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When the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured in Kenya in 1999 and imprisoned in Turkey, the Turkish state gained the upper hand in the armed conflict. The PKK unilaterally declared a ceasefire in 1999 but returned to violence after 2004, after which the Turkish authorities came to see negotiations as a means to end the conflict and secret pre-negotiation talks began in Oslo between 2008 and 2011. Several other democratisation initiatives or ‘openings’ were launched by the government at the same time, such as a dialogue process between Ankara and representatives of the Alevi non-Sunni religious minority – another long-standing conflict in Turkey.
An inclusive Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (CRC) was set up in October 2011 to propose a new constitution. It comprised all four political parties represented in the parliament, including the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and was tasked with finding consensus among them. In late 2012, an escalation of violence and hunger strikes by PKK militants in prisons prompted exploratory talks. Although they collapsed after they were leaked to the press, covert talks such as these paved the way for an overt process formally announced in 2013, which succeeded in adopting a road map and a number of legal frameworks.
The negotiation process of 2013–15 was conducted with representatives of both the government and the Kurdish political movement visiting Öcalan in prison on Imralı Island. Negotiations evolved around: 1) disarmament and demobilisation of PKK fighters; 2) democratic reforms to address cultural and political grievances of Kurds and to ensure their inclusion into the social, economic and political life of the country; and 3) reintegration of ex-combatants.
The general framework was based on the idea that PKK disarmament would be realised in exchange for granting legal and cultural rights to the Kurdish collective. The talks resulted in the Dolmabahçe Agreement, reached on 15 February 2015 between the government representatives and deputies from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP – a leftist, pro-Kurdish party). Although the meeting seemed to mark a turning point in the process, President Recep Tayyip Erdo˘gan renounced it in July 2015, after which the armed confrontation between the security forces and the PKK resumed.
Weaknesses in the process
There were weaknesses in the process from the beginning. First, the parties disagreed on how it should be framed. While the government preferred to refer to ‘disarmament’ and ‘dialogue’, the PKK used ‘negotiations’ and ‘mutual concessions’. Second, the framework for the content of ‘rights’ and how they were to be exercised remained vague – including over the issue of exactly what was understood by ‘autonomous rule’ and education in Kurdish. Third, mutual distrust overwhelmed the process, especially in the absence of an impartial third-party or monitoring mechanism. The government accused the PKK of not withdrawing their militants from Turkish soil as agreed, and the PKK’s leadership suspected the government simply wanted to disarm them, with no intention of delivering their political and legal demands.
Finally, unfolding events in Iraq but especially in Syria were major drivers of conflict throughout the process. The Turkish-Syrian border was destabilised with the Syrian civil war. The growing Islamic State (IS) control over areas just beyond the border had massive negative impact on the peace process, especially the capture of the border town Kobane in 2014, followed by the IS-organised suicide bombings in 2015 against Kurdish targets, first in Diyarbakir and then in Suruc. The Turkish government did not let Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militants and volunteers cross the border into Syria to help the Kurdish population in Kobane in October 2014. This led to protests and clashes in Turkey between the security forces and those demanding to cross the Syrian border that left 40 people dead. Eventually the Turkish government allowed Barzani-led Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces to cross the border to support efforts in Kobane. However, the damage to the peace process could not be undone. The event was a major turning point, displacing the Syrian conflict into Turkey and exacerbating mistrust between the negotiating parties and the emotional disconnect between the Turkish and Kurdish populations.
The war between IS and the PYD’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces escalated, with the US supporting the YPG as foot soldiers against IS. The Turkish government, perceiving a connection between the YPG and PKK, considered this situation a major security threat that risked establishing a PKK-controlled corridor on its border. In short, the Syrian civil war created a security dilemma in which the actions of both parties reinforced mutual fears.
There were a number of attempts to create a more inclusive peace process after 2013. These were largely limited to the governmental and Kurdish political elites and did not have the support of the majority of the population in Turkey. The resurgence of violence in July 2015 was followed by a strong Turkish nationalist backlash, which has dominated public opinion ever since and has been exacerbated by the lack of engagement with grassroots groups that could have helped alleviate polarisation.
