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Kurds brace for an uncertain future in post-referendum Turkey

Here goes: Kurdish people in south-eastern Turkey vote in the constitutional referendum. EPA/STR

Turkey is still taking stock of its referendum on sweeping constitutional reforms, which delivered a crucial victory for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – albeit under highly contested circumstances.

The anti-Erdoğan “No” camp, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish-led, left-leaning People’s Democracy Party (HDP), claim that about 1.5m ballots in favour of “Yes” were counted despite having no official stamp, which should have rendered them invalid. But their complaints have failed to overturn the result, and the new political reality is taking shape. Turkey’s parliamentary system will be restructured, greatly enhancing Erdoğan’s power.

The new “super-presidency” system is the ultimate realisation of the “New Turkey” rhetoric long propagated by Erdoğan’s right-wing populist (in a “conservative democrat” discourse) ruling party, Justice and Development (AKP). Whatever the coming years hold, they will be full of surprises. No one, including Erdoğan and the AKP, seems quite sure what to expect – but the implications of this new order are especially unclear for the Kurds.

In the absence of a clear prognosis, the future of the so-called “Kurdish right problem” is the subject of intense debate on all sides. Is New Turkey a renewed Ottoman millet system of religious politics, an Islamist project in the style of the Muslim Brotherhood, or a chance to realise the long-held dream of Kurdish self-governance?

HDP supporters out in force in Istanbul. EPA/Deniz Toprak

The Kurds briefly seemed to have a strong political voice in the form of the HDP. The party is noticeably different to the pro-Kurdish political parties of yore, espousing a leftist populist discourse of equality and liberty for all against the AKP’s growing conservative authoritarianism and neoliberal elitism. It’s also relatively popular among Kurdish movements: its efforts to mobilise the passion stirred up by the 2013 Gezi Park protests seemed to pay off at the June 2015 election, where it cleared the 10% national vote threshold to win seats in parliament, netting 80 MPs.

The result was a beacon of hope for many in Turkey and beyond, but it faded fast. At a second election later in 2015, Erdoğan won an outright majority and formed a government, while the HDP lost 20 of its hard-won seats. Erdoğan’s approach to the Kurdish issue has since then been more hardline than ever.

A more muscular approach

The president accuses previous governments of being “weak” in the face of the militarised Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He blames their failure on treacherous cadres within the police, military, and intelligence services – the same malign infiltrators he accuses of masterminding the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Expunging these factions, he says, will allow him to take a more muscular, highly militarised approach.

When the so-called Kurdish peace process ultimately broke down in 2015, the AKP government duly turned away from a peaceful path to a military one, vowing to vanquish the PKK altogether – all this with the zealous support of Turkish ultra-nationalists.

Violence soon returned to south-eastern Turkey. The HDP’s “human security” agenda was overwhelmed by a new armed conflict between security forces and the PKK’s youth branch, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, who are using heavy weapons, digging trenches and erecting barricades down the side streets of cities and towns.

The aftermath of Turkish-PKK fighting in Sirnak city, south-eastern Turkey. EPA/STR

To listen to Erdoğan, you might think none of this was happening. In his post-referendum victory speech, he claimed his support had substantially grown in the east and south-east, even though those regions voted “No” by large margins. The HDP counter-claims that what advances Erdoğan made can be chalked up to fraud, unfairness, and outright coercion.

Meanwhile, in 2016, almost all the elected pro-Kurdish municipal authorities were replaced by state-appointed “trustees” and elected mayors arrested, while the tough state of emergency law has securitised the region as never before.

Erdoğan seems to be looking for a new political representative for the Kurdish movement, one that will be more likely to toe his line. But as long as he oppresses the HDP, Kurdish politics will have no single mainstream political voice. The non-PKK, secular, socialist or Kurdistani (pro-Kurdish autonomy) political parties have yet to mobilise efficiently enough to carry much weight. The ensuing vacuum might be filled by a new actor – and not necessarily a secular, peaceful one.

One faction vying for the lead role is Hüda-Par, a radical Islamist party with links to the Hizbullah paramilitary group. But the majority of Kurds still associate Hizbullah with brutal violence, and secular pro-Kurdish factions are still popular, particularly since their victory against the so-called Islamic State just across the Syrian border.

So long as the Kurds lack a unified political voice, the newly empowered Erdoğan will continue to deal with them violently rather than peacefully – and their future in Turkey will remain out of their control.

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