It’s been few days since the ISIS-claimed attack happened in the Turkish border town of Suruc, a brutal reminder of the country’s close proximity to Syria and the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Suruc bombing, it is becoming clearer than ever that Turkey’s role in the region and the fight against ISIS is vital. Indeed, Turkey now lets the U.S. strike ISIS from its Incirlik air base and its active involvement has become a game changer in the global fight against ISIS terrorism and the Civil War in Syria.
But the domestic political issues are never far behind. The Kurdish population of Turkey is largely located along the sensitive border region with Syria and Iraq and Turkish politics has been tense for the past weeks with the recent terror attacks, not just by ISIS but also the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.
Understanding the Kurds and the Kurdish issue in Turkey is essential in analysing the dynamics of the region and how the domestic politics of Turkey might affect the fight against ISIS.
In order to get an insight about the current situation of domestic politics in Turkey, Global Public Policy Watch has conducted an exclusive interview with a member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly: Altan Tan.
Altan Tan is member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. The HDP’s success at the recent general elections has been a surprise and placed Kurdish demands for more autonomy right into the heart of politics in Turkey. In the light of the current coalition government talks, we asked Mr Tan what this means for the future of Turkish politics and the country’s role in the Middle East region.
According to some sources, your political involvement is attributed to the tragic events in your family. Could you give some insights on your political identity and the reasons for your political participation?
My father was killed by torture at the Diyarbakır prison when I was 24 years old. My political involvement started at the age of 13. Obviously my dad’s death had been influential in my political participation but I was in political events before that tragic event.
It has been almost two months since the elections in Turkey. How do you observe the current politics and the coalition talks?
President Erdoğan wants early elections, as he couldn’t digest the latest election results. In a matter of a coalition government, his dreams of creating a Putin-like presidency will perish. Moreover, without the chance of an AKP government [the previous majority government party], he would have to accept the ceremonial role of presidency and consequently he won’t be able to intervene in the government as that is against the current constitution. For these reasons I believe, he prefers early elections. However Turkey desperately needs a coalition to be formed because in a matter of early elections, polls indicate a similar result is likely to be the outcome where the AKP is unable to obtain the majority votes. Calls for early election would only lose Turkey a year in this case.
There are different opinions within the AKP of Turkey. Do Erdoğan’s vision of Turkey struggle to find acceptance from the Prime Minister Davutoğlu and the former President Gül?
This is clear. Although there are attempts to play down or hide some conflicts and disagreements, they eventually come out surface. Abdullah Gül prefers a Turkey politically in the same line with the US, the UK and the EU. He despises the government’s politics on the Middle East and that is apparent in his late speeches. Gül also does not support Erdoğan’s plans for more power to the presidency role. Davutoğlu on the other hand, wants a coalition government, as he would be redundant if Erdoğan succeeds in his presidency plans translating his soft power into an AKP majority government.
HDP’s success in the recent elections has been discussed both domestically and internationally. Do you think HDP has managed to place Kurdish politics into mainstream politics in Turkey?
There is a goal of the HDP to become the party of all Turkey. This means it is not a party that expresses the ethnic demands of the Kurdish minority but rather a party that promises further democracy and equal rights for all. By now a considerable shift in public perception has happened from the former to the latter. Within our 13% share of votes at the last elections, there is support from different groups. After all, from 6% in the 2011 elections to 13% now, this increase points out the approval for HDP’s bid to become the party for all Turkey.
Millions of voters’ still attach PKK terrorism with Kurdish politics in Turkey. Do you see this as a drawback to Kurdish demands in Turkey?
It is no secret that the HDP received the most votes from people who support or sympathise with the PKK. However in the last elections, the HDP gained considerable support from Kurds and Turks that oppose PKK. 13% simply don’t support PKK in this country. If the HDP continues to work on its bid to appeal to more of Turkey and if the PKK, at least, disarms in Turkey, the PKK will no longer be a problem for Turks. However if a reverse scenario happens, then support for HDP will shrink.