Public support for a negotiated peace struggled to flourish in a context of long-standing Turkish nationalism. Support for the peace process fluctuated according to different public opinion polls, but the core political attitudes of the majority did not change. Regardless of political party affiliations, most of the Turkish population have negative attitudes towards the political inclusion of Kurds that can be traced to the core narrative of Turkish nationalism and its outlook on expression of other politicised group identities. This is exemplified in the motto ‘One Nation, One Flag, One Country, One State’ and ideas that go back to the foundations of the Turkish Republic in 1923, by which all Turkish citizens are considered ‘Turks’ regardless of their ethnic origins. Turkish nationalism has become the dominant ideology and Kurdish ethnic demands for more autonomy or native language education are perceived as threats to the ‘one nation’ idea.
Inverse group narratives have fed mistrust throughout the peace process and efforts to advance inclusion and dialogue have failed to mitigate them. A 2015 survey conducted by TEPAV showed that 76.9 per cent of HDP voters and 56.5 per cent of all Kurds thought that the state discriminated against Kurdish citizens, but that only 11.7 per cent of the wider Turkish public thought that Kurds were discriminated against. Such contrasting group attitudes are very common in Turkey; for instance only 18 per cent of those who identify as Turks supported a policy to name townships and villages in Kurdish, compared to 87.4 per cent among the Kurdish population. In 2009 the Turkish government set up a commission to promote social cohesion and a draft law was proposed to ban any kind of discrimination based on ethnicity, race, religion or disability. However, the Law on Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey (no. 6701) was not adopted until 2016 and has only recently become operational.
Opposition parties did not support peace negotiations. Nationalist constituencies and political elites, especially represented by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and by parts of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), remained sceptical of or opposed to negotiations on the grounds that they would lead to the dismantlement and division of the country. Failure to garner the full support of the social democratic main opposition party, the CHP, was a persistent stumbling block. While the CHP advocated that the process should happen in parliament, transparently and with the participation of all political parties, it did not contribute to the preparatory commission set up in parliament in 2013 to make inquiries and recommendations for the peace process. The MHP rejected negotiations entirely and became a vocal critic. However, the government did not take additional steps to form a parliamentary commission on the negotiations or advance any other initiative to include the political parties. Even the BDP’s participation was limited to a select few representatives in visiting delegations, and Kurdish political groups that did not support the BDP/HDP line were also excluded.
Abdullah Öcalan and the military wing of the PKK thus became the main interlocutors with the AKP government in the process. Failure to include civil society fed perceptions that Öcalan had his own personal agenda, while failure to include political parties meant that the peace process was neither a matter of ‘national interest’ nor protected from political competition. This was especially significant around elections. Throughout the process, local and national elections constantly fuelled the polarised positions of the political parties on the negotiations. Facing a Turkish-majority opposition, the AKP leadership eventually chose to accommodate the Turkish nationalist constituency after losing its majority in Parliament in the June 2015 elections. The political alliance of the AKP with the nationalist MHP, especially after the July 2016 coup attempt, unleashed a nationalist backlash that since then has made it quite impossible to seek renewed negotiations.
Wise People Commission
An early and significant step to include civil society in the process was the establishment of the Wise People Commission (WPC) by the government in 2013. This was a consultative body composed of 63 well-known personalities from different sectors of society, assigned to conduct public consultations in the seven administrative regions – Aegean, Marmara, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Central Anatolia, Eastern Anatolia, and Southeast Anatolia. Selection criteria for WPC membership included diversity and representation by religion, ethnicity, gender and political affiliation, although appointments were made top-down either by the government or BDP/HDP.
The WPC was an attempt to engage the public through information and calming public concerns. The government thought it could be useful in garnering public support for the process. However, regional meetings were not adequately planned or assisted by trained facilitators. Procedures for listening and formulating submissions (and complaints) varied between meetings and regional groups. Documents were received, but with no systematic method for analysing them. In meetings, prevalent entrenched views were repeated without a genuine dialogue format. This may have perpetuated the existing polarisation and helped maintain mental rigidity concerning new ideas and solutions to the conflict.
