How to Lose the War on Terrorism

A recent poll by Pollmark, presented at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) think tank in Ankara, shows that terrorism is the number-one problem for many in Turkey.  

A recent poll by Pollmark, presented at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) think tank in Ankara, shows that terrorism is the number-one problem for many in Turkey.

This is a rather new phenomenon because unemployment and inflation — i.e., the economy — always top the “most important problem” list in the country. The poll was conducted before the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack in Dağlıca in which 12 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight captured. The percentage for “fear of terrorism” would have been higher after the attacks. Perception defines reality. One terrorist attack can turn public opinion around. After weeks of harsh rhetoric, high-level meetings and ultimatums, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government was able to contain the crisis without a military operation into northern Iraq, at least so far. The Iraqi leaders, both in Baghdad and in Arbil, have helped the process by easing Turkey’s concerns. But this must be followed by concrete action. Otherwise one more terrorist attack will set the clocks back to where we were before.

The Kurdish issue is never only an issue of terrorism. In the past it has also been used for various political agendas. The AK Party government’s second term began with terrorism and the problem will not go away by making statements. Terrorism is such a powerful tool of politics that it will be used against the government to shape its behavior on everything from the Kurdish issue to political reforms and the EU process.

The game plan is clear: Keep the Kurdish issue and the problem of terrorism on the agenda as a way of radicalizing moderate voices and making radical views look like moderate views. This is more or less what you have with the war of words between the AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The recent uproar about the banning of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) is an indication of another kind of political battle. From now on, every terrorist attack, whether by the PKK or not, will be associated with the DTP. No one cares if and whether the DTP can stand up to the PKK. On the other hand, DTP figures are only adding fuel to the fire by showing all kinds of political immaturity and playing the easy game of identity politics.

Banning the DTP will only strengthen the PKK. Why? Because the current PKK leadership is against legitimate political struggle. A terrorist organization can survive only through illegal means. The PKK has to launch attacks and kill innocent people to survive. How else would you keep your fighters in order and get the channels of financial support going? As one Turkish journalist once said, the PKK was a $1.5 billion enterprise in 1998. It is not easy to stop and end such a network of intertwined interests.

The DTP was largely disappointed in the July 22 elections and the Pollmark survey shows that their approval rate is dropping still lower. This points to an extremely important and new phenomenon: Identity politics is no longer enough for the DTP and other Kurdish political actors to survive. From now on they will have to revise their political language, get to the real politics of issues and work for the immediate problems of their voters. Playing the victimization card will not get them anywhere. Just like the rest of Turkish society, Kurdish voters want the infrastructure, jobs, investment, education, health, roads and other services to which every citizen of Turkey is entitled. Preaching to the Kurds with the ideological language of old-fashioned Marxist-socialism (class struggle, identity politics, etc.) can get the DTP only so far. Now they have to prove that they can make their voters’ lives better.

To survive in the political arena, the DTP must produce sensible policies. This means rejecting PKK terrorism and overcoming identity politics. Other political actors, however, must refrain from giving the PKK a chance to resurrect itself.   

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