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What Does Erdogan’s Win Mean for the Kurds and Regional Stability?

Along with a widespread commitment to democracy among Turks and a resilient civil society, the victory of a pro-Kurdish rights party in securing enough votes to enter parliament could still strengthen Turkey’s democracy and regional stability.

The June Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections results, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his alliance of ultra-nationalists and Islamists won the presidency and a majority in the parliament, threaten Turkish democracy and the stability of the region as a whole, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Erdogan’s victory has further consolidated his nationalist-Islamist agenda, fulfilling almost all his purposes in calling for snap elections to enjoy his presidential executive powers. The People’s Alliance, comprising the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—which, despite a split in the party, managed to pass the 10 percent threshold required to be seated in parliament—has dimmed prospects of returning to the democratization process and peace talks with the Kurds. Yet some hope remains. Along with a widespread commitment to democracy among Turks and a civil society that has proven resilient in the face of pressure, the victory of the pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in securing enough votes to enter parliament could still strengthen Turkey’s democracy and regional stability, as addressing issues of Kurdish representation can help steer Turkey back on track.

Until 2013, Erdogan used his electoral victories to lead the country to economic prosperity and create hope for resolving the Kurdish question. However, when his quest for consolidating power and hegemony turned his AKP agenda to his personal ambitions, the democratization process stagnated and peace talks with the Kurds ended. Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine devolved into problems with all neighbors, and Turkey intervened in Syria and Iraq. Erdogan’s AKP failed to win a majority in a June 2015 parliamentary election, and a failed coup in 2016 led to a repressive crackdown. Hopes for European Union membership were dashed, and Turkey became an elected autocracy. Erdogan has marginalized opposition forces, established complete control over media, and put journalists, members of parliament, and elected local leaders in jail­—while leaving just enough space for the opposition to work and run in elections. Although the elections are not fair and free, Erdogan wins them by more believable margins than other autocrats in the region, such as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, who was reelected with 97 percent of the vote after eliminating all viable competition.

Throughout the turmoil in Turkish politics in the past decade, Kurdish issues have played an important, if understated, role. In fact, the peace talks with the Kurds is the core of almost all issues in Turkey. In February 2015, the former Turkish government, under the leadership of Davutoglu, reached a 10-item agreement with the Kurds—the HDP, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and its founder, Abdullah Ocalan. Known as the Dolmabahce Agreement, this accord addressed the Kurdish question in Turkey and was initially endorsed by Erdogan—though he later did not recognize it, leading Turkey to return to war with the Kurds. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were displaced, hundreds were killed, and several Kurdish villages and cities were razed by the Turkish army. If the peace talks had continued with the Kurds, Turkey would not have interfered in Syrian Kurdish successes with the United States-led global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Then, Turkey would consider the Kurds of Syria as friends rather than enemies, as the Kurds of Syria are socially and ideologically connected to the Kurds of Turkey, and consider Ocalan as their leader.

Following Erdogan’s win in the June elections, Turkey does not have many options. Erdogan will either deepen his autocratic rule or lead a return to the democratization process and peace talks with the Kurds. The ability of the left-wing, Kurdish HDP to surpass the 10 percent electoral threshold has restored hope for the Kurdish people in Turkey that the peace talks may resume. Erdogan’s objective—aside from a majority in parliament—was to put the HDP under the 10 percent threshold so that the AKP would have more legitimacy in discussing the Kurdish question in the parliament than the HDP, given that the AKP also has elected Kurdish representatives from predominantly Kurdish cities, mostly in the southeast of the country. For Erdogan, his leverage against the PKK and Ocalan would have been more significant if the HDP had failed to enter the parliament. Erdogan might have planned to force the HDP, the PKK, and Ocalan to compromise more, as Erdogan himself dissolved the peace talks for having views that differ with Davutoglu’s government.

Under the new presidential system, in which Erdogan enjoys executive powers similar to that of an imperial republic, getting Turkish democracy back on track seems impossible, unless efforts to address the Kurdish question continue. Although the Kurdish question has been one of the main issues of Turkey since its foundation, only AKP governments have been able to address it. Yet the AKP’s alliance with the MHP—which has blocked progress on the Kurdish issue in the past—means that Kurds will continue to be second-class citizens. Ocalan has said several times that the Kurdish question will remain even if the war continues another 40 years. Therefore, the PKK, since 1993, has supported the peace talks with Turkey. I interviewed the top PKK leader, Cemil Bayik, in the Qandil Mountains in 2016, and he insisted that peace talks were the only way for ending war. In the interview, which I conducted for Al-Monitor, Bayik called on international forces, particularly the United Nations and European Union, to assume roles in the solution of the Kurdish question. He said, “We state that it is necessary for the U.S. and Russia to take part in the solution of the Kurdish question. This is because the Kurdish issue is an international issue; it is the issue of all humanity.” I was able to talk to a PKK source in the Qandil Mountains while writing this article to understand whether the PKK position has changed. The source told me, “The PKK remains committed to peace talks as per the Dolmabahce Agreement, but it depends on whether Turkey abides by it or not.”

If the European Union and the U.S. pressure Ankara, Turkey may return to peace talks, as the PKK, Rojava, and Kurdish question in Turkey have shaped Erdogan’s domestic and regional politics. While Turkey feels threatened by “the PKK and the YPG in Rojava,” a resolution to the Kurdish question inside Turkey could lower tensions between Ankara and Kurds in the region. If the Kurdish question is not addressed, however, the AKP and MHP alliance is expected to further consolidate power, and could result in violence, with intensified PKK fighting in Turkish territory. This could lead Ankara to escalate the fight against the Kurds, with spillover effects in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, a long-term solution to the Kurdish question could help increase the stability and resilience of Turkish democracy. The future of Turkey under the new presidential system led by Erdogan shapes Turkish political dynamics toward the Kurds, the region, and the world as whole. A democratized Turkey has significant implications for the stability of the country and the wider region.