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June 19, 2012, Tuesday

Hopeful developments

There have been surprising developments in Turkish politics in the past weeks. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) approached the government with a new proposal to deal with the “Kurdish imbroglio.” Unfortunately this glimmer of hope was quickly overshadowed by an attack by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkish security forces in Turkey’s southeastern province of Hakkari, where eight soldiers were killed and 15 injured.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a warm invitation to the spiritual leader of the civic initiative bearing his name, Mr. Fethullah Gülen, who is living in the US. There had been serious reporting in recent months that his movement and the government were at odds and that such a rift challenged the political stability of the country and the strength of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Party) alike.

Let us contemplate the reasons and consequences of these developments. First the AK Party government was feeling hard pressed for not finding a realistic cure for the gangrened Kurdish problem. It is not that it had no agenda, on the contrary it did, but the Kurdish side did not go along. As the problem got more intractable the AK Party proved that it was not that good in managing conflicts. It got stuck in the old statist reflex of postponing reforms and courageous advances until after the cessation of violence. It did not work.

Unfortunately, none of the three opposition parties in Parliament provided positive guidance to the AK Party government by presenting viable alternatives. The CHP was originally the main culprit in generating ethnic strife in the country during the time of one-party rule by its reductionist nation-building design. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has always been lured by the myth that Turks will be favored by the system. It is with this promise that the MHP was used as a strike force against all other groups that opposed the exclusionist system. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), closely linked to the Kurdish armed resistance, ran after the rainbow and voiced maximalist demands ranging from independence to autonomy and pushed its agenda with violent methods.

Confronted with a blockade of intransigent opposition, the AK Party government could not go on with cultural and political reforms while fighting against terrorism at the same time. So all initiatives, including negotiations with radical Kurdish factions, failed.

Security measures led to bloody, damaging accidents like Uludere, where 34 youthful smugglers were bombed to death -- mistaken for armed Kurdish militia. This was the breaking point between the Kurds, who voted for the AK Party, and the party. The failure of the government to come up with clear answers as to who is responsible for the aerial bombing and who was misled by foul intelligence or foul judgment distanced most Kurds from the AK Party.

This analysis is based on the findings of 11 public opinion polls conducted by KONDA in 2011 and 2012. According to the data collected by this institution, 50 percent of the Kurds vote for the AK Party, while 40 percent vote for the BDP. Only 10 percent vote for the others. Furthermore, both the AK Party and the BDP share a similar constituency in terms of their cultural attitudes: 39 percent of the AK Party and 49 percent of the BDP voters deem themselves to be traditional-conservative; 65 percent of the AK Party voters and 33 percent of BDP voters deem themselves to be religious conservatives. That is why Kurds who have either voted for the AK Party or the BDP have stood on the same platform on socio-cultural matters. Kurds on the whole did not share the same platform with other opposition parties. This attitude changed with the Uludere incident, and they began to side with the opposition against the AK Party.

Prime Minister Erdoğan is known to follow the fluctuations in public opinion. It is often mentioned that he gets monthly public opinion polls from different firms and charts his way accordingly. There is no doubt that he has seen this shift. Hence, his breakthrough decision to initiate Kurdish language education in state schools, although as elective lessons, was a bold move to win what he has lost in Kurdish areas.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the CHP was bogged down by its statist inertia that reduced its support and adaptive capacity to change. The party needed a breakthrough as well as an ideological break from its ethno-centric and authoritarian past. Its new leader, Mr. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu approached the government to coordinate a negotiated settlement to the Kurdish problem. This rapprochement further encouraged the prime minister in this bold move.

We are entering a new phase in Turkish politics at a time when complaints concerning arbitrariness and the authoritarian moves of the government have been painting a dull picture. Let us keep watching.

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