ISTANBUL: Kurdish rebels in Turkey’s southeast are ramping up attacks in a bid to pressure Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to speed up reforms ahead of presidential elections, analysts say.
A recent spate of ambushes, kidnappings and roadblocks by Kurdish militants threatens to further erode the fraught relationship between Ankara and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) ahead of Turkey’s first direct presidential election in August.
Erdogan is widely expected to run, but to win he needs support from the country’s Kurdish minority, who make up one fifth of the population and form a majority in the southeast.
The PKK declared a ceasefire in March 2013, but peace talks stalled in September after the rebels said they were suspending their retreat from Turkish soil, accusing the government of failing to deliver on promised reforms.
The banned group took up arms in 1984 with the aim of creating an independent Kurdish state, but it has since scaled back its demands to greater autonomy for Kurds.
The upsurge in violence in the southeast is seen as a sign that the PKK — blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Ankara and much of the international community — is raising the stakes in order to secure greater concessions.
“The PKK wants to extract as many concessions as possible from Erdogan, who needs Kurdish votes to become president,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security expert at the Ankara-based TEPAV think tank.
“They will not break the ceasefire but will continue to stage minor assaults.”
Among the changes demanded by the PKK as part of the peace process was the removal of an anti-terror law seen by many Kurds as directed at them, and the release of Kurdish prisoners. In return, the PKK were to withdraw to their bases across the border in the mountainous region of northern Iraq.
– ‘Prime minister’s weakness’ –
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a crushing victory in March local elections.
Despite losing out in a number of towns and cities to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the AKP raised its overall vote share in the southeast, where the prime minister is seen as the only leader capable and willing to engage Kurdish rebels in talks to end a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.
“The PKK has noticed the prime minister’s weakness. That’s why it has been trying to get its demands through terrorizing the presidential election process,” said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party.
Ozcan warned however that Erdogan would not succumb easily to pressure, predicting he would continue a balancing act of making moves towards peace with the Kurdish population without angering nationalists.
“Instead of seeking more support from Kurdish voters, he will try to avoid antagonizing nationalist Turks,” Ozcan said.
While he expected Erdogan to deliver small concessions ahead of the August vote, “these reforms will be too small to satisfy Kurds or trigger a nationalist backlash.”
– ‘AKP propaganda’ –
Turkish soldiers clashed repeatedly this week with hundreds of Kurdish protesters angry at plans to build military barracks in the southeast of the country.
Two men aged 24 and 50 were killed and scores of soldiers injured in the latest clashes on Saturday, which saw protesters open fire, hurl stones and fireworks at security forces, who witnesses said also fired live bullets.
Recent weeks have also seen the PKK reportedly kidnap two Turkish soldiers, kill a village guard and forcibly recruit Kurdish youths.
Upping the stakes, the government just published a report accusing Kurdish rebels of kidnapping more than 700 minors since the start of 2013, with Erdogan urging pro-Kurdish parties to secure their release.
Dozens of mothers have been staging a sit-in in southeastern Diyarbakir against what they say is the recruitment of their children by the PKK.
Pro-Kurdish groups do not deny there are minors in PKK ranks, but insist they joined up willingly.
“These children have been joining the PKK for a long time and the government is aware of that,” said Ayhan Bilgen, deputy head of the People’s Democratic Party, which shares the same support base as the PKK.
“Instead of pointing the finger at others, the AKP should try to find out the factors pushing them into the arms of the PKK.
“That the PKK is blocking roads and kidnapping soldiers is not new. It is just that the AKP propaganda machine is turned on again,” he told AFP.
– ‘Constitutional rights’ –
Since coming to power, Erdogan’s government has allowed Kurdish-language education in private schools among minor concessions that have failed to placate the Kurds. Many Kurds complain that the pace of reforms is too slow.
Cemil Bayik, the leader of the armed wing of the PKK, on Saturday accused the AKP of “buying time through creating expectations but doing nothing.”
“In the current situation there is nothing left… other than stepping up the struggle,” he said.
Political analyst Dogu Ergil said there was confusion within the government over what peace might look like.
“Those in the southeast know very clearly what they want: constitutional rights. But the state is very confused about what peace means for its Kurdish citizens,” he said.
“The government should remember the bicycle principle when thinking about the peace process: when you press one pedal, the other one moves by itself. They have a bicycle that is working perfectly. Just press the pedal!” he said.