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Turkey's Unity Threatened: Polarization Over Kurdish Policy

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While the Arab world is swept by a series of revolutions ending the long lasting status quo in the region, Kurdish separatists announced the end of a six-month cease-fire this week in their nearly 30-year fight against the Turkish state. The timing is undeniably meaningful. March kicks of election season in Turkey, and people will vote on the next government in three months. Kurds also celebrate Newruz this month. The March 21 festivities mark the arrival of spring, and the massive number of people likely to attend increases the odds of a clash between Kurds and Turkish security forces. Such an incident may give a picture that the fever in the region jumped to Turkey, too. And it's needless to say that any type of fight is bound to play a role in the national election.

Before going further though, it's important to give a brief context to the dilemma, which threatens Turkey's unity, peace and security. Without a doubt, Turkey has approached a very crucial turning point in its dealings with its Kurdish citizens. To start with, the issue of secularism and the role of Kurds in Turkey -- either as part of the republic or separate from it -- has been a key weakness since the country's founding 88 years ago. Even after so many years of their own form of democratic government, Turks are still insecure about the strength of the secular regime and Kurds do not feel like equal citizens. The Kurdish political parties have long sought autonomy, leaving open the question of whether they would try to create an independent Kurdistan with Turkish land.

When the United States military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Turks also feared that its other mission in the region was creating an independent Kurdistan -- a deep-rooted fear based on how the Ottoman Empire was lost by the end of World War I. As a result, the Turkish State seems to have decided between the two "evils" -- surely not used in literal sense but as a metaphor -- and cast its lot with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the grounds that the Kurds were less trustworthy than the Islamists. Rightly or wrongly, the military favored an AKP takeover of Turkey's eastern and southeastern regions, which are populated mainly by Kurds, rather than allow the Kurdish parties to rule there. The result is a rather complicated mess.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan rose to power in 2003, he complained that the previous government had failed to address the Kurdish issue and had done nothing to further the state's interests since jailing PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Now, after nine years of AKP rule, not much has changed; in fact, the problem has grown even bigger and more chronic.

Turkey's fight against the PKK has not been easy. In the name of counterterrorism, the Turkish military and security forces have acted illegally, shattering innocent lives and spreading fear over the Kurdish population. The United States did not necessarily care what Turkey did in mid-to-late 1980s. The U.S. policy line was that the "PKK is a terrorist organization and we support Turkey's right to defend itself against terrorism." But the Gulf War led to a dramatic shift in the U.S. policies toward the Kurds. That affected the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey throughout the 1990s. The Congress brought spotlight on Turkey's human rights record in its dealings with the Kurdish issue -- rather in a disproportionate way. In the meantime, the Turks in the western part of the country did not want to know what was happening in the Kurdish regions. And that was even more problematic than anything else...

Under the AKP's leadership, however, the state prosecutor in Istanbul prosecuted Ergenekon, a shadowy Turkish ultra-nationalist gang, in a high-profile trial. Many in the general population thought that Turkey had reached a point where it could deal with its darker elements and end the workings of the "deep state." But nearly three years after the trial began, Turks have not begun to come to terms with the crimes of the past or move forward with a national healing process. Instead, this historic trial is now all about a 2003 coup plot -- and even though no clear evidence exists that steps were taken to carry it out, it is the reason that 1 out of every 10 high-ranking Turkish military officers is in jail.

Still, I'm convinced that the Turkish state backs AKP on its Kurdish policy. Or I can rephrase it differently and argue that the AKP acts accordingly with the Turkish state when it comes to the Kurdish issue. Either way, Kurds made significant gains in the 2009 local elections, but since then many have worried that the AKP and the larger Turkish state are trying to destroy them politically. That seemed the logical conclusion, one Kurdish representative told me, after thousands of Kurdish activists were prosecuted after the local elections in the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) trial. Unquestionably, the Turkish government should have dealt with the Kurdish parties differently. Yet many speculate that religion and ideology are Erdogan's reasons for fully supporting Hamas and Hezbollah while refusing to accept the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) as legitimate. Simply put, Kurds represent a secular movement; the others are Islamist.

To move on, Turks went to the polls last September to decide on a referendum to change parts of the Turkish constitution, and Erdogan stoked the fires by bringing up the Turkish military's operation in 1937 in Dersim to end a Kurdish uprising. Turks should be able to talk about the dark parts of their history -- honesty can only strengthen their country's unity. But Erdogan wasn't trying to be constructive. He was trying to hurt his main opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose hometown is Tunceli -- formerly Dersim. Erdogan wanted to embarrass Kilicdaroglu, who represents the Republican People's Party (CHP), and create the impression that he was acting against the people of his own hometown by leading a party that actually had given the order to use air bombardment to end the uprising in Dersim in 1937. He hoped that it would bring him the votes. He was right. But it did not change the fact, Kilicdaroglu insisted that his politics would not be determined by ethnicity or religion and that an overwhelming majority in Tunceli voted against the referendum. What Erdogan should have done, if his real aim was to examine the mistakes of Turkish history, was not to use such a traumatic incident as a political football. Rather, he should have apologized for those past mistakes and tried to move the country forward. As the prime minister, he owns Turkey's past and the present...

The military constitution drafted in 1982 mandated that parties must achieve a 10-percent threshold in the popular vote to be represented in the Turkish Parliament, and a minimum vote of 7 percent in the national election to be eligible for funds from the state treasury. That stipulation was a blatant move to keep Kurds out of Turkey's politics. But while Erdogan continually talks about Turkey's strengthening democracy, he argues vehemently against lowering those barriers so that people can really be represented in Parliament. He wants to win a third term in June, and by playing the hardball he is trying to hold the vote for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) under the 10-percent threshold. If he succeeds, he could end up with 367 AKP deputies in Parliament -- which would be the magical number allowing him to change the constitution without opposition.

Last but not the least, AKP's Kurdish opening or democratic opening lacked a true content. No one seemed to be clear as to what it really constituted. Yet it became clear that AKP had cut a deal with the PKK -- through back channels -- persuading the return of a group of 34 people from northern Iraq through Habur border gate in October. Some of those were PKK members and others were refugees at the Makhmur refugee camp. In the end, both sides misused this opportunity.

The AKP leadership failed to prepare the country, but authoritatively pushed the people to accept whatever they decide. It backfired. Those returnees are now being arrested and standing trial mainly for supporting a terrorist organization. Alas Erdogan -- as the Turkish prime minister -- should have known better that there is no way for Turkey to really take a step forward on the Kurdish issue without the consent and approval of its two opposition parties -- the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). They were, however, completely excluded from this process. As a result, when Turks saw Turkish judges at the border in the tents issuing them an easy pass to normal life with no ramification, and watched on their television screen the victory festivities in the Kurdish cities, they could not comprehend what it really meant to them.

Turkey's unity is more at stake than ever. People are becoming more and more polarized, and there is hardly any sincere debate questioning the AKP's policies. Instead the focus is on the military's mysterious plot to overthrow the government rather than genuinely concentrating on the country's well-being. Erdogan's tactics of distraction, manipulation, clouding the issues and causing confusion may keep him in power by dividing people, but they don't change the fact that his policies are hurting rather than helping the country.