Wednesday, 10 April 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

The peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) remain the single most important issue for the commentators in the Turkish press. The announcement of the names of the “wise people” who have been selected by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to inform the public about the peace process was in general greeted with satisfaction by the commentators in the mainstream media. The prevailing attitude continues to be that the process and the initiatives that are taken by the government to promote it deserve to be fully supported. However, Turkish nationalist commentators do not mince their words about the peace process, which they are describing and fiercely denouncing as an attack against the Turkish identity of the country.


İhsan Dağı in Zaman writes that the Kurdish issue will ultimately be settled by society, and notably by the Turks that constitute the majority of society. If we are going to disarm the issue and make it the object of politics, and if we assume that politics is conducted by democratic means, then the last word will necessarily belong to society. That means that it is the Turkish majority that will decide and give its consent to the disarmament of the PKK, and to whether or not the Kurds will be permitted to feel that they are equal citizens of the country, enjoying corresponding political and cultural rights. Thus, the question “What do the Kurds want?” has morphed into “What do the Turks really want the process to lead to?” The most positive, as well as the most negative aspect of the İmralı process, is that is run by leaders. It is positive because the leaders are strong, charismatic and persuasive. Furthermore, the process needs to proceed rapidly, which is easier to ensure through an understanding between leaders than through a societal process of negotiation and reconciliation. But there are also drawbacks when everything is entrusted to the leaders. The actors that run the process anticipate that they will ultimately get the support and consent of society; but there is a need for more direct methods that prepare the public and involve it in the solution. It would be unfair to expect that the leaders would produce a solution that is ahead of their base. So what will be tested in the process is ultimately the democratic maturity of society. Until recently, it was the Kemalist, authoritarian state that suppressed the Kurdish identity and denied the existence of the Kurds.  However, the state is now asking society “How are we going to live together with the Kurds?” Future developments are going to be determined, not by the state, but by society. So let’s see if society will react with the typical reflexes of the state, or if it will call for rights, equality and justice for everyone?

Ahmet İnsel in Radikal writes that the most important achievement of the group of “wise people” will be to make it possible for the Turks that constitute the majority to freely express their expectations, fears and reactions. This will not be an attempt to persuade people to change their minds, but to elaborate together on what the next steps should be. The delegations (of wise people) have the opportunity to venture beyond the limits of the mission with which they have been charged by the government; let’s hope that they will use this opportunity and make a departure from the traditional habit of the state and the bureaucracy, which has been to never allow the participation of societal actors in anything. Perhaps this small step will be the one which makes the most significant contribution for the future. It will take time to change the mentality in Turkey that has been polluted by decades of indoctrination through education. The democratic and peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue requires a comprehensive change of mentality among Turks and Kurds, in the entire society in Turkey. The initiative to appoint the delegations of wise people is an albeit small step that could however prove to be important in this regard.

Nuray Mert in Birgün writes that Kurdish political circles will be persuaded (about the peace process) by messages that emanate from Öcalan. Those who really need to be persuaded to embrace the peace process, and whose suspicions need to be overcome, are the circles that support the AKP. It can of course be argued that what determines which position is taken by those circles is ultimately the words of the prime minister. That is indeed the case, but still not entirely. The electorate of the AKP and the rightist-conservative section that is close to it represents a part of the electorate that is inclined to lend an ear to nationalist objections. The opposition of the MHP is bound to have a significant impact of the base of the AKP; at the very least, it will confuse it and will cause it to lose its appetite (for the process). In this light, the section that the ruling party needs to calm is the rightist-conservatives. The selection of the wise people represents a wise selection precisely for this reason. The prime minister and the governing party have not only met one of the demands of the Kurds regarding the process; they have also equipped themselves with a guarantee against the possible nationalist defections from their own electoral base. The “wise people” close the government stand to play a crucial role as watchdogs against a nationalist backlash; that should be seriously anticipated. Also, they could make a real difference in warming the hearts of the rightist-conservative circles to peace with the Kurds.

Ali Sirmen in Cumhuriyet compares “the wise people” to the “Delegation of Advice” that was assembled by the Ottoman prime minister Damat Ferit (who has been denounced as a traitor in the Turkish nationalist historiography) in 1919, after the conclusion of the cease fire agreement with the victorious allies, with the purpose of convincing the people of Anatolia that the Ottoman government was not going to let the country be divided and occupied. Just like the Sultan’s emissaries did, Mr. Tayyip’s “wise people” have started their job by paying visit to the ruler at the Dolmabahçe palace in Istanbul. Thanks to the fact that the people Anatolia did not lend an ear to Damat Ferit’s “Delegation of Advice”, that it instead heeded the call of Mustafa Kemal and the nationalist resistance, we have been able to live to see these days. Now let’s wait and see if the fate of Mr. Tayyip’s wise people will be any different from Damat Ferit’s historically inconsequential “Delegation of Advice”. I frankly don’t know whether it was the “Delegation of Advice” that had the most difficult task or if it is the “wise people”; but judging by the response of Mister Prime Minister last week to the question “what did you promise Öcalan that convinced him to accept peace?” the wise people do face a difficult task. The prime minister stated that Öcalan decided to chose peace in return for being given a television with twelve channels, the possibility to exercise daily and to meet more with fellow inmates. As they are expected to make society accept this not so convincing statement, the “wise people” must be said to have a mission that will be anything but easy to carry out.

Mustafa Akyol in Star asks how Turkey will look in ten years, and what the role of the conservatives, who now control the state, will be. The guardians of the defunct Kemalist system, and those who benefited from it, have always have always maintained that the conservatives have a “hidden agenda”, that the talk of freedom and democracy was never seriously meant, that they aspired to impose an authoritarian, Islamist system. That is an expression of paranoia, and just another example of the conspiracy theories that abound in this country. But the question of where the conservatives are headed nonetheless deserves to be addressed seriously. Because they are facing a challenge which is new for them: the challenge of being in power. The picture in ten years may very well look good; it is conceivable that the conservatives will usher in peace and democracy, and ensure that the freedom of everyone in society is secured. But the opposite outcome is also possible, with the conservatives establishing their own version of the old system.  In order to avoid such an outcome, it is necessary to draw lessons from the example of the old owners of the state. It is for instance necessary to be aware of the dangers of becoming identified with the state; that is bad not only for the other groups in society, but also for those in power. Without competition, they will invariably stagnate intellectually and fail to develop, which was the case with the Kemalists. And when ideological purity and not objective accomplishment becomes the key for advancement in the state, everyone will suffer. Merit must be the guiding principle of the state, so that no one is excluded and so that the dynamism of competition helps everyone develop.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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