The apparent sidelining of the pro-Kurdish HDP by the government and other opposition parties raises concerns that a chance for peace in the predominantly Kurdish southeast is going unused. Demonstrations denouncing the coup attempt of July 15 continue across Turkey, and immediately following the failed coup the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) met with two of the major opposition parties in parliament – however, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), third-biggest in parliament, has been left out.
As one of the most astonishing developments in Turkish history was unfolding in Istanbul and Ankara, the ever-spiraling conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the military – so long a dominant story on regional news – fell almost completely off the map.
And yet Kurdish communities, with a long history of oppression under successive military intervention – which in the 1980s and ‘90s led to the wholesale destruction of Kurdish villages and punitive crackdowns – arguably had the most to lose had this coup succeeded.
The HDP came out alongside the other opposition parties in voicing vehement criticism of the coup attempt. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım subsequently thanked the HDP for its condemnation of the coup, a move toward rapprochement between the two parties, which boded well for the Kurdish question. Most significantly, President Erdoğan made a clear move toward unity whilst the coup attempt was still ongoing, calling on Kurds and Turks to unite against this threat to democracy, arguing that the Gülen movement is as dangerous, if not more so, than even the PKK. But questions remain as to whether these early signs of warmer relations will persist.
“A lost chance for peace”
Following the coup, swift purges of the Turkish army raised questions about the future of the PKK-state conflict. The Turkish military has traditionally been largely anti-Kurdish, and the impact of the coup attempt and subsequent restructuring of the military following purges of key military officers involved in anti-PKK operations initially seemed to offer some indication that there was a chance for a return to peace talks with the Kurds.
According to military analyst Metin Gürcan, the ranks most affected by purges were generals and admirals: 45.8 percent of generals in Turkey’s army, air, and naval forces were discharged. It remains to be seen whether the replacements will have tangible consequences for the conflict.
The discharges were also followed by a restructuring of the Supreme Military Council, which determines the military’s agenda. The number of cabinet ministers on the council increased from two to seven, implying a significant change in the direction of military policymaking. The gendarmerie, a key player in operations against the PKK, was also placed under the control of the interior ministry. Tighter political controls over the military mean that future changes in this conflict will no longer be directed solely by the military.
Turkey’s energy minister, Berat Albayrak, has reportedly reopened the investigation into Roboski – where 34 villagers were killed by the Turkish Air Force. Significantly, pro-government newspaper, Daily Sabah, has reported that the massacre could have been the result of a Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ) faction within the Air Force: “an attempt to damage and end Kurds’ trust in the state.”
And yet the opportunity this coup offered for the Kurdish peace process has gone unused, and seemingly even unnoticed: “A lost chance for peace”, according to an expert on the Kurdish conflict who wished to remain anonymous.
This was not a lost chance across party divides, however. Following the coup, the Turkish President has magnanimously dropped lawsuits against MPs from the other two opposition parties, ongoing since the controversial lifting of parliamentary immunities in May this year.
This represents a significant step towards cross-party rapprochement, particularly between the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who have increasingly come in to conflict over recent years. But the HDP, Turkey’s third-biggest party in the parliament, has been excluded.
The HDP was also excluded from the meeting in which President Erdoğan met with the leaders of the AKP, CHP, and MHP to discuss steps to be taken in the wake of the coup. HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş voiced his criticisms of this move, arguing that ignoring the HDP shows the lack of comprehension of the consequences of the coup attempt.
Stressing that the HDP is a party with six million people’s votes which opposed the coup just like the others, Demirtaş argued that, “What triggered the coup attempt was the understanding that the Kurdish question could be solved by military means. Ignoring the HDP and agreement of three parties will not lead to any solutions.”
Faysal Sarıyıldız, a HDP MP, warned that sidelining the problem could create long term problems. “The exclusion of the HDP from this alliance will not offer any solutions. The exclusion of the HDP is an exclusion of the Kurdish issue as well as an exclusion of democracy,” he told Independent Turkey. “And as we know, the exclusion of democracy always lays the groundwork for future coups.”
Long history of Gülenist infiltration
Criticizing the government’s previous backing of the movement loyal to exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused of orchestrating the coup, Demirtaş blamed the government for paving the way for the Gülenist infiltration of key state organs, which he said led to the coup attempt.
The pro-Kurdish HDP and the PKK (a designated terrorist group in Turkey, Europe and the US) had previously warned of the consequences of Gülenist infiltration of the state’s security structure, the military and the police. For its part, the Gülen movement – while reportedly in favour of a peaceful settlement – has opposed the kind of regional autonomy the PKK has long advocated for.
Tensions between the Gülenist movement and Kurdish political organizations run deep, borne out by previous operations against Kurdish politicians during the KCK trials. In 2009, a series of trials was initiated against the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization of the PKK, and expanded to target Kurdish politicians affiliated with the HDP’s predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
MPs from the BDP, district governors and party members were arrested. The KCK trials, like the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) trials, are believed to have been largely orchestrated by Gülenist members of judiciary.
