David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), which has been waging a low level guerrilla war in Turkey since the mid 1980s, has called for the group to lay down its arms and to take part in the democratic process in Turkey.
Ocalan's call came in a letter written in his prison cell and read out in Kurdish and again in Turkish at a huge rally in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey on March 21 to celebrate the Kurdish "Newroz" new year, variously reportedly as having been attended by anywhere between tens and hundreds of thousands of people.
For Diyarbakir – so often the site of violent protests from Turkey's huge Kurdish minority to play host to such a large and goodnatured gathering at which Kurdish flags and symbols were openly displayed is unusual enough – and would have been impossible just a few years ago. For it to see even the open mention of the name of the jailed PKK leader, never mind the open reading of a letter declaring his ideas, would have been unthinkable.
As it was, Ocalan called for the PKK to convene a congress to formally take the decision to end its armed struggle and "to determine political and social strategies and tactics in accordance with the spirit of new era." Ocalan called for a "democratic solution" to Turkey's "Kurdish, issue, one "based on free, egalitarian, constitutional citizenship within the Republic of Turkey".
This, he said, would be achieved in a spirit of brotherhood and democracy, under the auspices of a "monitoring committee". This group has been proposed by the predominantly Kurdish opposition party, the Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), to prevent the legal persecution of returning PKK members, which has stalled previous peace initiatives, and in line with ten "conditions" that had been outlined previously. Those ten conditions could better be described as "negotiating points", including guarantees of citizenship, definitions of democratic, legal and constitutional rights and guarantees for the rights of women, cultural rights, and protection of the environment.
Although a historic and ground-breaking move, the announcement hardly came as a shock, having been widely trailed in advance in the Turkish media and coming at the end of a lengthy process of "negotiation" with the government.
Previously in 2013, Ocalan called for the group to establish a ceasefire – which unlike previous ceasefires has actually held – and since when talks between the group and the Turkish government that had begins some years earlier were reported to have taken on a more serious tone.
More recently, government ministers had indicated that they were expecting an agreement to end the conflict, leading to suspicions that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) was planning to cut a deal with the HDP to help it to change the Turkish constitution to allow for an executive presidency and for former premier Tayyip Erdogan – who was last year elected to the ceremonial role of president – to again take on an active role.
Whether any such agreement exists is moot and given the turbulent political atmosphere ahead of Turkey's scheduled general election on June 7, it is also debatable what value could be attached to any deal made so early in the process.
By the time of Ocalan's announcement, President Erdogan had already publicly criticised the proposed "monitoring committee", slamming Kurdish politicians as insincere and making "never-ending demands", leading to some confusion as to who exactly was leading the government side of the ongoing peace process.
Although no longer occupying an executive role, and with his former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu now serving as prime minister, Erdogan continues to behave as if he is running the country and with the apparent intention of re-taking formal control if he is able to succeed in getting his supporters to change the constitution.
For the actual government itself, long-serving Deputy PM Bulent Arinc was quick to praise Ocalan's announcement. Speaking moments after Ocalan's letter had been read, he declared it a "positive" move.
More unusually, he publically criticised Erdogan's statements, describing them as "emotional and personal" and pointing out that the government had already agreed with the HDP on the issue of the monitoring committee and warning that Erdogan should consider his position.
If indeed an agreement has been reached, this should open the door for the planned committee to be formed and to play a role in what is now expected to be a more formal negotiating process. What happens after that, though, is unclear.
Turkey goes to the polls on June 7 in a general election in which the governing AKP is almost certainly guaranteed victory and which had been expected to be effectively a referendum on whether the country approved of Erdogan's proposal to change the constitution to allow him to return to a position of executive leadership.
To effect that constitutional change, the AKP needs to take two-thirds of the seats in parliament, a feat which opinion polls suggest is unlikely and which has led to suggestions that the ongoing peace process with the HDP and the PKK may be intended to garner Kurdish support for the constitutional change.
For the past two decades Kurdish politicians have stood in elections as independents, allowing them to be elected in their own constituencies without their party gaining the 10% of the national vote for its candidates to be elected to parliament.
This time around the HDP appears set on standing for parliament under its party name. Should it achieve 10% of the national vote, its MPs will be elected under the party banner. However, should it fail to break the 10% threshold, its votes will be redistributed among the other parties with the bulk going to the leading party, which in most cases will be the AKP.
The indications currently are that the HDP is not in favour of Erdogan's proposed presidential system, with HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas replying to Erdogan's criticism of the peace process by accusing him of seeking one man rule. "You are one man alone and you will remain alone. We are millions," he told the crowd in Diyarbakir.
Standing against Erdogan in last year's presidential election, Demirtas won a creditable 9.77% of the vote, despite widespread tactical voting which benefited the second-placed candidate.
Should his party succeed in topping 10% in the June election it would the first time a predominantly Kurdish party has entered the Turkish parliament standing on its own – an occurrence which would have enormous significance not just for the ongoing peace process, but also for the development of truly representative democracy in Turkey.
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