Just like the waves of democratization processes in countries, reconciliation processes, like the one going on in Turkey, have their own waves and life cycles. In Turkey, the first wave took place with democratizing reforms that provided ground for free speech and the freedom of expression; the second wave was the overcoming of the monolithic security-only paradigm in Ankara’s approach to the Kurdish issue, which provided the opportunity to see the problem in a more broader perspective and the third wave was the political will on both sides that led to the emergence of the process itself. These waves did not take place without interruption. So far there were several reverse waves to derail this process, including the leaking of the Oslo tapes and attempts to restore the security paradigm to the problem.
The Turkish government took significant political risks and public opinion in Turkey and the region stand behind the process itself. Some of the progress from the reform process in Turkey became almost irreversible, such as reforms in free speech and emerging paradigms to approach conflicts in the region. However, the reconciliation process, and especially some phases of it, may face reverse waves as a result of the developments in the last few weeks that put the process into risk.
Since the beginning of the process, its health has depended on the synchronization of certain steps or an agreed schedule of movements and, very significantly, continued public support both in Turkey in general and in the region in particular. The end of the security perspective was a major step that the political structure in Turkey took in order to change the paradigm of the handling of ethnic conflict. Instead of thinking in military terms and instead of considering the problem as merely a “fight against terrorism,” Ankara took major steps to bring the problem to a political dimension. However, this process also necessitated the disarming of the PKK and the elimination of violent methods and illegitimate tactics and operations pursued by the organization and its offshoots. For a particular period of time, the PKK seemed to abide by these principles and stopped using violent methods. But more recently the PKK started to act in a more opportunistic way and tried to take advantage of regional conflicts and internal problems in Turkey in order to raise the threshold and slow down its withdrawal.
The Kobani conflict in this case was a major turning point. During this period, PKK forces not only returned to their default settings and used violent methods but also heightened their constant threats of ending the reconciliation process. Especially during the Oct. 7 demonstrations, it not only aimed to endanger public order but actively used force against rival groups in many southeastern cities. More than 40 people died during these demonstrations, some at the hands of PKK-affiliated groups. In the same period, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) also exhibited the same level of political opportunism by mobilizing the masses to take to the streets against the government and endorsed street politics in the midst of the reconciliation process. Both the HDP and PKK were unclear about what they were expecting from the government as a result of these demonstrations. Accusing Turkey of the conflict in Kobani and threatening public order in a country that opened its borders to more than 180,000 residents of Kobani in a single week was not a rational way to react. In the aftermath of these events, several Turkish soldiers were killed while walking on the busiest streets of the cities in the region. Meanwhile, there are increasing rumors about increasing PKK activity in cities closer to the Iraqi border. Public order in the region has been one of Ankara’s red-lines in the process and any attempt to challenge them and shake the new paradigm can endanger the process as a whole. If street politics and violent tactics are followed instead of political dialogue or will, then it would change the course of the process and transform the discourse of the problem.
The riots during the first week of October did not only hurt the reconciliation process, it may also endanger public support for the process itself. The Kurdish public as well as public opinion in Turkey as a whole have provided a major level of support for the process from the very beginning. The process brought a major improvement to the quality of life of residents during this period. On one hand, the safety and security after the cease-fire helped to normalize life in the region and, on the other, the economic wealth that came with normalization significantly impacts the lifestyle of the people there. In terms of overall public opinion in Turkey, in particular, the end of clashes brought major relief. However, these improvements took place only when the government could overcome the hurdles from the tutelage system and obstacles to democratization. In order to achieve this, public support for the process was very instrumental. And although public opinion of the residents in southeastern Turkey is extremely important, the support of the public in Turkey is also significant for the government to pursue these reforms. At the end of the day, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is accountable for this process and it would be extremely hard for a political party to continue this process in spite of public reluctance or opposition. The political leadership of Kurdish movements needs to understand that they are dealing with a political actor and public opinion in the region and needs to recognize that in part, it is their responsibility to stop the spoilers of peace in the region that may generate a reverse wave.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on November 3, 2014.