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Political divisions among Turkey’s Kurds resurface over referendum

Despite widespread popular support among the Kurds in Turkey for the Kurdish referendum, political parties are divided on the matter
Turkish Kurds flash victory signs during the Newroz celebrations for the new year on 21 March in Istanbul (AFP)

As Kurds in northern Iraq prepare to cast their ballots in Monday's independence referendum, the controversial vote has already exposed deep-rooted divisions within the Kurdish population of neighbouring Turkey.

While public opinion among Kurds in Turkey is considered to be strongly supportive of the process taking place across the border in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, the leanings of the country's Kurdish political groups and movements are less clear cut.

Although no polls have been conducted to measure the level of popular support in Turkey for the Kurdish referendum, many Kurds, especially those living in the Kurdish-majority southeast, have expressed support for the move.

'The platform seeks to decrease fears in the Turkish government towards an independent Kurdish state and to increase support from Western countries'

- Sertac Bucak, chairperson of the KDP

Now the issue could bring to the surface intra-Kurdish political rivalries largely dormant since the collapse of the Kurdish peace process in 2015 amid a wave of bombings, attacks by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, and a brutal counter-insurgency by Turkish security forces in the southeast of the country.

In July, pro-referendum Kurdish factions launched a campaign, the Initiative for Support, to lobby domestic and foreign political figures to back the vote and the idea of an independent Kurdistan breaking away from Baghdad.

The initiative was backed by six traditional Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP–Bakur) renamed the Kurdistan Democratic Platform (KDP) after it became a legally registered party in 2013, the Azadi Movement (AM), the North Kurdistan Democratic Party (NKDP), the Freedom and Socialism Party and the Kurdistan Socialist Party (PSK), as well as seven independent figures.

Although most of these parties were established years ago – and some of them have been considered illegal by the state - they have failed to pass the 10 percent threshold in elections in order to enter parliament. The parties have pursued independence or a Turkish-Kurdish federation through “peaceful political and legal means” rather than violence or taking up arms.

But notable for its absence from that list was the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), currently the largest pro-Kurd party in the Turkish parliament, which has shown little active support for the referendum. The party’s leaders have been languishing in jail while dozens of their lawmakers have been either detained or stripped of their seats over suspected links with militant separatists.

And while pro-referendum campaigners have met with Turkish opposition figures and civil society groups, its bids for meetings with government representatives have so far failed.

Protesters shout slogans as they hold placards, reading "No to arrests" of HDP leaders on 5 November 2016 during a demonstration in Istanbul (AFP)

Sertac Bucak, chairperson of the KDP, nonetheless told Middle East Eye that the campaign had helped to raise public awareness about the referendum and raised the profile of the parties involved.

"Although our calls on the AKP to meet have so far gone unanswered, the platform seeks to decrease fears in the Turkish government towards an independent Kurdish state and to increase support from Western countries as the referendum has received little international support,” said Bucak.

The platform has distributed leaflets and letters in Turkish and Kurdish to all Kurdish lawmakers in Turkey’s parliament, regardless of their pary affiliation, to support the referendum, he said.

“We explain to them why we back the referendum, that they should respect the outcome because every nation has the right to self-determination, that this is in line with international law, that our brothers in the south have the right, too, and that this should be recognised internationally,” Vahit Aba, a PAK activist on the platform, told Al-Monitor.

Although the six parties have been relatively insignificant since the establishment of the HDP in 2012 and its entry into parliament after gaining 13.2 percent of votes in 2015 general elections, analysts say their platform has helped them regain some relevance on the Turkish-Kurdish political scene.

Women hold pictures of Selahattin Demirtas, the detained leader of Turkey's Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), during a rally in Diyarbakir on 17 September (AFP)
Vahap Coksun, assistant professor of Turkish-Kurdish politics at the University of Dicle, told MEE: “Despite the limited voting potential of the six parties forming the platform, the initiative has gained strong legitimacy and has had a significant impact on public opinion because the referendum is considered a historical and national matter which everyone [among the Kurds] is expected to support.”

He believes however that the campaign is unlikely to increase the parties’ electoral base beyond that of the HDP.

“Campaigns supportive of the referendum are being cheered on and praised by the public, but this positivity has not yet turned into political support [for the parties behind the platform],” explained Coksun.

HDP's shy support

Aside from the HDP, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) also opposes the idea of an independent Kurdish state. The DBP was formed after its fraternal party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was dissolved and re-organised into a joint structure with the HDP in 2014.

For the HDP however, despite its imprisoned co-leader Selahattin Demirtas declaring on 10 September that he would stand by any decision taken by the people of the KRG (the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq), the party has refused to join the Initiative for Support and has not officially condoned the referendum nor taken active steps to campaign for it.

According to analysts and party members, the HDP’s complicated relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - which sees KRG President Massoud Barzani as a regional rival – is the reason the party has not openly support the referendum.

'Even though in in their hearts, [HDP leaders] are opposed to the referendum, the party has resorted to showing minimal support to keep its constituency happy'

- Altan Tan, HDP MP for Diyarbakir

“Despite HDP voters and some members supporting the vote, the party won’t join such an initiative nor show any strong expression of support because of the sympathies within its ranks towards the PKK,” Altan Tan, HDP MP for Diyarbakir told MEE. 

But according to Tan, because the majority of the Kurds in southeast Turkey – many of whom voted for the HDP in 2015 – are supportive of the referendum, the party could not take a strong stance against the referendum either.

