In Turkey, Erdogan Finds Obstacles in His Push for Reform

3 MINS READApr 18, 2013 | 14:04 GMT
In Turkey, Erdogan Finds Obstacles in His Push for Reform
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on April 16

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party is trying to forge ahead with an ambitious plan to neutralize the country's Kurdish insurgency and revamp the Turkish political system simultaneously. These issues cannot be addressed, however, without compromising the founding principles of the Republic of Turkey as envisioned by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Not surprisingly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan already is running into obstacles.

Erdogan is trying to move forward a comprehensive, multistep peace plan with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly as the PKK, that would lead to the withdrawal, selective amnesty and eventual disarmament of Kurdish rebels in Turkey. The prime minister meanwhile is trying to build up enough Kurdish support from this peace process to give him enough votes for a constitutional referendum, which would transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system and thus enable Erdogan, whose term as prime minister expires in 2015, to continue leading Turkey as president beyond 2014 when presidential elections are scheduled.

But complications to this plan are quickly developing. Turkey's main opposition parties, the Republican People's Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, have boycotted the parliamentary commission to oversee the PKK peace process, leaving the ruling Justice and Development Party to align with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Without enough political pluralism to see this negotiation through, the Justice and Development Party could take a hard political hit if and when the peace process is derailed.

While PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has been meeting regularly with intermediaries from the Peace and Democracy Party to further the talks with Ankara, the PKK has clearly articulated that while it will "silence its guns," disarmament is unlikely. PKK members in northern Iraq seeking amnesty and a return to Turkey are also skeptical that the Turkish leadership will have the parliamentary heft to see through the necessary judicial reforms to legally permit them into the country. Should they become more skeptical, more radical strands within the movement could see an opening to try to derail the negotiation through attacks, possibly with prompting from Iran and Syria.

The Constitutional reform process is not faring much better. Roughly half the country reportedly opposes the proposal for a presidential system, and the constitutional committee's current debate is snagged just on the preamble. The Justice and Development Party has maintained that the country should be referred to as "the Turkish nation (millet)," but the Peace and Democracy Party wants it changed to "the people of Turkey." The Republican People's Party suggested, and then retracted, its suggestion — the "Inhabitants of the Republic of Turkey."

While this debate may appear largely semantic to outsiders, the particular phrasing is emotionally significant within Turkey. Through this constitutional process and peace negotiation with the Kurds, the very foundation of the Turkish state is coming into question. In founding the republic in the early 1920s, Ataturk articulated a pure and uncompromising Turkish identity as the way to secure Turkey's territorial integrity and avoid the ills that beset the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. This meant that ethnic identities, including the Kurds, would be wholly denied, however artificially, within the bounds of the Turkish Republic.

Ninety years later, whether he admits it or not, Erdogan is redefining a core Ataturkian principle for the sake of resolving the decadeslong insurgency. PKK leaders have openly talked of a "federalist" model that would give autonomy to a Kurdish region in Turkey as an eventual outcome of this process. Erdogan himself has even referenced a historical Kurdistan province in the Ottoman vilayet system, which delighted many Kurds and horrified many Turkish nationalists.

As Erdogan tries to maintain his political momentum and see this complex set of negotiations through, he will not be able to avoid a highly sensitive political debate on the evolution of the Turkish state. And though these are ideas that have risen and fallen over the past decades, a debate carrying this much weight will naturally take time to play out — and not necessarily in accordance with Erdogan's election timetable.

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