Kurds and Republicans unite ahead of Istanbul election re-run

A coalition of opposition groups including Kurds and Republicans are joining forces ahead of a crucial election, which analysts predict may deliver the biggest political upset in Turkey in decades.

The initial poll in March to choose a new mayor to govern Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, secured a victory for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), but on a margin of just 14,000 votes.

CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu’s campaign was boosted by tactical voting from Kurds and other minorities seeking to oust the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Imamoglu was in office for just 19 days until Turkey’s Supreme Election Council annulled the result after claims by the AKP of irregularities at polling stations.

Now with the controversial re-run just days away, the Kurdish vote has been described as the “golden key” at the forthcoming ballot and CHP, Turkey’s oldest political party, is now considering a series of concessionary reforms that could allow for the teaching of the Kurdish language in Istanbul’s public schools for the first time.

 

Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) addresses his supporters in Istanbul, Turkey, April 17, 2019. /Reuters Photo

 

Vote switching

The vote in the mayoral election on March 31 collapsed in confusion, amid a news blackout over exit poll results, with both the CHP and the AKP candidate former prime minister Binali Yildirim claiming victory.

Ahead of voting, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has seen its relations with the ruling AKP deteriorate over the war in Syria and a renewal of the armed conflict in the Kurdish majority southeast of the country, took the radical step of withdrawing its own candidates from the mayoral race in Istanbul and in six other cities. Instead it urged its supporters to vote CHP.

Research by the Ankara-based economic think tank TEPAV suggests around 80 percent of the HDP supporters, close to a million voters, switched sides accordingly.

Now in a second round in which every vote counts, the Kemalist CHP appears to be shifting position on its historical antipathy towards the issue of Kurdish rights.

Imamoglu has told a Kurdish news channel “Kurdish language and songs are a part of Turkey’s societal unity.” While the veteran leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, similarly told Turkish television that learning and receiving education in mother tongue is an individual’s “essential right.”

In a move that surprised many Kurds, CHP members also spoke out against the result of mayoral elections in the southeast of Turkey, where successful HDP candidates in five districts were removed from office and replaced with AKP runners up. While last year, former CHP presidential candidate Muharrem Ince visited the HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas at his prison cell in Edirne, where Demirtas is serving a four-year term over the party’s alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

People walk past by AK Party billboards with pictures of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim in Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2019. /Reuters Photo

 

Conciliation

This new conciliatory tone from Republicans has been cautiously welcomed by Kurdish voters. Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington D.C.-based Kurdish affairs analyst, says ideologically the two political parties have much in common. “By nature CHP is (HDP’s) closest partner, but because of the disagreements over the Kurdish question, they have always distanced themselves. But now both sides feel equally victimized by the government and the Kurdish vote has the power of change.”

Istanbul-based analyst Gareth Jenkins describes the current coalition as a marriage of convenience in the harsher political climate. “There is a sense that the HDP is being squeezed out of the political space completely, that the Kurds can’t get their message across any other way.”

He cautions “CHP has always been seen as the main suppressors of Kurdish identity…the party still has a long way to go to convince the Kurds that it has changed. They don’t just have to win the trust of Kurds, they also have to persuade them to go out to vote.”

Supporters of imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas rally during a presidential election campaign in Istanbul, Turkey, June 17, 2018. /AFP Photo

 

Others in the Kurdish movement see HDP’s endorsement of the Republicans as a leap of faith that may not pay off. They point out that it was CHP parliamentarians voting in favour of AKP legislation to lift immunity from prosecution for lawmakers that led to the jailing of Demirtas and his party colleagues.

Ibrahim Dogus of the London-based Centre for Turkey Studies says the current alliance “is fragile… it remains to be seen if this strategy will bear fruit, but a renewed CHP victory in Istanbul on the back of HDP support would be difficult to ignore, likely forcing CHP to deepen its engagement with Kurdish issues.”

However Civiroglu sees a possible turning point, particularly on the contentious issue of Kurdish language provision. “The (Istanbul) municipality has a lot of power, a huge budget and 16 million residents. It can promote services, whether that is language teaching in Kurmanji or Zaza, supporting cultural and social activities for Kurds…it’s really a test case.”

