Why Erdogan Wants Peace With the PKK

The End of An Insurgency

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the city of Diyarbakir to celebrate Newroz, cheered and waved banners bearing the image of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK on March 21. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), declared a cease-fire in his party’s nearly three-decade-long struggle with the Turkish state. Before then, the insurgency -- which had claimed some 40,000 lives -- had seemed intractable. Ankara’s attempts to put it down had only inflamed Kurdish nationalism and made the PKK stronger. But with Ocalan now apparently ready to try to resolve differences peacefully, the prospects that the uprising will come to an end have improved.

Ocalan’s announcement came at an opportune time. Several factors had already made the moment ripe for peace. First, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the broader Turkish public had come to recognize that trying to end the insurgency with force was a dead end and that the government would have to make a more determined effort to find a political solution to the Kurdish conflict.

Second, the Kurdish issue is closely linked to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political ambitions. Under AKP bylaws, Erdogan cannot run for another term as prime minister when his second term ends next year. Instead, he is widely expected to try to run for president. If he wins, he will be the first popularly elected president in Turkish history, capping his political career and giving him the chance to shape Turkish politics until 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic.

The one problem is that, currently, the presidency is largely a ceremonial post. Erdogan has thus signaled his intention to amend the Turkish constitution to give the president stronger executive powers and to diminish the authority of the prime minister. The AKP lacks the votes in parliament to make such changes to the constitution; to do so, it needs the support of

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