Turkey is making headway with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on disarmament. In an unprecedented step on February 28, officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) appeared together before the press to read a message from Abdullah Ocalan, the group’s imprisoned leader. In the address, Ocalan called on the PKK to convene a congress this spring to discuss ending the armed conflict, as part of a comprehensive agreement for nationwide democratization as a means to address core Kurdish demands. But parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7—along with disputes about the war in Syria, where Kurdish fighters are battling the Islamic State—make it unlikely that they will reach a peace agreement.
For weeks, media reports speculated that the PKK was on the verge of announcing disarmament, a landmark decision. But the call to convene a PKK congress, rather than offer a firm pledge, dashed those hopes. Ocalan instead issued a ten-point framework to serve as the basis for further talks. He outlined a vague list of principles to guide a new formal phase of negotiations including, among other things, redefining democratic politics, establishing a new security structure, and strengthening local governance.
PKK leaders based in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq have since said that the party has no plans to disarm until the AKP agrees to base all future talks on Ocalan’s roadmap. But in the meantime, the AKP depends on the success of Kurdish peace talks to secure a strong electoral win in what is poised to be one of the most crucial elections in Turkish history. For the AKP to gain a parliamentary majority and unilaterally establish an executive presidency with unprecedented powers, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly demanded, the AKP must maintain the support of its conservative and Turkish nationalist electoral base while persuading its Kurdish voters that it is the main driver of peace. In past elections, half of the Kurdish vote in southeastern Turkey has gone to the AKP, which is now asking its constituency to support the Kurdish resolution process because it would end violence and lead to greater economic prosperity. The AKP has consistently relied on religious rhetoric to show how Turkish-Kurdish peace is an act of Islamic fraternity.
For the HDP, the press announcement was meant to bolster its image as having a clear plan for negotiations ahead of the June vote, when it will run as a party rather than field independent candidates for the first time in order to garner more political legitimacy. The HDP’s election strategy is to consolidate the Kurdish vote in the east and southeast, and to reach out to both left-leaning and undecided voters in Turkey’s west, notably in Istanbul. By publicly amplifying calls for democratic reform, much of which the AKP is unwilling or unable to deliver, the HDP hopes to stretch itself past the 10 percent threshold required to win official seats in parliament. The HDP’s task, however, would be easier if the PKK finally bids farewell to its arms.
The problem is that the PKK’s sweeping demands—including a new Turkish constitution—would require months, if not years, of complex negotiations. This is likely to be an issue for the AKP as the HDP ratchets up accusations that the government is stalling the peace plan. Parliament is scheduled for recess in early April, making progress before the June 7 election unlikely. As the campaign heats up, both the AKP and the HDP will likely try to claim the title of the party more committed to a negotiated agreement. But afraid of losing the nationalist vote, the AKP will avoid making significant concessions to either the HDP or PKK, making it even less likely the latter will agree to disarm.
The war in Syria provides yet another complication. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish group with ties to the PKK, and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have made military progress in northern Syria, further reducing the PKK’s incentive to lay down arms. The PYD has emerged as a reliable opposition group in Syria and a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. The PYD is now in control of Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish-run entity that consists of three non-contiguous cantons in northern Syria.
Given their ideological and operational affinity, the PKK wants to share responsibility for the PYD’s political and military success. So if PKK fighters are mobilized in Syria and northern Iraq as fighting intensifies in the spring, it is unlikely that the PKK will disavow arms while the Kurds are enjoying a long-coveted sense of international recognition. Turkey is uncomfortable with the attention the PYD has received for its role in battling the Islamic State and has rejected joint military action. Recently, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the PKK and PYD, said that the former is prepared to fight in Mosul and anywhere necessary to oust the Islamic State.
But not disarming also carries risks for the PKK. If the group sends more fighters to Syria, it will stretch its military resources thin and potentially inflame Kurdish-Arab tensions as combat extends to Sunni Arab villages. However, the YPG appears to be holding its ground in Rojava, and is currently not even seeking a steady flow of PKK reinforcements.
The AKP will struggle to make progress on PKK disarmament talks when Kurdish fighters across the Turkey-Syria border have established a sense of solidarity and purpose in the struggle against the Islamic State. The outcome of the ongoing talks is now intertwined with the future of Rojava. The AKP fears that cooperating with the PKK in Syria may push Turkey’s Kurds to seek similar autonomy. But the AKP-led government turned down a valuable opportunity to build trust with the Kurds both in Syria and Turkey last year when it refrained from supporting Kobani during a humanitarian crisis brought on by the Islamic State's offensive.
The AKP government needs to take bolder steps to ensure Kurdish rights, but as election pressures mount it appears that only smaller gestures are possible such as allowing another message from Ocalan to be read to crowds at the Diyarbakir’s Nevruz rally, a Kurdish festival that carries political significance. There have been media reports over the past few days that the AKP is in the process of setting up a secretariat, consisting of PKK inmates in Imrali (where Ocalan is serving a life sentence). Other steps may include creating a long-awaited monitoring commission to coordinate with the government on key areas such as security, truth and reconciliation, and releasing some of the terminally ill and jailed Kurdish fighters.
In the coming months, the AKP may consider extending limited military cooperation to the YPG—depending on how the fight with the Islamic State unfolds—but this is unlikely to turn into more formal cooperation. Moreover, the PKK might not disarm, but it is also unlikely to break the ceasefire, which it can use as leverage in negotiations. Both the AKP and HDP will make the question of peace central to their election campaigns, but this will not translate into meaningful action in the form of a negotiated agreement.