Turkey's Protests and the Kurdish Peace Process

3 MINS READJun 4, 2013 | 20:27 GMT

While anti-government protests in Turkey's major cities have absorbed the media's attention, trouble is brewing in Turkey's Kurdish-populated southeast. The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, fired at a Turkish military base near the Turkish-Iraqi border. This breach in cease-fire raises questions on what impact the popular challenge against Turkey's ruling party will have on the very slow-moving and delicate peace process taking place between the government and the PKK.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an ambitious plan to intertwine a peace settlement with Kurdish rebels with his own presidential ambitions. Erdogan needs a referendum to pass that would transform Turkey from a parliamentarian system to a presidential one. Erdogan's term as prime minister expires in 2015, but he is trying to concentrate power in the presidency so he himself can run for president in 2014 presidential elections to continue his rule. For the referendum to have a chance, it will need votes from Turkey's Kurdish constituency.

And this is where the real bargain comes into play. If Erdogan can demonstrate enough progress in peace talks with the PKK and respond to long-standing Kurdish demands, he can theoretically use that momentum to solicit votes for his referendum from supporters of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

But this looks to be an uphill battle for Erdogan, especially now that he has to deal with the additional pressures emanating from this week's protests. Ironically, supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party have been protesting against Erdogan alongside far-right Turkish nationalists in recent days. The participation of Kurdish supporters in protests that are painting Erdogan as a dictator does not exactly bode well for Erdogan's ability to garner Kurdish votes for a referendum that would extend his rule.

Any serious lack of trust in Erdogan to be able to see through a comprehensive peace plan with the PKK will likely stall the negotiations in the coming weeks and months. In the first phase of the peace process, PKK fighters beginning in May started relocating to Qandil mountain in northern Iraq. Now that the PKK has begun slowly withdrawing from Turkey, it expects the AKP to follow through with its end of the bargain, beginning with judicial reform to allow for amnesty of certain PKK members, the downsizing of military checkpoints in the southeast and appointing Kurdish-speaking governors to the southeast.

But with the protests now in play, Erdogan will now have a much more difficult time getting the political consensus he needs in parliament to move forward with those reforms. The PKK leadership has already accused the government of stalling and has strongly hinted that it's not prepared to give Erdogan his wish for a grand political bargain. In a recent interview with Taraf newspaper, PKK commander Murat Karayilan stressed that the PKK negotiation and the other political reforms need to be dealt with separately. The recent PKK attack on the Turkish military base may have been that warning shot to Erdogan that the cease-fire won't hold unless they see progress from the government on their demands. Indeed, the PKK will try to leverage the protests to its advantage in those negotiations.

Erdogan launched this ambitious peace process with the Kurds, not only to help with his presidential bid, but also to remove a major thorn in Turkey's side so it can focus its attention on the array of conflicts and opportunities in its periphery. But the constraints are rapidly piling up, and there are a number of players both in Turkey and in the region that would benefit from seeing this peace process derail, adding to the growing number of challenges for Turkey's AKP.

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