chapter  12
24 Pages

Political reconciliation in Turkey: Challenges and prospects

ByCENGIZ GUNES

This chapter explores Turkey’s ongoing and problematic attempts to develop a process that will bring an end to its ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK). It will assess the likelihood that the ongoing democratisation and institutional reform process, which Turkey has undertaken during the past decade, will result in a permanent settlement that will satisfy the demands of the Kurds in Turkey. Questions of pluralism and the constitutional recognition of the Kurdish identity are central to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. Turkey’s inability, since the end of one-party rule in 1950, to institute a pluralistic democratic framework, and its failure to constructively engage with the demands of its sizeable Kurdish population, has created an environment characterised by conflict and violence during the past three decades. The legal and political persecution of, and the limitations on, the Kurdish identity has been tested in a persistent manner since the 1960s. Initially, Kurdish dissent in Turkey during the 1960s and 1970s took the form of non-violent protests, and their group-specific demands were articulated as part of demands for equality. However, from the late 1970s onwards, the idea of using violence in their struggle against the state gradually gained ground amongst Kurdish activists and political organisations. The Turkish government’s imposition of extensive punitive measures on the articulation of Kurdish political and cultural demands, and its rejection of the right of nonTurkish ethnic groups to claim universal national rights, reinforced the view that the forceful overthrow of the Turkish state rule was indispensable to Kurdish liberation. Such a framing of the Kurdish question in Turkey is best epitomised by the PKK’s national liberation discourse and its insurgency throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The conflict and political violence has had deep detrimental effects eco-

nomically, socially, and politically, and it has been a constant source of tension and political polarisation in Turkey. The response of Turkey’s mainstream political parties has centred exclusively on ending the violence through military means, focused mainly on the suppression of the PKK and

its insurgency. The militarist and security discourse has been dominant in Turkey to such an extent that there has been little room for a public discussion to find any alternative solutions to this complex ethno-political problem. Turkey’s inflexible legal order, coupled with an unsympathetic political environment and the unnerving stance of the politically powerful army, has made the expression of an alternative view on the Kurds or the Kurdish question a cause for prosecution (see Bayır, Erdem, and Aksoy in this volume). Within the state’s hegemonic discourse, the Kurdish question has been predominantly described as an ‘existential threat’ to Turkey’s security as a state (Taspinar 2006: iv; Bozarslan 2008: 333). Furthermore, the prevalence and continuity of violence during the past three decades, together with the everyday experience of the ongoing conflict and the consequent loss of life, has created fertile ground for the popularisation of nationalist antagonisms, which has led to an alarming rise in anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey. This is reflected in the resurgence, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, of support for a more exclusive and militant form of Turkish nationalism, as exemplified by the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) and the Great Unity Party (Büyük Birlik Partisi, BBP), and to a certain extent has been leading to the communalisation of violence. Lynching campaigns against Kurdish individuals, and organised rallies that have an exclusively anti-Kurdish focus in many of the Western cities in Turkey, have become regular events throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Furthermore, the alarming increase in recent years of Kurdish conscripts dying due to unexplained ‘accidents’ or ‘suspicious suicides’ during their compulsory national service has enhanced fears that the conflict may be extending into new settings beyond clashes between the PKK guerrillas and the state security forces (Cumhuriyet 2012). Therefore, in the past two decades, the Kurdish question has firmly established itself as a new cleavage in Turkish politics specifically, and in Turkish society generally. It is also significant to note here that the conflict took a new direction after

the capture and imprisonment of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in February 1999. Throughout the 2000s, the Kurdish question entered and remained at a new stage characterised by conflict management, which significantly altered its nature. In comparison to the 1980s and 1990s, the 2000s have witnessed significantly less armed violence, and while we are far from achieving a consensus on a political settlement to end the conflict, this period was a time of reflection and searching. During the past decade, we have witnessed minor shifts and changes in Turkey’s Kurdish policy that can be seen as partial and half-hearted responses to Kurdish demands. However, such ‘attempts’ have been marred by various difficulties and have not necessarily led to a more comprehensive process of conflict resolution. Moreover, a broadbased attempt to construct a much needed national consensus to generate the necessary wide-ranging policy proposals has not become part of the process. In fact, the absence of an effective conflict resolution process and of

a national consensus has been the main barrier to ending the conflict.