ISTANBUL — Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, launched parliamentary debate this week on a new law that would open formal negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party to end a 30-year armed rebellion.
He tied the move to resolve the long-standing grievances of the country’s biggest ethnic minority to his campaign to become Turkey’s first directly elected president, making it clear that he was pitching for Kurdish votes in hopes of winning a majority in the first round of the Aug. 10 contest.
“Turkey has no choice other than a resolution, peace and fraternity,” Erdogan said, referring to the Kurds, who compose about one-fifth of the country’s 78 million population, as he accepted the nomination of his AK Justice and Development Party on Tuesday. “If God permits, we will never, and we can never, let the resolution process stall during our presidency.”
The Parliament, in which Erdogan’s AK has an absolute majority, began debating the legislation Wednesday with an eye to voting by the end of July. Lawmakers were to have been on recess this month, which coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The legislation was welcomed by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK, as a “historic development,” and Kurdish legislators in the Parliament welcomed the bill as leading to serious negotiations between the government and the party.
While tied to Turkey’s internal politics, Erdogan’s move comes not a moment too soon in the context of growing impatience by the PKK and tectonic shifts in neighboring Iraq.
Erdogan and Ocalan first announced plans for a formal negotiating process in March 2013, and the PKK began withdrawing its armed guerrilla units from Turkey the following month.
But top PKK commanders publicly doubted Erdogan’s intentions and never fully withdrew. If the process hadn’t proceeded now, the PKK not only might have resumed its violent attacks but, in light of the changes in Iraq, also might have reverted to its demands to separate Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey from the rest of the country, and join a greater Kurdistan.
In Iraq, after federal security forces abandoned the north of the country, leaders of the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government this week announced a referendum to create an independent state, which might exert a magnetic effect on Kurds in Turkey.
For the past year, the Turkish government has held regular negotiations with Ocalan, sending top intelligence officials to see him on Imrali, a prison island in the Bosporus Strait. But some politicians have criticized the government for negotiating with a group that Turkey, as well as the United States and the European Union, considers a terrorist organization. A Turkish prosecutor at one point began an investigation of Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, over his secret talks with PKK officials.
The new legislation would authorize the government to negotiate openly with Ocalan and with PKK leaders based in Kurdistan and elsewhere abroad.
It also would give the government new powers to improve the lot of Kurds in Turkey, who accuse the government of denying them basic rights and mistreating them in prison.
Erdogan spoke emotionally Tuesday about bringing torturers to account for crimes committed against Kurds in prisons and to support Kurds who “were banned from speaking their mother tongue.”
Meanwhile, a court in Diyarbakir, the major Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, has released 30 suspects held in a major case against the Kurdistan Communities Union, the PKK’s civilian wing, leaving just two in custody.
Turkey has been widely criticized for jailing a large number of journalists, many of whom were Kurds associated with the Kurdistan Communities Union.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said a journalist was among the 30 people released in Diyarbakir. It estimated that at least 10 more journalists are in jail, some of them Kurds.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said 21 journalists were being held in prison in Turkey, down from 95 in April 2011, and that the government hadn’t yet reformed its anti-terrorism laws and criminal code, under which many journalists have been incarcerated.
It’s still an open question whether the “resolution process,” once launched, will resolve the conflict, which has cost in excess of 30,000 lives.
“It’s all about process, not content,” said Gareth Jenkins, a longtime observer of Turkish politics who’s based in Istanbul. “It’s still a huge problem, which has not been solved.”
One of the major challenges is whether Kurds will be satisfied with being allowed to use the Kurdish language and vague promises of more power for local authorities. And there’s still the question of how and whether Ocalan will be allowed to leave his prison cell after 13 years and enter Turkish politics.