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2018. /Reuters Photo

 

‘Irreversible decline’

With the next vote on June 23 and opinion polls neck and neck, electioneering in Istanbul is intense, particularly in the predominantly working-class districts of Esenyurt, Buyukcekmece and Beylikduzu, with large Kurdish populations that voted CHP in March.

However analysts warn the focus on minority and floating voters misses the bigger problem for the AKP, namely the growing disillusionment with the party among its traditional support base; poorer, conservative Turks who have been hit hard by the worsening economic outlook.

Gareth Jenkins says whether the AKP wins the Istanbul mayoralty or not, the second election will prove a decisive moment for modern Turkey after two decades of AKP rule. “What we have seen in the past six months is an irreversible decline (in the AKP), the only question is the pace at which it is happening. Many younger members are aware that the grounds for the re-run in Istanbul are spurious and the party has been discredited.”

He predicts that “If the second election is fair then Imamoglu should win. But the real concern for the AKP is how any future opposition government will act. Will they do to AKP what the party itself has been doing to its own opponents over the past two decades? That is their fear.”

(Cover: Supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu wave Turkish national flags during a rally for the upcoming local elections, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 28, 2019. /Reuters Photo)

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Turkey-KRG relations one year after Kurdish independence vote

More than a year after Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum on independence soured hitherto good ties with Turkey, relations are still very significant, particularly on the economic front. However, analysts anticipate that political relations are unlikely to once again become as close and cordial as they were before that referendum.

“Considering its current economic crisis resuming close economic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, as they existed in the pre-referendum era, will be good for Turkey,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval.

“I don’t think politically Turkey’s relations will be as they used to be, especially with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP),” he said, referring to the former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. “But economically Turkey would like to take advantage of the region. Many Turkish companies have been very active in Kurdistan, especially in the western parts of the region where the KDP is the predominant party. To some extent, this is continuing and will likely continue and even get stronger since the Kurdistan region is too important economically for Turkey to ignore or let go.”

Economic ties between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey continued throughout the tense months following the referendum. While Ankara harshly condemned the KRG it never closed its border crossings with it in order to blockade the region, which Iran did from September 2017 to January 2018.

Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of Musings on Iraq, believes that Ankara and the KRG “are set to repair their relationship” one year after it became strained during the referendum.

“While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was angry at the vote, he didn’t put as many sanctions on the KRG as he could have,” Wing told Ahval. “Given that it was only natural that the two would eventually move back together.”

At present, economic ties between the KRG and Turkey are still very significant. Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported this month that Turkey would “undertake the lion’s share of infrastructure projects in northern Iraq”.

Turkey and the KRG also agreed to open a new international border crossing between the two, the first with the Kurdish province of Erbil, where the autonomous region’s capital city is located.

“Two weeks ago there was an underground tunnel built in the Iraqi Kurdish border city of Zakho by a Turkish company,” Çiviroğlu said. Iraqi Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani “is very keen to improve relations and open doors for Turkish companies, construction and other, in the region. As a result, we can see the continuation of economic relations and maybe even improvement of relations overall.”

Wing agreed that Kurdistan was an important economic partner that Turkey did not want to lose.

For Turkey, the KDP, the predominant Kurdish party in Iraqi Kurdistan’s western Erbil and Duhok provinces, remains “an important ally within Iraq and a counter to other Kurdish groups in the region”, Wing said.

“For the KDP, it’s of utmost importance to maintain this ally as the KRG is economically dependent upon its northern neighbour for its oil exports, trade, and investment,” Wing said. “The referendum was more of a bump in the road than a lasting break between the two.”

Bilal Wahab, the Nathan and Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, where his focus is on KRG governance, also sees the Turkish-KRG relationship improving, but does not see it reverting to its pre-referendum heights.

“Turkish-Iraq economic and security relations are improving, which enables Turkey to be less dependent on the KRG,” Wahab told Ahval.

Wahab is also sceptical that economic relations will return to pre-referendum heights since the KRG will no longer be the exclusive Iraqi market for Turkish investors.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kurdish referendum, Turkey’s ultra-conservative press reported that Ankara was contemplating opening a new border crossing near the village of Ovaköy, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet, to bypass and economically isolate the KRG, and trade directly with Iraq.

