Despite enduring a contentious campaign in its fight to get the ten percent of the national vote necessary to enter parliament, Turkey’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—part of the same political movement as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—ran on a fundamentally optimistic platform. It articulated democratic hopes for the so-called “peace process,” that is, the Turkish government-led, long-stuttering negotiations to end the PKK insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people since 1984. With this at the center of a broader campaign platform, the HDP won 13 percent of the vote in the June elections and pushed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to a minority position. Many cheered the HDP’s success as a victory not just for the Kurdish national movement but for Turkish democracy.
But since the election, notions of the “peace process” have been trampled by violence. The PKK has ended its two-year ceasefire. A suicide bombing killed more than 30 mostly young people (including HDP members). The Turkish military has begun a massive military campaign against the PKK (and, to a lesser degree, against ISIS).
This violence has laid bare aspects of a longstanding conundrum for the HDP, namely that it both champions peace and is kin with the PKK. During the ceasefire this conundrum was easier to paper over. Now, the violence makes it easier for the HDP’s opponents to declare the party’s guilt by association with the PKK and sway a significant segment of public opinion.
As Turkey returns to the polls in November, the HDP will be hard-pressed to simply replay its previous campaign. At an HDP rally in Istanbul just before the June election, for example, among the sea of waving flags—mostly of the HDP—there were remarkably few flags of the PKK or its affiliates, such as the PYD and YPG in Syria, and very few banners bearing the image of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan—all of which are usually standard fare. Even more remarkable, several Turkish flags were flown alongside HDP flags. “This is not the Turks’ flag,” a young man explained. “This is the flag of Turkey.” However rehearsed, the sentiment reinforced a core campaign theme: The HDP is a party for all of Turkey, and is not just the PKK by another name.
Accordingly, when HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş took the stage at the rally, his speech was bright and on message: “We want a Turkey as colorful as Kazlıçeşme Square here,” he told the crowd. However, Öcalan—generally known as Apo—and the PKK were not far from people’s minds. A call came from the stage to lower all flags and banners. “Whoever wants freedom show your hands!,” the voice commanded. Thousands of “V” for victory salutes sprung from the now-silent crowd. Then, unprompted, thousands chanted, “Biji serok Apo,” or “Long live leader Apo.” Afterward, in the metro a crowd of young rally-goers chanted, “Rights, law, and justice will come with the PKK!”
With the PKK and Turkish forces now in conflict, can the HDP again portray itself as a party for all of Turkey and retain the support of the non-PKK sympathizers it attracted in June? Can the HDP expect its supporters to replace their PKK flags with Turkish flags?
Furthermore, the less of a peace process there is, the less influence the HDP has over government policy. HDP delegates have served as intermediaries between the government and the PKK leadership abroad, and are Öcalan’s official spokespeople. The HDP’s recent calls for reenergized talks and for the negotiations to become “state policy,” and even Demirtaş’s call for both sides, especially the PKK, to “remove their hands from the triggers,” reflect not only undoubtedly sincere wishes but also the party’s awareness of where its influence lies.
However, these problems are subsumed within an even greater conundrum. The question is not which side scuppered the process, as much analysis has presumed. The question is whether the Syrian civil war has made peace between Turkey and the PKK impossible.
To understand the situation, it is helpful to consider the “peace process” less as a process of reconciliation or democratization (abstract ends no reasonable person would object to, and, as such, useful euphemisms for both sides) and more as a process by which the Turkish government is seeking to disarm the PKK.
The AKP’s foreign policy ambitions have required this. Part of the government’s once self-confident foreign policy called for a hegemonic Turkey with Syria and northern Iraq in its sphere of influence. Turkey takes it for granted that its various regional rivals use the PKK to pressure it, and as the PKK is evidently unbeatable by military force, a PKK that remains armed would remain such a tool. Though it shattered Turkey’s foreign policy goals, the Arab Spring and especially the Syrian civil war have reinforced (and greatly complicated) this imperative to disarm the PKK.
The problem is whether the window for PKK disarmament has closed—a fundamental question that neither the Turkish government nor the HDP/PKK leadership has an interest in entertaining too loudly. Pessimists would seem to have the stronger case. The “Kobani Revolution,” as Kurds call the main event in their recent success against ISIS, gave, along with the Turkish government’s cynical response to the ISIS siege of Kobani, not only a huge boost to the HDP in the June vote and to Kurdish transnational self-consciousness and solidarity, but it also showed the world how the PKK and its affiliates (especially the PYD and YPG), as main ground forces against ISIS, can no longer afford to give up their guns.
Nor does the West want them to. Davutoğlu, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, lamented the PKK’s “exploiting” the war against ISIS “to strengthen its standing in the eyes of the West.” As PKK-affiliated fighters in Syria have proven indispensable to the West, the international press has been helping to gloss their image with, for example, just left-of-chauvinist stories about the “beautiful Kurdish women” battling ISIS and pure public relations descriptions of the PKK as nothing worse than “armed civil society.”
So if the PKK and its affiliates cannot disarm, what is the Kurdish side offering in exchange for the concessions it is demanding of the Turkish government?
HDP politicians equivocate about a possible PKK “disarmament against Turkey”—that is, not disarmament, but a ceasefire, breakable as the last. This might be the best-case scenario. Any ceasefire is immeasurably better than continued deaths, but the promise of a ceasefire will not diminish the threat that the Turkish government sees in Kurdish power. And a ceasefire would do nothing for those that see PKK disarmament as a foreign policy imperative.
The recent deal between Turkey and the United States complicates things further. Turkey is letting the United States use Incirlik Airbase, and it will fight ISIS—and will not attack the Syrian Kurds (PYD and YPG) also fighting ISIS. In exchange, America has apparently—though ambiguously—backed Turkey’s plan to set up a buffer zone in northern Syria, will pressure the Syrian Kurds not to declare an independent state, and appears to be giving the go-ahead regarding Turkey’s campaign against the PKK.
Part of the deal requires distinguishing the PKK from the PYD. Davutoğlu has been quoted saying that as long as the PYD (or YPG) doesn’t attack Turkey, they will not be attacked. But this distinction—Kurds in Syria fighting ISIS as unique from Kurds in Turkey (or across its border) fighting the Turkish state—is determined mostly by front lines. And the distinction is essentially meaningless to the broader Kurdish population inspired by the “Kobani Revolution.”
In the absence of international (that is, American) pressure on Turkey to limit its conflict with the PKK, many commentators are urging the HDP—for the sake of the “peace process”—to “get control” of the PKK. Though certainly well-intentioned, such demands burden the HDP with an impossible task. Such commentators also presume that the peace process is simply a floundering policy and not the Potemkin policy it has become.
Indeed, the “peace process” is something like Turkey’s bid to join the European Union: impracticable, but of great use as a myth upon which widely-shared democratic aspirations can be hung, and in a seemingly real policy framework.
The HDP must not try to finesse its dilemmas too much. Demirtaş has great political capital to spend. If there is one voice that would get a sympathetic hearing among Turks in laying out just how much the geopolitics of the "peace process" have changed, it is his.