In an unprecedented move after three decades of PKK insurgency and violent retaliation by the Turkish military that has killed more than 40,000 people, the Turkish government is talking to the PKK about peace. Official talks between the Turkish government and the PKK through its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan are proceeding despite what appear to be attempts within the PKK to stop them (the recent assassinations of three Kurdish women activists in Paris, including an important figure close to Ocalan) and opposition in Turkish parliament.
Turkish intelligence officials and Kurdish members of parliament have traveled to Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara, where Ocalan has been imprisoned since 1999, though still retaining leadership of much of the PKK organization. The Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey’s biggest Kurdish party, says it has received a letter from Ocalan, spelling out his plans for peace. The plan is said to include a ceasefire and a retreat of PKK fighters from Turkey to their bases in northern Iraq by early summer. Ocalan’s blueprint for peace expects this to be followed on the Turkish side with legal and political reforms to improve the rights of Turkey’s estimated 12 million Kurds. Finally, the PKK fighting force would be dissolved and fighters would return to their families in Turkey, a move that would require some form of amnesty. BDP leaders are expecting Ocalan to announce a ceasefire on March 21, the day of the Kurdish spring festival of Newroz.
Caleb Lauer’s article in AlMonitor asks why Turkey’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is the only party in parliament opposed to negotiations that might end the thirty-year PKK insurgency. MHP has 51 of 550 seats in parliament and is being labeled “far-right” and “ultranationalist”, but the party is very popular among voters, pro-government and pro-main opposition alike. Its current leader, Devlet Bahceli, a 65-year-old former economics professor, has suppressed the political battles and street violence that used to be associated with the MHP and moved the party toward the center.
Why has the MHP stood against talks with the PKK? Lauer argues on the basis of interviews with MHP leaders and members that it is not because the party fears losing votes to peace.
For many voters, peace may seem a bigger threat than insurgency. They fear settlement with the PKK and more cultural rights for Kurds will diminish the “Turkishness” of the state, something tantamount to toppling a pillar of national security.
A senior MHP official, Serif Gul, argued that political Islamists, liberals, and “Kurdists” would eliminate the “Turkishness” of the state, while the MHP and the MHP Ulkucu youth movement (along with some leftist nationalists) fight to protect it. The MHP offers anxious voters a “guarantee” in this fight, he said.
The “Turkishness” of the Turkish state has long been seen as a precondition of the country’s national security. Continuing a policy of the Ottoman Empire’s last years, the Turkish Republic institutionalized the belief that only a common language, an idealized history, and Sunni Islam — all semi-purged of foreign, especially Arab, influence —could bind society together and prevent loss of territory. The Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 is still regularly invoked here to remind people exactly how foreign powers have wanted to divide Turkey.
At a concert in an Istanbul basketball arena on the weekend of the MHP’s 44th anniversary, young men leapt to their feet shouting, “God is Great!” and “Martyrs are immortal! The fatherland is indivisible!” These feelings have great resonance among the Turkish population even among those who vote for other parties. The Turkish government will have to do more to make peace palatable.