Ankara is exploring the feasibility of opening a crossing in that area today. Given that relations have thawed significantly since last year it is much less likely that Turkey is now seeking to isolate the KRG economically. It is more likely trying to lessen its sole dependence on that autonomous region for trade with the rest of Iraq. At present, it is unclear if this project will actually get off the ground anytime soon since the KRG still controls all of Iraq’s border with Turkey.

Çiviroğlu does not see military and political relations between Ankara and Erbil improving anytime soon.

“In Turkey, there have been calls to carry out more operations against PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) bases in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he said. “This may lead to Turkey trying to get the KDP to help them in such an operation. Although this will unlikely be possible in the near future since Kurds are more careful not to allow themselves to fight one and another.”

Another major hurdle in the way of restoring Turkish-KRG relations to pre-referendum levels was the political fallout and the harsh words Erdoğan used against then Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani.

“The referendum in the mindset of Turkish leaders was a betrayal by Barzani, and Iraqi Kurds generally, so maybe political relations will never be as good as before,” Çiviroğlu said. “But still I think compared to Turkish and Syrian Kurds the Iraqi Kurds comparatively still enjoy better relations.”

Of course, compared to the PKK and other Kurdish groups that Turkey opposes outright the KDP will always be a favourable choice for Ankara and economic relations will likely endure.

The relationship between Turkey and the KDP is also much more cordial than the one between Ankara and the Patriotic Union Party (PUK), the most powerful party in Iraqi Kurdistan after the KDP.

In August 2017 Ankara expelled PUK representatives from Turkey after the PKK kidnapped Turkish intelligence agents in Sulaimani province, the PUK’s main stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, while Turkey opened its airspace to Erbil International Airport, following Baghdad’s lifting of the post-referendum flight ban over the Kurdistan region’s airspace in March, it has not yet done the same for Sulaimani International Airport.

“The KRG is not the united front it once was, whereby the PUK’s relationship with the PKK is not the same as the KDP’s,” said Wahab. “This manifests in Turkey banning its flagship airlines from flying to Sulaimani.”

Çiviroğlu sees Turkey’s refusal to reopen its airspace to air traffic going to Sulaimani as “an indicator of Turkish anger and displeasure with the PUK.”

He said the “PUK’s warm relations with Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in Turkey, and generally with the PKK, makes the PUK less favourable to Turkey.”

But now that Iraq is working to establish a new government, in which there has been consensus “about the designated prime minister, speaker of parliament and Barham Salih being elected president there is some gradual optimism in Baghdad”, he said.

In light of these developments, Çiviroğlu does not believe that Ankara would try to be a spoiler, “but instead may try and use these changes for its advantage, especially Barham Salih becoming president.”

Ankara may also “use these developments to reset relations with Iraq generally and the Kurdistan region in particular, especially Sulaimani which has been suffering from Turkey’s closure of its airspace,” Çiviroğlu said.

The selection of Salih, a long-time PUK member, as Iraqi president was warmly welcomed by Ankara. İlnur Çevik, an advisor to Erdoğan, described Salih as a good ally of Turkey.

“Dr. Barham has always appreciated the importance of Turkey and has cherished the friendship of Ankara. Now we have a good ally in Baghdad just like Mam Jalal,” Çevik said in a recent editorial. Mam Jalal – Kurdish for ‘Uncle Jalal’ – is an endearing term many Kurds call the late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was also the leader of the PUK.

Such sentiments could signify that relations between Ankara and the PUK will be restored in the foreseeable future.

Wahab reasoned that while thawing the frozen relations between Ankara and the PUK “would be an opportunity for President Salih” he also argued that “what factors greater into PUK’s calculation of cosier relations with the PKK is its rivalry with the KDP – one that has heightened since the referendum and recently over Iraq’s presidency and election results.”

The KDP had sought to have its own candidate, Fuad Hussein, run as the next president of Iraq, a position traditionally reserved for the PUK, but lost that bid to Salih.

While Turkey’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan successfully endured the worst crisis since its establishment a decade ago, it still has some ways to go before it completely normalises.

Paul Iddon

https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-krg/turkey-krg-relations-one-year-after-kurdish-independence-vote