Skip to main content

PKK poses problems for Erdogan's party as elections loom

Erdogan's ruling AKP party has been unable to form a coalition government, leading to another election on 1 November
Turkey has launched hundreds of air strikes on PKK bases since 31 July (AFP)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey – In the heat of summer, brush fires regularly occur in the forests of southeastern Turkey. However, larger, man-made fires have joined its smaller cousin in burning towns and villages as well as the topography.

Turkish security forces started these fires in the eastern towns and villages - among them Silvan, Varto, and Cizre - reviving a tactic previously seen in Turkey's Kurdish regions during the brutal campaign of the 1980s and 90s when government forces fought a war nominally against the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that left more than 40,000 people dead.

After peace talks between the PKK and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP government collapsed earlier this year, hostilities have resumed in Turkey's Kurdish regions, with more than 800 alleged PKK fighters, and up to 80 police and military personnel reported killed.

In any city in southeastern Turkey, tensions remain high. News of attacks on security forces and government campaigns in Kurdish neighbourhoods occur daily, and for residents in the southeast all this was unnecessary and avoidable.

Analysts believe the conflict began when an attack on Kurdish rights activists in the city of Suruc in July left 34 dead. The activists had planned a humanitarian mission to the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane when Islamic State group sympathisers attacked their meeting. Turkish security forces barricaded and fired tear gas at the survivors and prevented them from seeking medical care. In response, local PKK guerillas - apparently without direction from the group's leadership - attacked and killed two military officers.

Turkey responded by launching hundreds of air strikes on PKK bases and the conflict spread from there. However, according to some locals in the area say the real cause of the escalation predates the Suruc attack.

“AKP had to do something because of the elections,” said Cem Karakus, the local manager of Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD) in the city of Gaziantep.

“People here believe this war started because of the election result in the southeast and the rise of HDP,” Karakus told MEE, using the acronym for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party which entered the Turkish parliament for the first time in June after winning 13 percent of the national vote, the majority in the southeast.

Upcoming elections

After HDP entered parliament, the AKP lost its governing majority and has been unable to form a coalition government - leading President Erdogan to declare a re-run of the election for 1 November. “AKP wanted a war with the PKK to drum up nationalist support and regain a majority, it's quite simple,” Karakus said.

Turkey's deputy prime minister for Kurdish affairs, Yalçın Akdoğan, has publicly expressed a similar view, only in reverse, claiming that the peace process collapsed because people in the south-east voted for HDP.

More than 100 municipalities in the southeast have been declared special military security zones since the violence began in late July. In these zones, local commanders and the provincial governor have emergency powers that give them the legal authority to use controversial methods to crack down on opposition.

“Now we're seeing hundreds, if not thousands of arrests and they are on Kurdish activists as well normal people on jumped-up charges, and of course, serious abuses by the military especially in the military security zones,” Karakus told MEE.

Twelve predominantly Kurdish municipalities in the southeast have declared autonomy from the central government in response to the violence, a move that has led to the arrest of six of the region's mayors in Diyarbakir, Sirnak, and Hakkari provinces. A total of 93 municipalities controlled by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Part (DBP), the sister party of HDP are being investigated by the government for ties to the PKK. To the right of the ruling AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has called for the imposition of martial law in the southeast.

President Erdogan has called on the southeastern Muhtars, or village headmen, to gather intelligence in the Kurdish areas. “My muhtar will come and tell the district governor, the governor, the police chief there who and what is in every house [in a village] in an appropriate and calm manner,” Erdogan said.

Peace does not look probable any time soon

Not long ago, deterioration to such depths looked improbable. Peace talks looked to be going somewhere, perhaps even toward a full disarmament by the PKK. Now the PKK's leader Abdullah Ocalan – who has been imprisoned on the island of Imrali since 1999, but without whom no settlement is possible – has been held in isolation since April, with no Kurdish delegations permitted to visit him.

According to Murad Akincilar, the coordinator of the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research (DISA), the Turkish government underestimated the PKK's capacity to respond to its air attacks.

“It seems that Erdogan and the government believed that the PKK would be willing to play the game of only reacting to its attacks in a relatively limited way, ultimately helping AKP. This was Erdogan's bluff,” Akincilar told MEE.

“Instead the PKK have accepted the bluff and doubled the deal. They've hit back too hard and now public opinion has turned against AKP; people are not rallying behind them,” Akincilar told MEE, pointing out that even in the military there is anger about what is seen as a war of choice by the government.

According to Akincilar, the PKK has grown into a far more powerful force than during the conflict of the 1990s, with perhaps as many as 100,000 fighters at its disposal, a force so large that the organisation may not be able to fully control all of its members, leading to rogue attacks such as the one that followed the Suruc bombing.

“In Diyarbakir, socially the PKK is the power and this was not appreciated by the government – there is a pro-Kurdish rights movement and an ideological belief in the south-east that means the government's strategy is unlikely to work.”

With the fires lit, and peaceful politics having been abandoned in Turkey once again, it is difficult to see a path back away from the conflict, regardless of the outcome of the coming elections.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.