Many people had appeared to have “forgotten about the Kurdish question,” which many speakers in previous events had said was the number one issue facing Turkey, said Siddik Bakir. Photo by Sharmila Devi
LONDON - A sharp political crisis in Turkey has pushed the Kurdish issue aside for now but it cannot be ignored for long. That was the conclusion reached by academic speakers at a debate held in Britain’s parliament on Monday.
Under discussion were the roots of the political turbulence facing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergdogan, including the dispute between his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Hizmet (Service) movement led by Islamist scholar, Fethullah Gulen, that has millions of followers.
Erdogan faces a number of challenges to his 11-year-old leadership ahead of local elections next month, including a corruption scandal which he claims was orchestrated by Hizmet, partly because of its opposition to the stalled peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Many people had appeared to have “forgotten about the Kurdish question,” which many speakers in previous events had said was the number one issue facing Turkey, said Siddik Bakir, who is an academic and former UK parliamentary aide as well as an analyst at IHS Energy, and who moderated Monday’s debate.
A major problem facing Erdogan was that Gulen “doesn’t want to talk to (PKK leader Abdullah) Ocalan,” said Zeynep Banu Dalaman, director of the Centre for Studies on Turkey at Istanbul Aydin University.
Kurdish officials in Turkey have adopted some of the same expressions used by Erdogan describing the Turkish corruption scandal as an “international conspiracy.” The scandal erupted on December 17 with the detention of dozens of people, including businessmen close to the government and the sons of cabinet ministers.
The pro-Erdogan camp argues that the anti-corruption operation was spearheaded by prosecutors and police officers close to Hizmet and Gulen.
Erdogan was already under pressure following protests last June when millions of people across Turkey showed their discontent with a wide range of concerns.
He has since cracked down on the media and the judiciary, proposing measures to control the Internet and reassigning thousands of police officers.
The debate was organized by the Centre for Turkey Studies, a Turkey-focused public policy forum, and took place in the packed committee room of the House of Commons.
Kerem Oktem from Istanbul’s Sabanci University said Erdogan’s government had taken a lot of risks in starting the Kurdish peace process. But he believed it would become increasingly difficult for the Kurds to justify their “tactical alliance” with the AKP because its rule was ever more authoritarian.
The Kurdish issue was an “essentialist problem” that had to be solved, said Bill Park of King’s College, University of London.
“The Kurdish problem is not going to go away, like the Irish or Scottish (problems in Britain), he said. “The only way to resolve it is for the Kurds to have the cultural and political means to express themselves... or Turkey will continue to be troubled.”
The presence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the possibility of a similar entity emerging in Syria made the Kurdish issue “the big issue of the future but not of today,” he said.
Turkey’s political crisis, which the speakers said heralded the start of a “new era” for the country, was not discussed in terms of its effects on its neighbors but rather on how it could reverse democratic gains within the country.
Oktem said the crisis raised the question of whether democracy would survive in Turkey and he referred to “crony capitalism, clientelism, and disregard for the rule of law.” The anti-corruption probe had revealed a network of businessmen close to Erdogan who had done well in recent years but faced reversals during the current economic slowdown.
The “extreme centralization” of power under Erdogan could not “continue in a transparent democracy,” he said.
He also said he should apologize for referring to “Turkish” problems rather than those “of Turkey,” because this did not include the Kurds and other ethnic groups.
The speakers did not speculate about how Turkey’s political and growing economic crisis might impact on ties with Erbil, which signed a package of energy deals with Turkey last November to the anger of Baghdad.
In the dispute over Iraqi oil revenues, Baghdad wants them deposited in the Development Fund of Iraq instead of a Turkish state bank, Reuters reported this month.
Within Turkey, revelations of “massive illicit money flows” would make it almost impossible for Erdogan to regain widespread trust, said Oktem. Nonetheless, the AKP still enjoyed high support, according to opinion polls, because of the lack of a credible opposition.
Park of King’s College said Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, could pose a challenge to Erdogan if he chose not to sign the law on Internet controls or even made a bid for the premiership.
Gulen and Hizmet would remain a strong force in Turkish politics and there was debate within the movement about whether to be more transparent. “They’ve made mistakes and not doing what they preach,” he said. “People from Hizmet have told me they are rethinking their future.”