Turkey’s new Kurdish imbroglio and the EU

Rather than closing down the HDP altogether, the AKP is poised to further stifle the opposition and use the Kurdish issue and security issues. Its electoral ally, MHP, would play the bad cop, calling for even further draconian options-such as bringing back the death penalty and banning HDP. Would the EU go beyond “being deeply concerned”? Probably not!

Turkey’s foreign policy turns out to be fickle as a pickle. But is that a surprise? There is consistency in this Machiavellian fickleness.

Back in early 2021, the European Union seemed like it was overcoming obstacles in its ties with Ankara. Greece and Turkey, meanwhile, had started to engage with each other diplomatically, and even Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were chirping like birds.

All this heralded renewed zest in EU-Turkey relations just in time for the upcoming EU summit in March. That is supposed to be the meeting during which the EU decides whether to enact biting sanctions against Turkey.

Let us start with the final cut: it seems quite unlikely that the EU will impose further, tangible sanctions on Turkey at the March 25-26 Summit. Unless something drastic and unpredictable happens, in other words, if there is no “Black Swan”, we should not expect any stinging sanctions at this stage.

There won’t be any sanctions for several reasons.

First, Turkey-Greece exploratory meetings have just kicked off at the beginning of February after a five-year break. The expected initial outcome of the first meeting was that the meetings carry on. That target is being fulfilled. There will be new rounds of meetings in Istanbul on January 25. The EU is likely willing to wait and see how these talks play out for another few months. 

Second, Ankara itself has domestic reasons to ward off any possible disrupting “Black Swans” jolting relations with the EU, at least until March. One of these domestic reasons is the economy: economic indicators in Turkey have somewhat stabilized since the Finance and Treasury Ministry administration changed hands last November.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the ongoing economic crisis and pushed new masses under the poverty line. In short, Turkey is economically treading over thin ice, and EU sanctions might upend fragile balances.  

The other domestic reason is the new political strategy that is being pursued by the government, (which is old wine in new bottles): using the Kurdish issue to rally nationalist support.

Security issues were lagging far behind in the minds of Turkey’s electorate since the troubled times of 2015 and 2016. As a reminder, the June 2015 general elections had left the ruling AK Party short of its governmental majority, and coalition talks had to be initiated with the opposition. Simultaneously, the Kurdish issue made a comeback with significant military operations conducted inside city centers in Kurdish-majority areas.

In 2016, the infamous coup attempt took place and security fears plagued the hearts and minds of Turkey once again. Since 2017, as opinion polls demonstrate, security concerns have receded in the electorate’s concerns. Economic concerns have skyrocketed, and security issues may barely make it to the “top 10 problems of Turkey” list.

The coronavirus pandemic, the quality of education, Syrian refugees, even the “performance of opposition parties,” are regarded as greater problems than security concerns or terror. And “the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey,” “agricultural problems,” the “brain drain,” “the selling off of Turkey’s assets to foreigners” are considered as the greatest security threats in Turkey. In other words, “terror” does not even make it to the top security problems’ list.

Still, Ankara’s “Operation Eagle Claw” dominated the domestic agenda and reminded the public psyche of security concerns. This recent operation aimed at rescuing military and intelligence officers held by the PKK.
Instead, 13 of the captive officers were killed. What is more, this murky military saga sparked more troubles in the already problematic Turkey-US relations. The State Department’s initial statement, which insinuated ambiguity as to who killed the slain officers, angered Ankara. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attempted to brush this issue under the carpet by calling his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Yet neither parties wish to mend the relations.

As a side note, the ongoing limbo between the Joe Biden administration and President Erdoğan is another reason why the EU would opt for delaying any sanction decision in March. As a reminder, the December Summit of the EU reached the conclusion to delay any further decisions on Turkey until March specifically to wait and see how Turkey-US would unfold under the Biden Presidency.

The AKP government’s new strategy is likely to target pro-Kurdish and opposition parliamentarians even further by lifting their immunities and ousting them from the Grand National Assembly, whilst also toying with the idea of closing down the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Recent polls show that around 47% of the electorate is in favour of closing down the HDP and 44% are against it. Back in June 2020, those supporting the closure stood at 47% and 37% opposed its closure. Regardless, 60% of the public does not believe that closing down the HDP will solve Turkey’s “terror problem”. Only 29% of the public believes it would.

Rather than closing down the HDP altogether, the AKP is poised to further stifle the opposition and use the Kurdish issue and security issues. Its electoral ally, the National Action Party (MHP) would play the bad cop, calling for even further draconian options-such as bringing back the death penalty and banning HDP.

Conversely, the AKP would play the good cop and barely play cat and mouse with certain parliamentarians. And even more crucially, according to this plan, the electoral alliance between the CHP and İYİ Party (and Saadet Party) would face cracks. İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener failed to formulate a Kurdish policy and she repeats the old draconian state policies which call for the closure of HDP. Unsurprisingly, she shuns the Kurdish electorate whereas other possible presidential candidates like Mansur Yavaş and Ekrem İmamoğlu benefit from their support.  

Nonetheless, Yavaş and İmamoğlu have major mayoral posts to focus on whereas Akşener herself is perhaps the strongest opposition leader as her personal popularity continues to rise amongst everybody except for the Kurds and AKP voters. If her Achilles’ Heel, i.e. the Kurdish issue, gets hit, she as well as the opposition as a whole, will suffer. 

As Turkey gets ever close to the abyss, fanning the flames of endless polarization, the EU’s “non-interference” would be crucial for the AKP government. Would the EU go beyond “being deeply concerned”? Probably not!

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey