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Dark days ahead

Dalia Mortada, Istanbul
July 29, 2015

Turkey's President Erdogan has shaken up the domestic political sphere with his decision to end the peace process with the Kurds. As Dalia Mortada reports from Istanbul the repercussions could be powerful.

Image: Reuters/U. Bektas

Following a week of violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), including airstrikes over the weekend on PKK outposts in northern Iraq, Erdogan's statement was not too surprising. But what he said next was: the president recommended immunity be lifted on Kurdish parliamentarians so they can be investigated for "links to terrorism."

"If [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] says people from the HDP [the mostly Kurdish People's Democratic Party] are terrorists, the AKP [Justice and Development Party, which Erdogan once led], which has supported IS all this time are terrorists just as much," 23-year-old Burak declares through a mouthful of watermelon and cheese.

The young Kurdish man is having breakfast with his friends at the café where they work before customers start streaming in. The coffeehouse is a popular stop for many in this lively Istanbul neighborhood. The bright red and orange table cloths are adorned with geometric patterns popular in Turkey's Kurdish southeast, and people often come for a taste of something different: creamy, nutty Kurdish coffee.

"Last week, we lost 30 young people to a bombing that this government allowed," says Mert, Burak's quieter, more subdued friend. The 22-year-old sets down his fork as he recalls last Monday's suicide attack in Suruc, southern Turkey, against a group of youth activists en route to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on a humanitarian mission. "It was the police that carried out the attack," Mert says before Burak interrupts him, "No, it's the AKP, it's the government."

people demonstrating photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Anger against the AKP and Erdogan is growingImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Altan

One and the same

To the young men, the "Islamic State" (IS) group and the government are one and the same. They're not the only ones who believe that: the PKK, which long led an armed resistance for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey but had agreed to a ceasefire since 2013, killed two police officers in retaliation for the Suruc bombing.

"By doing that, the PKK gave the government the excuse it needed to unleash the military campaign against them," explains political scientist Mehmet Ali Tugtan. "It's not like they're responding to a catastrophe, they're capitalizing on it," he adds. Turkey also launched airstrikes against IS last week, for the first time since the group made headlines as it gained ground in Syria and Iraq. "The government is consistent in saying, 'We were attacked by the Islamic State, so we hit back; we were attacked by the PKK, so we hit back.'"

Ayub Nuri, the English-language editor of the Kurdish news website Rudaw.net, agrees. The problem, he says, is that the Turkish government doesn't differentiate between the PKK and Kurdish civil society: politicians, intellectuals or journalists. "This has long been the case - even before the peace negotiations - Kurdish politicians, intellectuals and journalists, are prosecuted [for links to terrorism] and end up in jail," he explains. "On the other hand the Kurdish MPs say, 'PKK is an armed group based in the mountains, we are elected by the people,' trying to distance themselves from the organization."

Regaining the initiative

Many view Erdogan's statements against Kurdish parliamentarians as a way to regain the AKP's majority in Parliament. Rudaw, the news site Nuri edits, receives comments from Kurds all over the world. "I would say 60 percent to 70 percent of our readers…think the airstrikes [and Erdogan's comments] are his way of making up for the June elections," Nuri says, when the AKP lost its majority for the first time since they entered the government in 2002, and the Kurdish-focused HDP passed into parliament with 13 percent of the vote. Following Erdogan's statements, the HDP's co-chair Selahattin Demirtas said, "We have committed no unforgiveable crimes. Our only crime was winning 13 percent of the vote."

The June 7 parliamentary elections were historic: no Kurdish-oriented party had ever surpassed Turkey's 10 percent threshold - the highest in the world - to enter parliament. "The HDP played a major role in the AKP losing its majority," Tugtan explains. Since no party came out on top, politicians have been forced to negotiate a coalition government. The deadline is fast approaching for them to reach an agreement; if they don't, Erdogan could call a new election.

Amid allegations of being linked to terrorism, the new elections could yield very different results. "In that scenario, the HDP could be marginalized enough that they can't enter parliament," the political scientist says. The fear, Tugtan says, is that this could trigger even more violence, similar to what Turkey saw in the 1990s when the PKK was fighting for Kurdish independence. "Once again we have a crisis at an intersection of power transition and it seems like no matter how you feel about the maturity of Turkish democracy this power transfer will remain a problem."

street protests photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer
A harbinger of things to come?Image: Reuters/M. Sezer

Nuri says regressing to those days is unlikely. "A very small minority are calling for a direct revolt against Turkey and armed conflict," he says, "I think the majority wants peace," including local politicians and leadership in the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

But Mert is not as optimistic. "If the HDP doesn't make it into parliament [in the case of an early election], there really could be a civil war," he says, sucking on an olive pit. Hassan, sitting across from him, pipes in, "It could even be worse than the 90s - there's a lot more going on here," referring to the spillover from Syria's own violent crisis just across Turkey's southern border.

Burak's, Mert's and Hassan's families all migrated from Turkey's Kurdish southeast to Istanbul more than a decade ago to escape instability and violence. "If a civil war begins, where else will we go?" Hassan wonders.