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Turkey's Kurdish Peace Process Becomes Political Hot Potato

Demonstrators wave flags with the image of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan during a rally in Istanbul, Feb. 15, 2015.

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader, is expected to release a letter to mark the Kurdish New Year, called Newroz, outlining further steps in the peace process with the Turkish government. In the past few days, though, Turkey's president and the leader of the legal Kurdish movement have been exchanging angry barbs, fueling concerns about the peace process.

On Saturday, more than 1 million Kurds are expected to attend celebrations of Newroz in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

During the celebrations a letter is expected to be read from Ocalan. Turkey's government has said it expects the announcement of steps toward the disarmament of Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK.

Map of Turkey showing major Kurdish areas
Map of Turkey showing major Kurdish areas

The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for greater minority rights over three decades.

Inertia likely

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University said the lack of concessions by the government, however, means it is unlikely any breakthrough will be achieved.

"Now for 30 months we’ve been in a situation of no war, no peace, meaning that nothing substantial and positive has been undertaken," said Aktar. "I am not expecting anything spectacular from the declaration of tomorrow. No one talks about disarmament any more, they talk about a lasting cease-fire."

This week President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to harden his attitude toward the peace process, declaring there was no longer a Kurdish problem in Turkey.

That prompted an angry outburst from the leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, who questioned why there is a peace process if there is no Kurdish problem?

Analysts say the president’s rhetoric could well be aimed at shoring up Turkish nationalist voters for his ruling AK party in June’s general election.

Power play

Erdogan is looking to secure a big majority to push through a constitutional change to turn Turkey into a presidential system.

But Yuksel Taskin, an expert on right-wing politics at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said such rhetoric when combined with the AK Party’s failure to make even minor concessions, suggests a more fundamental explanation than just election politics.

"Because it’s not just the fear of losing the votes, but ideologically they are not that ready to move away from the state tradition," said Taskin. "Erdogan is committed to a solution because as a political Machiavellian survivalist he believes that he has to be. But he is not ready [to] make significant concessions. Every day there is this great risk that they may lose the confidence of the Kurds."

This week tensions were ratcheted up again when pro-Kurdish leader Demirtas, speaking to his parliamentary deputies, ruled out any support to the president in his goal to turn Turkey into a presidential system.

Until now there has been speculation that the Kurds would support Erdogan’s ambitions in exchange for concessions on Kurdish concerns. The pro-government media have hit back, accusing Demirtas and PKK military leaders based in the Kandil Mountains in neighboring Iraq of seeking to sabotage Ocalan’s efforts to bring peace.

Ocalan's maneuvers

Political columnist Kadri Gursel of Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper said Ocalan runs the risk of becoming isolated.

"Well, there is a risk, but Ocalan is a clever person. He can only have power to step down from negotiations," said Gursel. "If he steps down and leaves the terrain to the will of Kandil, well there will be another equation. Otherwise he can risk to lose his control, his total control, his moral authority. His total control comes from his moral authority and his historical position."

But observers say that with the PKK fighting Islamic State jihadis in Syria, and the People's Democratic Party [HDP] seeking both Kurdish and Turkish voters in the June election to pass the 10 percent voter threshold to achieve representation, there is little interest in ending the peace process.

For the ruling AK Party, the peace process is key to it securing Kurdish votes.

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels, said that while it is natural for tough rhetoric to be exchanged in an election environment, he warned that tough decisions will have to be made after the polls.

"I would expect this double-talk to continue especially in advance of the elections," said Ulgen. "But when we reach that stage of the government having to deliver real concrete advances on the legal side and constitutional side, that's when the Turkish body politic, the government and Erdogan, will face a hard choice."

From now until the June elections, tough rhetoric is expected to intensify between the ruling AK Party and pro-Kurdish HDP in their competition for votes.