Do you think HDP’s active campaign to improve the rights of other minorities, gender groups and the LGBT has enabled it to surpass the 10% elections threshold?
The answer to this question is no. There have been various reports analysing the elections. We as a party also conducted a report to find out where this 6% increase comes from and how. In some places, results are analysed by ballot boxes. Our report presented that 11% of 13% votes are Kurdish votes. The remaining 2% includes various elements. However this 2% should not be undermined as it accounts for two million votes. I would like to stress that the most important factor that increased our votes was Erdoğan’s neglect of Kurdish reforms.
Are we talking about a slip in Kurdish votes that supported the AKP at the 2011 elections have now turned to HDP?
Yes, Kurds have changed their support as they couldn’t empathise with the AKP anymore and they had become very uncomfortable with AKP policies. There is a considerable shift in votes from Islamist Kurds to HDP. Deadlocks in Kurdish rights issues, the AKP’s reactions to the events in Roboski and Kobane and the discriminatory language used in the election debates have pushed these votes towards HDP.
Do you believe HDP is a party that addresses the demands of Islamist Kurds? HDP is a leftist party with a secular agenda.
It currently lacks with both party agenda and with representation on addressing the demands of this group. If the HDP works towards these demands then we can also draw some 5-6% more Kurdish votes from the AKP. However if the HDP fails to do this then this Islamist group will find other places for representation.
Do you think Erdogan’s vision to improve Kurdish rights have failed, What do Kurds want in Turkey?
The will and the decision to improve Kurdish rights was a necessary step. However, the method used for this vision is so far unsuccessful and failing. Neither Erdoğan nor the AKP have a serious plan in this Solution Process (is an on- going peace process aiming to resolve the Kurdish Conflict.) What they understand from improving Kurdish rights is: Kurds should accept their status; Kurds should not demand main education in the Kurdish language; Kurds should not ask for autonomy or self-governance; the PKK must lay down arms and end the terror. However this is not enough.
There are 40 million Kurds living in the region, half of them live in Turkey and the rest is spread into Iraq, Iran and Syria. What do Kurds want? Turkish Kurds want to create a new Turkey with a new constitution and a system where Kurds have the right to live as a nation with full rights of a nation.
Democracy cannot be negotiated with any group or a party. What I mean is that Erdoğan has tied everything with the disarming of the PKK. However, autonomy or demands for other democratic rights is one thing, but the PKK disarming and ending its activities are another. The Turkish government must work towards more rights for Kurds no matter what the relations with the PKK might bring. Moreover, the government must talk with the PKK to negotiate the terms and conditions for ending their activities.
However although democratisation is important, Erdoğan has to explain the process to the nation. Perhaps he aims to bring further democratisation once the PKK disarms and terror ends in Turkey?
If that is the case, Erdoğan has to declare his plan. He must say, “For the well-being of this country, once the PKK stops its activities, Kurds will have their democratic demands met.” The government must be transparent in this process and ensure every voice and opinion is heard.
Do you see secularism, kemalism (the founding ideology of Turkey) and nation-statehood in Turkey as threats to the Kurdish demands?
Yes, in my opinion these values are against the Kurdish demands. However we must first define what kind of secularism I am concerned with. We have a Jacobin type of French secularism unlike an Anglo-Saxon secularism, which could fit better in Turkey. On nation-statehood, the 1924 constitution of the Republic has systematically supressed Kurds and consequently Kurds and Kemalists have a feud between them.
*Kemalism: is an ideology defined by the political, social, cultural and religious reforms that separated the new Turkish state from its Ottoman predecessor. Some of Kemal Atatürk’s reforms include establishment of democracy, equality for women, secularism.
The jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan is an important figure in HDP politics. What should be the HDP’s strategy in balancing Öcalan’s presence and appealing to broader political spectrum across Turkey?
The HDP should stay neutral in this matter. However its neutrality could be questioned as the HDP and Öcalan are intertwined. However the HDP should not politicise Öcalan in Kurdish rights negotiations. As a result of further democratisation in the country, those in the mountains [referring to the PKK] and in jails [Öcalan] should be re-integrated into our society.
