The struggle between the ruling center-right Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the far-left Kurdish guerrilla movement, the PKK, had entered into a relatively quiet period in March 2013, when a peace process was begun. That peace process is now in tatters, as PKK fighters have in recent weeks repeatedly targeted Turkish police, soldiers, and even a gas pipeline, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has replied with air strikes on the terrorist group’s redoubts over the border in Iraq. Observers have struggled to understand how things came to this pass, but few are in doubt that internal Turkish politics is behind these dramatic developments.
So too is regional politics around the rise of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish air campaign against the PKK bases in Iraq came at the same time that its air force flew a few missions for the first time against Daesh on the Syrian border with Turkey. Ankara also abruptly offered the United States the use of Incirlik Air Force base for air and drone strikes on Daesh in Syria. Erdogan was clearly attempting to trade an increased Turkish participation in the struggle against the radical Muslim terrorist organization for an abandonment by Washington of its new friends in the Kurdish guerrilla movement.
These developments are particularly disturbing to the pro–Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), co-chaired by the left-feminist Figen Yüksekdag and the leftist activist Selahattin Demirtas. Kurds comprise about 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people and predominate in the hardscrabble southeast of the country. This weekend, Demirtas, a member of parliament, tried to mediate the conflict. “The PKK has to immediately silence their arms and remove their hands from the trigger,” he said. He also called on the Turkish government to initiate a reciprocal ceasefire.
At the same time, however, Demirtas warned that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Justice and Development (AKP) is trying to find a pretext to outlaw the HDP, which holds 13 percent of the seats in parliament after June’s election. Erdogan has indeed called for prosecution of HDP members viewed as too close to the PKK guerrillas, though he denies wanting to close down the entire party. Others, though, including the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, which has 16 percent of seats, have demanded that the Peoples’ Democratic Party be shuttered.
One major explanation for the breakdown in the Turkish-Kurdish peace process lies in the country’s recent parliamentary elections. The AKP, a party tinged with the religious right, had captured the presidency for Erdogan last year. He was hoping for a simple parliamentary majority that would allow his party to form a government without needing a coalition party, and would then permit it to change the Turkish Constitution so as to make the country a presidential system, more like that of France (or more sinisterly, Egypt). The AKP had been doing very well in elections for over a decade and its officials had reason to expect another victory.