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November 18, 2012, Sunday

It is over, but not really

The crisis was averted just before it turned into tragedy. After the intervention by Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), more than 500 prisoners ended their weeks-long hunger strike.

Now we know that while the prime minister was loudly objecting to the attempts to end the action, humiliating and mocking the strikers, there were three contacts between Ankara and Öcalan in the past month and a half. Sources in Ankara say that the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the Ministry of Justice facilitated the communication. The final move to end the deadlock came from the local branch of the BDP in Diyarbakır, which, through the Ministry, managed to have Öcalan's brother, Mehmet Öcalan, visit the İmralı Island prison where Öcalan is being held and leave with the message that it all stop immediately, “without any hesitation.”

Current circumstances have brought in some new (old?) elements. The most important of these is the reentry of Abdullah Öcalan as the actor who has once more demonstrated his authority and ability to steer the course of developments. It has delivered a severe blow to the official staunch denial of his influence among the hardliners within the government after one-and-a-half years of isolation.

The question is, what's next?

The hunger strike had three demands: education in one's native language, the right to defend oneself in court in Kurdish and the end of Öcalan's isolation. Saturday's developments mean that one and a half of them are to be met -- but are still pending. The draft to allow for the legal defense component is to go to Parliament, and it is unclear whether the visit to Öcalan will become routine.

Objectively, the point reached over the weekend confirmed the skeptics' view that the rigid policies endorsed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP Party) government after the national elections in June 2011 were problematic.

Erdoğan's decision to isolate Öcalan, to give a go-ahead for a widespread mass arrest campaign targeting the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) membership (which led to swollen prisons) and to pull the handbrake on reform, has now thoroughly backfired.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government shifted into a state of delusion (in the euphoria of election victory), peddled the sui generis nature of the Kurdish issue, underestimated the popularity of Öcalan and pretended that the problem would be manageable.

Yet, if it was just an issue of defeating the opposition, the Kurdish problem would look like no other. It has to do with a considerable portion of an ethnic community, politicized from top to toe, running out of patience and convinced that no matter what Turkish government is elected, they will be the ones deceived.

Ankara's policies since August 2011 look disturbingly reminiscent of old Turkey's, and miscalculations -- some deliberate -- squeezed Erdoğan into a dark corner. He should understand now that he is still a key player needed to manage the crisis, but in a much more nuanced manner.

Will he or won't he? This is the question.

He will weigh two options against each other. Granting that Öcalan is a key player for whom communications with officials must be kept open from now on, and opening new channels with the BDP (primarily in the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission) and speeding up passage of the 4th Judicial Reform Package is the first option.

Or, his second choice is to regard the end of the strike as a danger averted, and continue down the same path.

My gloomy hunch is that he will opt for the latter.

Erdoğan may have been reasoning that the Kurdish crisis is manageable until the presidential elections in 2014. If so, he is wrong. His current daily policies, nowadays based solely on the regular polls his party conducts which he reads with a calculator at hand, are blocking his advances.

The party's poll results may steer the prime minister to shape politics -- as we have seen in abortion and death penalty debates -- but the end result will be turmoil, danger and instability outside and inside his party. He should take the weekend's lessons very seriously. They are beyond any polls.

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