ISTANBUL: The fate of Turkey’s latest bid to forge peace with Kurdish rebels spearheaded by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the potential to make him Turkey’s Abraham Lincoln or ruin his reputation, observers say.
Jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan called Thursday for a cease-fire after almost three decades of an armed campaign for self-rule by his outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The announcement came after Erdogan – despite the risk of a strong political backlash – tasked Turkey’s spy agency with negotiating with Ocalan to end a conflict that has claimed 45,000 lives since 1984.
“I am ready to drink poison if it comes to that,” the 59-year-old Erdogan has often said, “even if it costs me my career.”
A solution to Turkey’s ingrained Kurdish problem could etch Erdogan’s name in history, in much the same way the abolition of slavery enshrined President Lincoln’s memory for Americans a century ago, wrote Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of the Hurriyet Daily News.
“If he can do this and convince people that a political solution to Kurdish problem is on track and the conflict is over, yes, there is a chance that Erdogan can be the Lincoln of Turkey,” he wrote in February.
Erdogan, who is Turkey’s longest serving prime minister after more than 10 years in power, launched the peace talks in the wake of an upsurge in attacks by Kurdish militants on the country’s security forces last year.
“Motivated by an ideological point of view, Erdogan believes he can manage the process through one big common point: Islam,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an academic from Ankara’s private TOBB University told AFP.
Since coming to power in 2002 as leader of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan has introduced a series of reforms for the Kurdish minority including language rights, although many in the community believe it is too little too late.
Analysts say a solution to the conflict is a “necessity” in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts against autocratic governments in neighboring countries, highlighting the autonomy enjoyed by Kurds in northern Iraq and a push by the community in Syria for more rights.
Both Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence for treason in an island prison, and Erdogan have staked their political futures on the outcome of the peace process.
“If Erdogan fails to lead this process, there is also a very good chance he will be remembered as Turkey’s Gorbachev instead,” referring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev whose political and economic reforms led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Some believe Erdogan is motivated by altruism to make amends with Kurds after so many years of bloodshed, while others say he is trying to become a “legend” by solving the almost unsolvable.
“By pledging to drink poison he made it clear that he is playing to make history,” Abdulkadir Selvi, Ankara representative for the Islamic-leaning Yeni Safak daily wrote Tuesday. “Now he is walking to his destiny.”
Despite the memory of many failed peace attempts, Kurds are “hopeful that Ankara’s intentions are this time not just skin-deep,” Oguz Ender Birinci, political editor of pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem daily, told AFP.
“If all this is being done with petty calculations, election benefits or the presidency, it won’t move an inch,” Birinci added.
If the peace process succeeds, Erdogan may win the backing of pro-Kurdish lawmakers for a planned new constitution, which could pave the way for him to assume a powerful presidency with executive powers.
But if Ankara fails to make any concessions to the Kurds if there is a cease-fire and a withdrawal of armed fighters, there could be a backlash.
“If Ankara fails to deliver on expectations, the PKK will have to send stronger messages to warn it,” Ozcan, warning of the risk of new attacks.
The stakes for Ocalan appear equally high, with speculation he could be released and make a return to politics.
A permanent solution might still take years, but analysts said it would strengthen Turkey’s bid to become an “influential democracy” in the region.
“The plans are so promising they could determine the future of Turkey and the Middle East,” Birinci said. “This should not be sacrificed for political ends.”