When Kurdish lawmakers visited Turkey’s Black Sea coast last week to promote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s peace effort, they were met by stone- throwing crowds and had to cut the trip short.
For Erdogan, it was a reminder of the popular backlash that stymied his last effort to end the three-decade Kurdish war. This time, the premier’s other big project is also at risk: rewriting the constitution to enshrine a U.S.-style presidential system. That would cement his position as Turkey’s most dominant leader in decades, yet he may be dependent on Kurdish votes in parliament to get the measure through.
Erdogan has broken taboos in the effort to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and cost at least $300 billion since the early 1980s. Officials are in talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the militants’ jailed leader, and have proposed steps to free hundreds of other prisoners. Still, the government hasn’t said how it would meet Kurdish demands for self-rule and improved conditions for Ocalan, and may be constrained by a public hostile to the Kurdish case.
“Without a national consensus on how to solve the Kurdish question and whether to grant autonomy, Erdogan is pushing his luck,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “It’s not possible to convince the PKK to lay down arms without autonomy, and the reaction of the majority of Turks is the determining factor. If you make the PKK happy, you’ll make most Turks unhappy.”
There are signs of public opposition to a deal. About 56 percent of respondents in a Metropoll survey in Istanbul said it’s a mistake to talk to Ocalan, whose Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S., compared with 25 percent who supported the initiative. Asked about easing his jail conditions, 84 percent were opposed and 6 percent approved.
“We don’t want the PKK in Sinop,” hundreds of protesters chanted in the Black Sea town as they surrounded a teachers’ building where lawmakers from the main Kurdish party, which has ties to the PKK, were visiting Feb. 19. The Kurds were besieged for 10 hours as police used tear gas to keep the crowd away, Hurriyet daily said.
Erdogan is relying on those Kurdish lawmakers to back a referendum on a new constitution, which would switch the country to a presidential system from a parliamentary one. It requires 330 votes in the 550-member assembly, four more than Erdogan’s party holds. The Kurds have 29 seats. The other two parties in parliament are opposed.
Erdogan took power after a decade dominated by weak governments and financial crises, and has presided over record growth and investment. He says moving to a presidential system would entrench stability, removing the risk of unstable coalitions and speeding up asset sales.
Markets assume “Erdogan will ultimately get his way,” said Tim Ash, chief emerging market economics at Standard Bank Plc in London. Still, “anything which impacts on Erdogan’s ability to rule will cause nervousness eventually.”
Metropoll found 39 percent in favor of the presidential system, with 34 percent against. The study interviewed 2,502 people in the week through Feb. 1, and reported a margin of error of 2 percent.
Turks will elect a president in 2014 to replace Abdullah Gul. Currently, the post has mostly symbolic powers. The latest draft constitution by Erdogan’s party would enable the president to issue decrees with force of law, dissolve parliament, call elections and decide whether to use the military.
The main opposition parties, one secular and one nationalist, say Erdogan is seeking to expand his own powers. They also oppose Kurdish demands including Kurdish-language education and the removal of references to Turkish ethnicity from the constitution. Some are linking the two.
“The prime minister will become president, and in return, he’ll give away the national identity,” Deniz Baykal, a former opposition leader, told parliament on Feb. 12.
Erdogan won’t be able to tackle a problem as deep-rooted as the status of Turkey’s Kurds with proposals linked to short-term political calculations, said Kerim Yildiz, head of the Democratic Progress Institute, a London think-tank, and author of studies of Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, where they achieved self-rule after the 1991 Gulf War.
A solution “must not be related to elections or presidential proposals,” Yildiz said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Evidence shows that such tactics or strategies will fail.”
It’s possible Erdogan could meet Kurdish demands by increasing the powers of local governments across the country, then “empowering Kurdish-majority provinces in the southeast with de-facto local self-government,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This wouldn’t be autonomy, just some sort of devolution.”
It’s not clear, though, whether such nationwide steps would satisfy Kurds, or whether a special status for the Kurdish southeast would be acceptable to the rest of the nation.
The premier abandoned his last Kurdish initiative in 2009 amid signs of a backlash among Turks against what were seen as PKK victory celebrations. In parliament yesterday, Erdogan told his party that he is ready to sacrifice popularity this time in the search for a solution.
“If needs be, we will drink the hemlock,” he said. “War is easy, peace is difficult. We’re aiming for the difficult one.”
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