Is the AK Party government sincere about solving the Kurdish issue?

I have often been queried by diplomats as to how sincere the government is in its effort to solve the long-standing Kurdish problem in Turkey. The lingering question in the back of many foreign observers’ minds is this: Is the initiative just window dressing to appease European Union critics, or better yet a well-organized scheme to take the initiative right into the heart of the opposition’s court to place the blame for its failure upon them.

My bet is that the government, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is truly committed to solving this issue. He seems persistent enough to press on with the democratization process despite growing resistance from within his own party ranks and from proponents of the entrenched establishment status quo that include circles in the bureaucracy, military and judiciary as well.

Let me lay out the reasons for our readers as to why the government seems sincere. First and foremost, it is deemed to be politically unwise for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to launch such an initiative as we are gearing up fast for another national election, possibly to be held in 2011 or even earlier than that. Political animals, small and big, have already drafted their election strategy and are busy filling their campaign war chest with cash and pledges.

We know that party headquarters have already issued warnings to provincial and local offices to get ready for the upcoming elections and start making their case to the public in an early campaign to sway voters to their side. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the government is taking a huge risk at this juncture by announcing its intention to tackle what seems to be a highly sensitive and divisive issue in the country.

Secondly, we know from the track record of this government in the last seven years that more rights and freedoms have been granted to Kurdish citizens than in the history of the whole republican era combined. More importantly, this was achieved even before the government announced the initiative two months ago. Unlike today, we could not have dreamt of having a candid and open discussion on the Kurdish issue a decade ago. If, by chance or design, you dared to utter the words “Kurdish” and “problem” juxtaposed in the same sentence, you would have been dragged to court to face the wrath of the “justice” system.

I was with Mehdi Eker, the minister of agriculture and rural affairs, last week on a trip to Diyarbakır, the largest city in the heart of the Southeast with 1.5 million predominantly Kurdish residents. Eker, who himself is Kurdish, told me the government has done a lot since 2002 to broaden democratic rights for its Kurdish citizens, even before the initiative. I tend to agree with him.

The most important breakthrough was the ending of the “state of emergency” in the Southeast. The draconian laws applied during the long-running emergency rule allowed for harsh military and state tactics to be employed against the region’s citizens and forced many to evacuate villages and to flee from the clashes. Numerous human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, have been well documented in that era.

Kurds are now allowed to give their children Kurdish names on official birth certificates, unlike other groups in the ethnically diverse country. State television has started to broadcast in Kurdish, and the original names of towns and cities are now being restored. The ban on Kurdish music has been lifted and courses teaching Kurdish are permitted. To the credit of this government, we have come a long way in a short period of time.

Thirdly, the government stands to lose big if the initiative, which some see as the last chance to solve the problem, fails miserably. Apart from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), the AK Party is the only other party in the region which has been able to rally significant voter turnout in its favor in the last two elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are virtually nonexistent in the region. Hence the AK Party, which has earned the trust of many Kurds, has much to lose if the plan fails, regardless of whether the opposition is blamed for the collapse of the plan or not, simply because the expectations in the region have been raised.

Fourthly, small parties on the center left and center right are generally on the same page as the government, aside from some minor differences over details and methods. For example, Masum Türker, the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), whose party was a senior partner in the ruling coalition before 2002, told me his party is endorsing the initiative as the government needs room to maneuver, even though he had expressed some disagreements on the methods and approach.

The last, but not the least important factor pointing to the sincerity of this endeavor is that there is growing concern about the initiative among deputies within the AK Party, especially from the western and northern districts. They are becoming restless and increasingly vocal in their opposition, as the overemphasis on Kurdish identity has started to alienate their voter base in their constituencies and raised the eyebrows of many. The MHP is ready to capitalize on that point, and there are signs that it is making headway.

My final analysis is that if I was to window dress any issue to garner support from voters without getting much into the substance, I would have made sure I had picked an issue other than the Kurdish one. The government has certainly poked a hornet’s nest with this initiative, and that alone shows me they are sincere about this path. I hope the government keeps that commitment intact, and I do expect the prime minister to fulfill his promise to charge forward no matter what. The nation has a great deal to lose otherwise.

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