Is there are consensus across the HDP for the liberation of the jailed PKK leader Öcalan?
No it is uncertain.
Although the June 7 elections saw the success of the HDP, the right wing Nationalist party MHP also increased its share of votes. Does the rise of the HDP trigger an increase in Turkish nationalism or could the HDP represent the diversity in Turkey?
This depends on the HDP’s language and its behaviour in coming months. The MHP is currently unable to suggest any solution to the problems of Turkey. It only says a big no and it is uncertain to what it says no to. If the HDP displays a reconcilable behaviour and avoids sharp language, the MHP’s politics won’t cause a problem. However if both criticises each other heavily, then this could become quite dangerous.
Recently Masoud Barzani (President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region) has announced his intentions for an independent Kurdistan. Could autonomy or independence be seen as an option for the Kurds in Turkey?
I believe that the Kurds of Turkey do not wish for an independent state from the beginning and there are many reasons for this. There is an estimate of 17-20 million Kurds living in Turkey including assimilated Kurds and Kurds denying their identity. All in all about half of this population live in the West of Turkey, and many have settled there for economic reasons. Istanbul alone is the largest Kurdish city, accommodating over three million Kurds. İzmir, Ankara, Bursa, Adana, Antalya and Mersin – all the big cities of Turkey have a considerable Kurdish population. In addition to that, many Turks also reside in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Therefore an ethnic separation calling the east for Kurds and the rest for Turks cannot happen. This is why Turkish Kurds prefer a more democratic Turkey instead of a separate state. This is the best solution for the interests of Kurds of Turkey.
However the situation is different in Iraq and Syria. Iraq is divided into three sects as Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. Although I would like to see these groups co-exist together in Iraq, I don’t believe that’s possible.
For Kurds in Turkey a new state model is needed replacing the nation statehood model. Of course a very small minority, about 1-5% of Kurds aim for self-determination, however many aim to live within Turkey. There are over a million marriages between Kurds and Turks and non-Kurdish elements are increasing in Kurdish families. Many now have relatives of Turkish, Laz, Circassian, Arab or Bosniak descent inside their families. To try and break these connections will be devastating to everyone.
Although currently uncertain, given the possibility of Kurdish statehood from Iraq and Syria, how likely it is for Turkey’s Kurds, who constitute the largest Kurdish population in the region, to stay outside of such a development?
The Kurds of Turkey would not have to merge with it. We could have an EU-like regional federation. 25 years ago, the former Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal gave Turkish diplomatic passports to Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talabani. He also provided both financial and social facilities for the Kurds of Iraq to join Turkey with a federation. For example, the Kurdish region of Iraq is now conducting all of its connections with and via Turkey. There is around a 10 billion US dollar trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both parties are delighted with such cooperation. There are hundreds of Turkish companies in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkish is a recognised regional language. Things work between both parties and this means we could form a special cooperation with Kurdistan where they are still independent but connected to Turkey.
In this case, do you think Turkey’s aim of EU membership will become redundant?
These two scenarios are not opposing. If the European Union would be willing to accept a Turkey with an integrated Kurdish segment, this would be fine for us. However if Turkey accomplishes further democratisation, implements EU norms and solves its immediate problems, then EU membership won’t be a serious step for Turkey. It is good if we are part of it, but if not we can manage our own affairs.
Given the current tense circumstances, don’t you think your words are utopian?
No I disagree. In order to join the EU, Turkey has to bring equality to Kurds anyway. However if Turkey undergoes an intensive cooperation with the Kurds abroad, then the EU will decide if they want a Turkey like that.
There are examples of strengthening democracies with the assistance of EU membership such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. If Turkey needs for an urgent act of further democratisation, then don’t you believe EU membership should be a priority political aim?
True, but they don’t promise this to Turkey. We are always open to sincere help from our European counterparts.
(This interview was conducted on the 20th July 2015)