“Those who conducted operations on Kurdish politicians in 2009, and the operations of Balyoz and Ergenekon, are arrested today for taking part in the failed coup attempt,” Sarıyıldız of the HDP told Independent Turkey. “These operations, conducted by judicial units of the Gülenists, were authorized by the AKP government.”
Later, in 2012, Gülen’s insidious involvement in AKP peace talks with Kurdish groups came to a head again. Police, allegedly following Gülen’s orders, attempted to question Hakan Fidan, leader of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), whilst he was in the midst of secret government talks with the PKK in Oslo.
This has widely been interpreted as the onset of the conflict between the AKP and Gülen, and by extension, a precursor to the coup attempt.
In a more recent development, a draft indictment was obtained by BuzzFeed following the July 15 coup attempt appears to show that the coup plotters aimed to put Erdoğan and his top officials on trial on charges of aiding the PKK, citing the solution process. If the document proves to be real, it is a strong indication of the validity of the Kurdish political movement’s concerns about Gülenists.
Sarıyıldız, stating that Kurdish people have always been the greatest victims of Turkey’s military coups, said, “The success of this coup attempt would have meant that the Kurdish people would pay a heavy price.”
Kurds under constant state of emergency
Demirtaş called for the expansion of democracy and freedoms during public rallies, and criticized the recently declared state of emergency. “Declaring a state of emergency is the way of those who attempted the coup. You cannot fight against military coups by derogating from European Convention on Human Rights, you fight it within principles of law,” he said.
Demirtaş’s criticisms of the state of emergency has its roots in Kurdish history with military rule and Martial Law. Some parts of the predominantly Kurdish east and southeast continued to be under an ongoing state of emergency for 15 years, from 1987 to 2002, after the countrywide state of emergency, imposed by the military rule of 1980 coup lifted in the other parts of Turkey. The ruling AKP government ended this within a month of acceding to power, making significant strides towards the implementation of a viable peace process.
Despite the highly publicized ‘solution process’ of 2013, in which the PKK’s infamous leader Abdullah Öcalan called for the “end of armed struggle”, spillover from the Syrian civil war and the 2015 Suruç bombing led to the resumption of all-out conflict.
Starting in the summer of 2015, Kurdish towns such as Sur in Diyarbakır, Cizre, Nusaybin and Yüksekova were again placed under strict curfews. Some lasted for over 100 days, and clashes between Kurdish militant groups and the Turkish Armed Forces in residential areas allegedly led to serious human rights violations and civilian losses.
At the parliamentary hearings about the State of Emergency Bill, speaking on behalf of the HDP’s parliamentary group, Meral Danış Beştaş stated that the memories of the state of emergency, which was renewed 46 times, are still fresh in the minds of many people. “Hundreds of thousands were forced to migrate and over 4,000 residential settlements were forcefully evacuated during that period.”
Beştaş said that HDP would vote against the State of Emergency Bill because “a state of emergency means suspending rights and freedoms of the citizens.”
While the latest operations against Gülenist have diverted attention from the Kurdish question for the time being, lives continue to be lost. At least 18 security officers were killed in PKK attacks past week, and the latest steps taken by politicians are yet to offer any hope for peace.
Turkey’s Kurdish population likely would have experienced significant losses had this coup succeeded as they have been historically persecuted by the military, and by Gülen’s hawkish stance towards negotiating with the secular PKK.
In light of this history, why this lost chance for unity and peace? Since the June election of 2015, and the AKP’s brief loss of its parliamentary majority, there has been a growing alignment between the ruling party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
This alignment indicates a significant departure from the early years of the AKP’s rule. Prior to 2013, progressive legislation towards the use of the Kurdish language was passed, dialogue with the PKK pursued, and there was even rapprochement with the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq. The June 2015 elections and government’s reliance on nationalist votes has seemingly precluded a viable peace process.
The constitution and proposed presidential system are also factors inhibiting the chance for peace. During the HDP’s June election campaign, the party adopted a firm stance against Erdoğan’s proposal to convert Turkey to a presidential system, saying “we will not let you become president.”
As the HDP has continued with its pro-democracy campaign, and contests Erdoğan’s presidential system, the chance of rapprochement seems slim.
PKK violence is also an enduring issue. Just last week 35 militants were killed whilst trying to storm a military base in the southeastern province of Hakkari. The PKK has been engaged in armed conflict sporadically since 1984. Most believe that until the PKK disarms, there will be no movement towards negotiating a solution even with the HDP, which is inextricably connected to the armed movement in the eyes of many Turkish citizens.
Either way, Kurdish communities, already persecuted under military rule, are likely to fear the worst as the extent of the state of emergency, violence and all that entails becomes clearer in coming months.
“The government said that the state of emergency will only be aimed at the coup plotters. But we are only going to be able to check that in a few days,” Demirtaş said.