Turkey’s June 12 general election saw the pro-Kurdish movement score its biggest-ever parliamentary victory, with an increase from 20 to 36 seats in the country’s 550-member parliament. Ironically, though, the triumph comes as hopes for a peaceful solution to meeting Kurdish demands are fading.
The victory by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which primarily backed independent candidates, came at the expense of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In two of Turkey 's predominantly Kurdish provinces, the BDP secured 90 percent of the vote.
One leading political columnist argues that the scale of that victory is an indication of Kurds’ despondency over the AKP. "The Kurdish demands kept being postponed and delayed," said the daily Milliyet’s Nuray Mert. "The Kurds and Kurdish politicians believe they have been cheated by the government. I am really concerned that a tough confrontation can now happen. Some say it is already inevitable.”
Kurdish frustration is born of a string of failed AKP promises. In the 2007 general election, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan campaigned on a platform of addressing Kurdish demands for greater cultural freedoms. But other than opening a state Kurdish TV station and introducing some university classes in Kurdish, little else was delivered. Erdoğan's major effort to end the conflict with the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), known as the “Kurdish opening,” ended in failure two years ago.
Post-election, little sign exists that the prime minister will give that dialogue a second chance. Declaring there is "no longer a Kurdish problem," Erdoğan campaigned on a Turkish nationalist platform, and dismissed key Kurdish demands for political autonomy and Kurdish-language schools.
Those dashed hopes may lead to renewed confrontation, warned Bahçeşehir University political scientist Cengiz Aktar. "Until now, Turkish politicians have put a condition to negotiate: Stop the armed struggle. Kurds did and nothing happened, with the exception of the short-lived ‘Kurdish opening,” Aktar said. “ As long as there is no political process, the armed struggle will probably continue."
The PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, threatened a return to full hostilities with the Turkish government if negotiations do not start by June 15. As yet, no armed conflicts have occurred; in the last month, the Turkish military killed more than two-dozen suspected PKK fighters.
But coupled with the threat of a full-scale armed conflict, comes the new threat of widespread civil disobedience and protests. Preparations are also believed to be underway for creating their own institutions, independent from the Turkish state, including in education and law.
Newly elected BDP parliamentarian Altan Tan elaborates, using a shorthand expression – “mountains” -- for Kurdish rebels. "We say we want autonomy. He [Prime Minister Erdoğan] says ‘No.’ We say we want education in our mother tongue. He says ‘No.’ So he does not except the criteria of the European Union. He accepts the criteria of the Turkish street,” Tan said. “So, we say ‘If you accept the criteria of the street, we will accept the criteria of the mountains."
The depth of that chasm of understanding between Turkish and Kurdish politicians makes avoiding confrontation difficult, argues political scientist Mert. "Unfortunately, neither the governing parties nor parties in opposition take the situation seriously, and they think if they recognize the seriousness of the problem, it will be a surrender to Kurdish demands."
The writing of a new constitution is seen as the only vehicle for addressing the key Kurdish demands of education in their mother tongue and local autonomy. In his June 12 victory speech to AKP supporters, the prime minister promised the drafting of the document would be an inclusive process.
If that proves to be the case, an opportunity still exists for dialogue with Kurdish politicians, according to Sinan Ülgen, an executive board member of Istanbul’s Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (Edam).
"On the positive side, they [the BDP] have also included some representatives which have not been associated with the more radical line of the Kurdish movement,” Ülgen said. “That might allow them to play a more constructive role on the Kurdish issue."
The main opposition People's Republican Party, CHP, has also taken “a more liberal approach” on the topic of Kurdish rights, and could act as “a much more constructive counterpart in the Turkish parliament in order to enact needed constitutional amendments,” he continued.
Overtures to the BDP, however, would put the prime minister in a difficult spot "After asking for nationalistic votes so much, how can the party change its attitude? It is very difficult,” said political columnist Mert. "Even if they try, there will be great pressure coming from their electorate."
But political expediency may be a small price to pay with the stakes so high for Turkey "As long as the country can’t solve its Kurdish conflict, anything can happen. All stakes are open and there will be big, big question marks for Turkey. This is the price to pay," warned Bahçeşehir University political scientist Aktar.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.