ISTANBUL - Observers say one of the few positives that supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took from the controversy-marred narrow referendum victory last week was the widely touted bump in support from southern Turkey's restive predominantly Kurdish region.
Critics say that bump had more to do with fraud and intimidation, but Erdogan advisers and members of his ruling AK Party argue it signifies a sea change in Kurdish sentiments toward the president and away from separatist politics.
“The Kurds stood next to Erdogan at a critical turning point,” wrote Abdulkadir Selvi, an influential columnist with Hurriyet newspaper, who added that “these results have reminded the ruling party of its historical responsibility in the solution to the problem.”
Adding to the weight of Selvi's words is that fact that he is widely seen as being close to Erdogan.
“Kurds saved Erdogan, coalition with nationalists failed. Erdogan needs to pay back this favor,” tweeted Altan Tan, a parliamentary deputy from the pro-Kurdish HDP party, highlighting the widely held belief that Erdogan’s strategy of courting Turkish nationalist voters in the referendum failed.
But many within the pro-Kurdish movement remain deeply skeptical there has been any momentous change in policy, "No one really believes that,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, an HDP deputy and its honorary president, dismissing any hopes for a new peace process. He argued that actions speak louder than words.
“The day after the referendum they arrested another HDP MP in Mus," he said. "Who is is going to make peace with whom? The government with their local henchmen will make a peace process? This is something very amusing, in fact."
The "henchmen" Kurkcu is referring to is Huda Pa, a hardline Kurdish Islamist party that strongly backs Erdogan.
Turkish security forces continue to crackdown on the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish insurgent group, claiming this week to have killed more than 50 rebels. But Friday saw the unexpected release from jail of two HDP parliamentary deputies. A dozen more remain in jail, including the party's co-leaders. Last week also saw the PKK call off a prison hunger strike.
Erdogan has presided over previous peace efforts, and while they ultimately failed, his efforts were initially rewarded by a surge in support from Kurdish voters. Analysts suggest that, given the animosity between Erdogan and the HDP — in particular, its imprisoned leader — peace efforts could circumvent the party and involve direct talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. That is what occurred in previous attempts at negotiations, the last of which ended in 2015 amid mutual recriminations.
The PKK has been fighting for greater minority rights and regional autonomy since 1984. The conflict has claimed over 45,0000 lives.
Observers say Turkey's presidential and general elections in 2019 could provide a powerful impetus toward peace efforts, in Erdogan's calculations.
"If Turkey is able to go back to that environment of seeking a negotiated solution to the Kurdish problem, then this would not only have a positive impact regarding stability at home,but surely enhance Turkey’s diplomatic hand abroad," said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. "From there on, Turkey could adopt different policies toward the PYD."
The PYD is the main pro-Kurdish party in Syria, which Ankara designates as a terrorist organization, linking it to the PKK. The PYD militia, the YPG, forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force that is fighting Islamic State and is militarily backed by Washington.
That support remains a major point of tension between the NATO allies, and is expected to top the agenda when U.S. President Donald Trump meets Erdogan next month in Washington.
Many predict Trump will press Erdogan to change his stance towards the Syrian Kurdish forces, which would likely pave the way to an enhanced U.S.-Turkish relationship, a top Erdogan priority. But hawks within the Turkish presidency are pressing for military incursions into Syria and Iraq against the PKK.
“AKP is not on its own when speaking about the PKK,” said HDP deputy Kurkcu. “They have made a coalition with the MHP [Turkish nationalist party], they have made a coalition with the hardliners in the army. Therefore, this coalition does not allow for any reconciliation in this respect.”
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened new cross-border operations against the PKK, and local reports say military preparations are already underway. But observers suggest Erdogan is likely still digesting the lessons of the referendum and has not yet decided on his future strategy.