During an election campaign tour in the western part of the country, I reaffirmed my earlier conviction that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is the best we have, at least for the moment, to solve the decades-long Kurdish problem in this country. It is the only agent that can deliver what Kurds want without risking a huge backlash from other ethnic groups, mainly Turks.
Western provinces, starting from Balıkesir in the north and moving south over the Aegean coastline, are overtly nationalistic and voters in this region somewhat punished the AK Party in local elections held in 2009 partly because of what the government did in the name of the “national unity and brotherhood project,” a fancy and less provocative name for the Kurdish initiative. The AK Party lost the mayoral contest to a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) candidate in that election.
Balıkesir is a rebellious and defiant province with a population highly sensitive on nationalistic issues. In this very city, the first spark of the Turkish War of Independence occurred, during which planning for a nationwide resistance movement against Greek occupation was coordinated. Now it has become a place where change in Turkey has met the strongest opposition. Anti-Kurdish feelings are on the rise and movements based on ultra-nationalistic feelings are gaining ground. A local candidate in Balıkesir from the Justice and Equality Party (HEPAR), a fringe ultra-nationalist party established by retired general Osman Pamukoğlu, even said the province was “under Kurdish occupation.”
AK Party candidates are the only ones in this province trying to calm the fears and stem the rising tide of extremism fueled by the MHP and other nationalist parties. The province is home to many retired high-ranking generals, as well as other officers who do not help, but fuel nationalistic feelings through associations they helped established. These movements organize panels and workshops to publicize the supposed dangers of AK Party government policies with respect to Kurds and other nationally sensitive issues like Armenian rapprochement.
Unfortunately it paid off. In 2009 there were skirmishes in the towns of Edremit, Gönen and Bandırma, targeting Kurdish settlers. This points to the distrustfulness that has developed towards ethnic minorities, mainly Kurds. Even Kurds who settled in the region two or three generations ago are against new Kurdish immigrants in the province, accusing of being supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group labeled as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. It is worth remembering that Ergenekon suspects Şener Eruygur and Çetin Doğan served in the region. The uncovered evidence submitted to the court indicates that the Ergenekon terrorist organization wanted to play into the sensitivities of local people by inflaming national issues in cities like Balıkesir.
It is surprising to see that the educated people in the province, most of them supporting the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), are more xenophobic than others. In holiday coastal towns Erdek and Bandırma, for example, people with high incomes from the upper class are more nationalistic and heavily favor the CHP, supposedly a leftist party but in fact considered the guardian of the old regime. In these cities, there is not much difference between the MHP and CHP on the Kurdish issue and many others. In fact, the CHP and MHP made an alliance in the local elections in Balıkesir in 2009 and they all supported the MHP candidate.
However inhabitants of towns like Kepsut, Gönen, Savaştepe and Sındırgı, which are located inland, are mainly conservative and support the AK party. Even they are ambivalent and are confused on Kurdish issue, but they trust the AK Party to do what they say is best for the country. I remember a conversation I had with a police officer in Bandırma. He said he was furious at the beginning of the Kurdish initiative launched by the AK Party government even though he appreciated all other policies pursued by the government. “But later I realized that terror is lessening and we started to see fewer coffins coming to Balıkesir. The PKK reacted against it and the initiative has driven a wedge between the terrorist group and larger Kurdish population. Now I support this policy,” he said.
The demographic composition of Balıkesir province is predominantly Circassian and Georgian from the north Caucasus, Yörüks from the Balkans and Manavs from Bulgaria. These are all peoples who immigrated to Turkey and have extremely strong loyalty to the Turkish state. They are very nationalistic and have strong feelings for the Turkish military.
I was talking to Ahmet Edip Uğur, the lead deputy candidate in Balıkesir for AK Party in the June 12 elections, in his office this week to see how people in the region felt about the Kurdish initiative launched by his party. He said it has been difficult to explain it to voters but felt confident enough to say that AK Party will eventually prevail and people will see the reality.
“I am a Turk but my wife is of Albanian descent. I go to Armutalan village where ethnically Georgian people live and speak the Georgian language. I go to Muradiye village where people speak the Circassian language. I ask people whether we had a choice in selecting our mother tongue at birth. They nod their heads in an agreement. I think people here understand our position. If we solve this Kurdish problem here in Balıkesir, then we would be able to solve it in the country,” he explained. Considering that Uğur is a well-respected politician in Balıkesir and a deputy chairman in the AK Party, his words carry great weight.
The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), described as pro-Kurdish, is actually not a pro-Kurdish party because it does a great disservice to the Kurdish cause by agitating Kurdish feelings and inflaming Turkish nationalism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan correctly pointed out in his Diyarbakır rally speech that his party has about 60 deputies of Kurdish descent, three times that of the BDP deputies. His Cabinet has four Kurdish ministers who control large portfolios like agriculture, the Treasury and public investments.
The Kurdish problem in the Southeast will be solved only if we find a resolution to that problem in the West. Otherwise it will linger on for a long time. And AK Party is our only hope to get the reconciliation message across in the west and east together.