Imprisoned co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas on 31 August 2016 in Diyarbakir (AFP)
“If the people [supportive of the vote] were to see the HDP oppose the referendum, they would be upset and HDP would lose popular support. HDP is afraid of that, and so even though in their hearts [HDP leaders] are opposed to the referendum, the party has resorted to just showing minimal support to keep its constituency happy,” explained Tan.

The HDP has declared that it does not have any links with the PKK, which has pursued an armed struggle against Turkey, but the Turkish state has claimed there is evidence of links between the two.

The HDP saw it essential to distinguish itself from PKK on the issue of the referendum 

- Vahap Coksun, assistant professor of Turkish-Kurdish politics at Dicle University

According to Mahmut Bozarslan, a Kurdish-Turkish journalist in the south eastern city of Diyarbakir, although there is no “official link between the PKK and HDP, the two groups focus on similar issues and share some sympathies.”

“People [Turkish Kurds in Diyarbakir] are excited and happy about the referendum and supportive of the process,” told MEE.

“This is interesting because in Diyarbakir and other Kurdish regions in the southeast of Turkey, PKK sympathisers are the majority. But despite the PKK being against the referendum, most people in the region are quite supportive of the process.”

At the same time, Tan believes that despite the HDP’s reticent support for the referendum, it is likely to recognise an independent Kurdistan if the vote goes through and a state is declared.

“HDP will support Kurdistan because they don’t have any other option in front of their voters. But that will also mean that the PKK will have lost its battle against the KRG.”

Kurdish politics expert Coksun agreed: “The PKK opposes the referendum due to its competition with KRG, but the people on the streets do not see the independence of Kurdistan in the way political movements do.”

“In this regard, the HDP saw it as essential to distinguish itself from the PKK on the issue of the referendum.”

A Kurdish protester wears a headband with buttons showing the logo and the portrait of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan and Che Guevara (AKP)
‘Not one for us’

With the largest Kurdish population in the region - accounting for something between 18–25 percent of the Turkish population - Ankara has feared that a "Yes" vote would fuel separatism in its southeast, where the PKK has waged an insurgency for three decades.

Yet despite widespread sympathy for the cause of an independent neighbouring Kurdistan, Tan said that most Kurds in southeastern Turkey did not share that aspiration for secession.

'The Kurds in Turkey do not want an independent Kurdistan in the southeast. They want to be part of and living in Turkey'

- Altan Tan, HDP MP for Diyarbakir

“The Kurds in Turkey do not want an independent Kurdistan in the southeast. They want to be part of and living in Turkey,” said Tan.

“The referendum has had an impact though and you will see a demand for more rights, recognition and space to integrate with the other Kurds in the region,” he added.

According to Bozarslan, the reason behind this divergence between Kurdish demands in Iraq and Turkey is linked to the distinct circumstances and demographics of each group.

“The living conditions for the Kurds in Turkey were fine and people have been happy to be part of Turkey,” Bozarslan told MEE.

'Despite the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process in 2015 and the ensuing violence and crackdown on Kurds in the southeast, they do not want to be independent of Turkey'

- Mahmut Bozarslan, journalist 

Unlike in Iraq, where the struggle for an independent Kurdistan has been ongoing for years, many of Turkey’s Kurds have only felt alienated in more recent years, he said.

“The breakdown of the Kurdish peace process in 2015 and the ensuing violence and crackdown on Kurds in the southeast have made people very unhappy. Despite this, they do not want to be independent of Turkey.”

Ankara-KRG relations

On a diplomatic level, the Kurdish referendum complicates Erbil’s close ties with Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opposed the referendum from the start, fearing its impact on the Kurdish minorities in both Turkey and Syria.

Turkish armed forces started a military drill at the Iraqi border on Monday as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the planned Kurdish referendum was an issue of national security, and warned that Turkey would take any necessary steps in response. 

Erdogan also said on Wednesday that it is considering imposing sanctions on Kurdish northern Iraq over its planned independence referendum.

'The strength of the relationship between Turkey and KRG and the level of political and economic bonds makes Turkey’s unconditional objection to independent Kurdistan impossible'

- Vahap Coksun, assistant professor at Dicle University

At the same time, Ankara’s strong bilateral relations with the KRG have forced Erdogan to show some restraint in opposing the referendum altogether. For years, there have been landmark visits and exchanges between Turkish and KRG officials as well as a rapid increase in trade – the KRG is Turkey’s third largest export market - that has seen Turkish companies flood Kurdistan’s market and the building of a pipeline that enables the KRG to independently export its hydrocarbons to international markets.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Iraqi Kurdish Regional President Massud Barzani at the Presidential Palace in Ankara in 2015 (AFP)
“The strength of the relationship between Turkey and KRG, the level of political and economic bonds between the two, and the firm relationship between Erdogan and Barzani, makes Turkey’s unconditional objection to an independent Kurdistan impossible,” Coksun told MEE.

“Turkey realises that the status quo cannot be maintained and that there is no way back in Iraq.

“Therefore, Turkey will watch this process unfold and if international public opinion ends up acknowledging an independent Kurdistan, Turkey will acknowledge it,” he added.

At the same time, Turkey’s top priority in is to break the PKK – considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU – and its ally in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), both of which oppose the KRG. Turkey has frequently bombed PKK bases on KRG territory since clashes resumed between Ankara and Kurdish fighters in July 2015.

Although Iraqi Kurds are expected to overwhelmingly vote in favour of an independent state, it is less clear how Barzani will manage opposition from just about everyone else.

The referendum does not compel Barzani to declare an independent Kurdish state. This may leave him considering a yes vote as leverage to negotiate with Baghdad and neighbouring powers from a greater position of strength.

Therefore, the referendum may provide more room for support from Ankara and coordination of relations to fight the PKK and its allies in the region.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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