3 November 2007

Hidden dynamic to Kurdish conflict

By Liam Carroll

Analysts of Turkish politics have identified the Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as a potential casualty if the Turkish-Kurdish conflict seriously escalates any time soon. In this light, Prime Minister Erdogan's threats to take military action in Iraq against the PKK should be understood as an attempt to avoid military action in Iraq, rather than as a serious desire to instigate it. In times of great tension, all is not always what it seems, and if ever there were a field in which perceptions can out maneuver realities, it is surely politics.

To understand who benefits from war it is quite often necessary to understand the political dynamics of a situation and how they might change in the event of conflict.

There is a general consensus that an escalation of violence in the current scenario would increase divisions between Turks and Kurds in Turkey and restore the role of the military to its preeminent place as defender of the nation's security. To be sure, the military has been suffering a declining role in the Turkish government recently due to constitutional changes being made by Erdogan and the AKP.

Recently the military also suffered a humiliating defeat over the selection of a conscientious Muslim President, whom they opposed. When the AKP held an election over the issue they won convincingly, increasing their share of the vote to 47%, over the old secularist elite and their military colleagues. The treasured secular nation of the Turkish nationalists, as founded by the revered patriarch Kemal Ataturk, was thought to be under threat from this new popular party, some of whom, including Erdogan and the new President, have Islamist origins.

The AKP are also avowed Europhiles and advocate improving human rights and granting the Kurds unprecedented cultural recognition. Yasar Buyukanit however, who is chief of the armed forces, is deeply skeptical about the European Union which he believes supports Kurdish nationalism and a continued subordination of the military to civilian rule. The very same Buyukanit also made cryptic references to "crafty plans" to "destroy the gains of modernity" in the wake of the struggle over the presidency.

The success of the AKP has been built partly on their ability to respond to the needs of the majority population by improving Turkey's economy and developing poorer districts and supporting the rural workers who have migrated to the cities.

This popularity has also been replicated in Kurdish provinces where the AKP won over 50% of the vote. By contrast the PKK performed poorly in the heart of their recruiting territory. In these poorer southeastern provinces the AKP government has boosted its popularity by extending free health care and schoolbooks. It is also thought that Prime Minister Erdogan believes in solving the Kurdish problem peacefully and through the recognition of ethnic Kurdish identity. The PKK may also have lost votes from the fact that they are a secular organisation, whereas most Kurds are in fact Muslims, like the AKP.

Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP have built a new political constituency in Turkey based on subordination of the military, improved rights for Kurds and economic liberalization that has brought prosperity to those outside the traditional political elite. A Turkish analyst, writing in the New York Review of Books on 27 September, welcomed these changes but pointed out that both the PKK and the Turkish military are loosing important political ground to Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP. The writer goes on to point out the PKK might try to increase its attacks on the security forces in the hope that the reaction from the military might help radicalize normal Kurds, who are otherwise fed up with the war.

The same writer, and others also see the Turkish military as being potential beneficiaries from an escalation in fighting. This view stems from the belief that a major conflict would end Turkey's chances of EU accession, return the military to its traditional role as defender of the nation's security, and undermine Kurdish support for the ruling AKP and the Prime Minister, Erdogan.

In this situation Erdogan may well know that to authorize a major military campaign abroad could well undermine his support at home. Alternatively if he fails to take military action, then the military might have an excuse to remove him, as others have been removed before. It is a great irony that militants from behind opposing battle lines can sometimes work together to achieve the same end; in this case the perpetrators may be but a handful, but the list of casualties could be huge, including Turkish democracy.