The Kurdish issue: a threat to stability
The Kurdish issue remains one of Turkey's most enduring sociopolitical and security problems and will feature strongly in the 2011 general election campaign. In 1984 the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) began a violent struggle with Turkey's security forces in the name of Kurdish independence. This struggle has continued uninterruptedly, except for a unilateral PKK ceasefire in 1999-2004. Since 1984 a total of around 40,000 civilians, soldiers and militants have died, and many atrocities have been committed on both sides. Since the PKK ended its unilateral ceasefire in mid-2004, its demands appear to have been scaled down from independence to political and cultural rights for Kurds, and its campaign of violence has been less intense than in 1984-99. However, the violence gradually escalated up to September 2010, with the PKK carrying out attacks against the security forces, mainly in the Kurdish-inhabited south-east of the country, but also against businesses and civilians, sometimes elsewhere in Turkey, including in major tourist destinations.
At the end of February 2011, the PKK announced that it would refrain from attacks, but effectively ended the unilateral ceasefire announced just before the referendum in September 2010 on the government's constitutional reform package and promised until the mid-2011 general election. This decision was not unexpected. Although the PKK denied responsibility for a suicide bombing in Taksim Square in central Istanbul in October 2010, it is widely believed that a Kurdish militant group, perhaps a splinter of the PKK, carried out the attack. If the frequency of the attacks escalates again, as it did until just before the referendum, it could trigger violent ethnic clashes between Turkish and Kurdish civilians. In July 2010 Kurds and Turks clashed in the southern province of Hatay following a PKK attack in the town of Dortyol. Also fuelling tensions are conspiracy theories that an alleged ultra-nationalist group of active and retired senior military officers and prominent civilians has been involved in some attacks attributed to the PKK in order to cause instability. An escalation could also affect the outcome of the next general election, as it might boost support for the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which have traditionally maintained a hard line on the Kurdish issue.
The Economist Intelligence Unit expects that the issue will continue to pose a threat to political and social stability and will hinder Turkey's EU accession prospects during the outlook period, as finding a lasting settlement is likely to be difficult. The democratic initiative launched by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2009 to try to improve Kurdish rights and bring about an end to violence made little progress owing to hardline nationalist opposition to concessions to the Kurds and the refusal of pro-Kurdish political parties to distance themselves completely from the PKK. The initiative will not be revived until after the general election, and even then may prove to be inadequate to bring about substantial change. The judicial decision to close the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) in early 2010 further increased Kurdish suspicions of the state. In late December, proposals by the DTP's successor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to grant greater autonomy to the Kurdish provinces and allow the use of the Kurdish language in an official capacity alongside Turkish sparked an investigation by the special prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, whose office has been responsible for closing down Kurdish political parties in the past. The AKP has stated clearly that it is opposed to granting Kurdish provinces greater autonomy-a view which was strongly expressed through the civilian-military National Security Council that met on December 29th 2010. Its position is more nuanced on the use of languages other than Turkish, however. On December 26th the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that the official language of Turkey is Turkish, but conceded that many Turkish citizens speak other languages and therefore impediments to their free use should be removed. In the likely event that the AKP is re-elected, it may initiate measures to include the free use of Kurdish in various local and regional governmental capacities. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the CHP, which we expect will remain in opposition in the next parliament, has promised a sea change in his party's traditionally hardline nationalist stance on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the rest of the CHP will be willing to support him after the election if, as we expect, they lose.