Significantly, the WPC work remained incomplete as the reports prepared by sub-groups and presented to the government were not openly discussed or shared with the wider public, nor was it made clear how these results would be used. This created a sense that the process was neither genuinely transparent nor consequential. The Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in June 2013 also diverted attention. Ultimately the WPC failed to mobilise a sense of broader civil society engagement, contributing to a more general lack of grassroots ownership. On its own it was not sufficient to turn the closed-door peace process into a public one.
Civil society in Turkey has little independence: as the WPC process unfolded non-governmental organisations were influenced either by the PKK or the government, while universities and most broad-based civil society organisations were neither prepared nor engaged. Kurdish constituencies that were not affiliated with the PKK or BDP were side-lined, as were victims’ associations. All of this contributed to the absence of significant grassroots pressure to keep the process going. Without support from broader organised societal groups, opposition political parties, and major civil society organisations with broad-based memberships such as trade unions and business associations, when the process fell apart very few voices were left to call the parties back to the negotiation table.
Women’s participation and gender equality have been part of the pro-Kurdish movement’s ideology since the mid-1990s, despite its highly conservative and patriarchal support base. In 2014 the BDP decided to constitutionally assign one of the party’s co-chair positions to a woman, the first designated position of its kind in Turkey. One of the three-member BDP delegations that shuttled between Öcalan and other negotiating parties was always a woman.
The establishment of the WPC also included the participation of women as an issue on the public agenda. Even though women’s participation was less than 14 per cent (at least one member in each regional team was a woman) and far from the desired gender balance, their inclusion was accepted as a norm and the name of the commission was modified to a more gender-neutral one (it had first been called the ‘Wise Men’s Commission’).
The government’s awareness of the importance of women’s inclusion increased over time. Grassroots women’s movements held meetings with all sides to advocate women’s participation. The Women for Peace Initiative (WPI), for example, was established in 2009 building on previous grassroots and women-led mobilisation efforts such as the Saturday Mothers and Women Meeting for Peace. It demanded that the peace process should put into effect regulations to ensure the equal participation of women. It did not convince the government to take actions towards drafting a National Action Plan based on the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, however, as this was seen as biased towards the Kurdish side’s position on women’s participation. Still, the WPI contributed through several informal commissions in 2013, which included a ‘Women’s Truth Commission’ to look into crimes committed against women during the conflict.
In the few years between 2015 and 2017, following the collapse of the negotiations and the coup attempt of July 2016, Turkey lurched drastically from one of the most inclusive and participatory governance experiments in its history towards one that is highly unilateralist and exclusive. The question remains to what degree past experiments with more participatory governance are useful reference points for the future?
The Resolution Process was a key component of these efforts. It succeeded in opening some space for broader societal inclusion, but this remained limited and was closed down abruptly without gaining enough societal momentum and traction to generate meaningful results. Attempts at inclusion did not persuade the public to buy into the process, nor did they create transparency and accountability. The outcomes of the Constitution Platform, the Alevi opening and the WPC ultimately did not influence decision-making and the negotiation agenda. Rather than establishing a desperately needed inclusive social contract embedded in political reforms and a new democratic constitution, mutual efforts were replaced with unilateral decisions.
In the Kurdish case, the transition out of instability and violence failed to create a new elite pact. When the process failed, attempts at broader societal inclusion also waned, not only for the Kurds but also for other excluded communities like Alevis, women and civil society in general. Numerous civil society organisations, initiatives and individual activists working for the resolution of the Kurdish conflict were curtailed and criminalised under the emergency law declared after the 2016 coup attempt.
Reasons for these failures include: poor management of the peace process – in particular the failure to establish necessary peace infrastructure to conduct the process, such as an impartial monitoring mechanism, and the failure to complete the WPC’s work; the lack of political will and severe competition among political parties, especially due to frequent elections; the lack of adequate public support; and the escalation of conflict with YPG/PYD in Syria.