During his visits to different cities in the Kurdish region in early November, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan encountered forceful street protests encouraged by the Democratic Society Party (DTP). Erdogan created deep concern during these visits with his ultranationalist statements. He went so far as to say that those who did not love the idea of one nation, one flag, and one state should leave the country. In the eyes of many Kurds, Erdogan’s unexpected nationalist response to the protests destroyed the credibility of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was the last bridge between the Kurds and the state (see EDM, November 4).
While Erdogan was wrestling with Kurdish nationalism, President Abdullah Gul took the incentive to ease Kurdish unrest. On November 18, two weeks after Erdogan’s visit to Hakkari Province, a delegate from Hakkari visited Gul and asked him to listen to what the problem was and take the initiative to address it (Sabah, November 19).
During the meeting, Gul stressed the fact that the solution of the Kurdish question lay in the further democratization of the country. “I understand what you think and what the Kurdish people have gone through. A solution will take some time, and all interested parties should contribute to dialog for a possible solution” (Taraf, November 21). In contrast to Erdogan, who declined even to shake hands with DTP deputies, Gul invited the DTP’s Hakkari deputy Hamit Geylati to the presidential palace to join the Hakkari delegation (Taraf, November 21).
It seems that Gul has a clearer vision of how to address the Kurdish question than Erdogan. Since early this year, Gul has taken diligent steps to become involved in the Kurdish problem and sought a solution to resolving it. In March he said that “the Kurdish question is a question for Turkey. It is a mistake to think that the Kurdish question is of interest only to certain groups. Political parties have their view toward this question. I have listened to what the DTP has to say about it” (Milliyet, March 13). A day later Gul went on to suggest “the Kurdish question cannot be solved through military means. We need to win peoples’ hearts and minds through democratic reforms” (Zaman, March 14). In October Gul admitted that “Kurds were discriminated against in the past with regard to speaking their own languages.” He added, however, that “compared with the past, Kurds are much better off today. Their cultural rights have mostly been granted” (Yeni Safak, October 20).
Prime Minister Erdogan, who had expressed a similar view of the Kurdish question in 2005, has not been consistent with his own statements. In spite of his positive messages until the July 2007 election, Erdogan has not done much to improve the situation since then. Even worse, Erdogan recently reversed his position and started using increasingly militaristic language toward the Kurds. Gul, on the other hand, consistently maintains that the problem should be solved through peaceful means. Gul’s basic approach to the Kurdish question is summed up in his statement: “It is not necessary to go forward quickly. What needs to be done is not to stay behind” (Hurriyet, June 8).
In hope of finding a gradual solution, Gul is planning to visit Diyarbakir on the forthcoming religious holiday (Bayram) on December 8. It is anticipated that Gul will go to a mosque in Diyarbakir for Bayram prayer (Milliyet, December 4). The DTP is not planning rallies against Gul at this time as they did against Erdogan’s visit to the region. DTP Chairman Ahmet Turk emphasized that “Gul has always been sensitive about the Kurdish people. We believe that Gul’s visit will ease the tension that arose when Erdogan visited the region” (Milliyet December 4).
It remains to be seen how the people of Diyarbakir will receive Gul. It should be noted that while Erdogan is loosing his credibility in the region, Gul’s visit could rejuvenate hope for the people there. Gul will be the first president to visit Diyarbakir during the Bayram celebrations. Moreover, Gul’s first official visit after being elected in 2007 was to the Kurdish region, where he received a warm welcome; Gul now has the moral authority to call for an end to tension in the region.
Since his visit to the area in September 2007, Gul has met with various delegations from the region to hear their opinions. It appears that he has been studying the Kurdish question over the past year and has deliberately chosen to visit Diyarbakir on the first day of Bayram. This is traditionally the day for ending animosities and will send a warm message to the Kurds. Gul’s visit will also put the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in an uncomfortable position, because it is traditionally unacceptable to turn away a guest during the Bayram celebrations. Thus, during Bayram, the symbolism of Gul’s message about finding a solution will be more important than the message itself.