizing [past] PKK terror [against Turks] by portraying the PKK as heroes safeguarding Turkmens. …This is a policy that contains nothing right from the beginning.”
Facing such right-wing nationalist discontent, Erdoğan engaged in the politics of sectarian and ethnic polarization to peel away voters from the MHP. At an August 2 rally, Erdoğan baited the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, appealing to anti-Alevi antipathies among the MHP’s Sunni voter base. During his speech, Erdoğan exhorted, “Kılıçdaroğlu, you may be an Alevi. I respect you. Don’t be afraid of it. Say it openly. I am Sunni and I say it comfortably. No need to hesitate. There is no need to try to mislead the people.” Because the Sunni bonafides of the joint CHP-MHP candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu were unassailable, Erdoğan’s focus on Kilicdaroğlu’s Alevi background was a savvy sectarian attempt to make MHP voters identify Ihsanoğlu as the candidate of the Alevis. When asked about his comments during an August 5, live television broadcast, Erdoğan further appealed to ethnic prejudices within the Turkish nationalist camp by responding with anti-Armenian remarks: "In Turkey, anyone who is a Turk should say he is a Turk, a Kurd should say he is a Kurd. What is wrong with that? They said so many things about me. They said I am Georgian. Excuse me, but they said something even uglier. They said I am an Armenian. But I am a Turk."
Such remarks may very well have helped to attract MHP voters; indeed, the votes cast for Erdoğan on August 10 in the strongholds of MHP across central Anatolia were noticeably higher than the percentage of votes that the AKP received in the March 30, municipal elections.
CONCLUSIONS: Although ethnic and sectarian appeals helped him gain the Çankaya Presidential Mansion, president-elect Erdoğan’s election strategy offers no sustainable solution for the structural contradiction between meeting rising Kurdish expectations and maintaining Turkish right-wing nationalist support.
Turkey’s security and economic interests are impelling Ankara to deepen its cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq that plans to hold a referendum on independence in the near future. Turkey needs strong relations with Erbil as a buffer against IS as well as Iran. Once the planned Transanatolian pipeline (TANAP) is completed, the KRG could supply 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey to meet its skyrocketing demand and ease its dependence on Russian imports.
Ankara’s close cooperation with the Kurdish government in Erbil will increase the already heightened expectations among Turkey’s Kurds for full language and cultural rights and some form of local autonomy. President-elect Erdoğan thus faces an choice between expanding his Kurdish Opening, which will move Turkey closer to becoming a bi-national state, and continuing to assuage right-wing Turkish nationalism. Neither choice bodes well for an AKP majority in Turkey’s 2015 parliamentary elections. The AKP will be hard put to manage rising expectations among Turkey's Kurds while retaining Turkish nationalist support.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Shalem College, Jerusalem, and at the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: Osman Orsal, Wikimedia Commons)