The deliberate escalation of violence by militants of the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was seen as brinkmanship policy to raise the stakes for the Turkish government ahead of presidential elections. “The PKK is clearly trying to test Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by escalating the tension as the country heads for the presidential elections; the first round on August 10 and the second on the 24th,” Murat Yetkin, a Turkish analyst, was quoted by the Daily News as saying. “Thinking Erdogan has not secured the required 50 percent, the PKK wants to have immediate concessions from Erdogan in exchange for votes,” Yetkin added. The already tense situation in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast over PKK’s road blocks, rallies and harassment fire at Turkish army posts took a turn for worse on Sunday when a PKK militant took down a Turkish flag at the 2nd Tactical Air Force Command located at the town of Lice in Diyarbakir province.
The army said it restrained itself from using deadly force after the youth, seemed under 18, pulled down the flag and instead fired warning shots. The opposition parties were up in arms over the incident, blaming the government for encouraging the PKK, listed as terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, to become bolder. The main opposition party Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu said he will never accept such an action, stressing that the flag has always been a symbol of the Turkish nation. The opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) youth branches have also organized mass rallies across the nation, attended by thousands of people, to protest the flag incident.
In an attempt to soothe tension flared up over flag incident, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the person who took down the Turkish flag, those who sent him to do that and those who tolerated to the incident will pay the price. The flag incident followed clashes between the security forces and Kurdish protesters on Saturday during which two people were killed in Diyarbakir province as several hundred protesters demonstrating against the construction of new military outposts. A pro-PKK group gathered on Saturday to bury a protest victim in the Baglar town of Diyarbakir and held an unauthorized demonstration in front of the military compound. A young man from the group entered the grounds of the military base and took down the Turkish flag. Sources said the two protesters were shot dead in fighting that erupted as the Turkish security forces returned fire. One soldier was wounded.
The crisis has posed a serious challenge for Turkey’s Erdogan who is widely expected to run in Turkey’s first direct presidential election in August. Erdogan received 45 percent of votes in the local elections at the end of March. Support from Kurds, which accounts for around a fifth of the population, could be key to his chances of success. While Erdogan is currying favor from political extensions of the PKK in the presidential election, and he has to keep an eye on the trade-off that may cost him more votes with nationalists’ backlash. Mumtazer Turkone, professor of political science, said the PKK seized the opportunity to blackmail the government. “It is clear that they are anxiously waiting for such crisis in order to use them as a trump card against the government in the context of the settlement process,” he said.
The Turkish prime minister described the latest wave of clashes and protests in southeastern Turkey as a “provocation” that threatens the settlement process, urging the citizens to exercise restraint. The government launched talks with the jailed leader of PKK Abdullah Ocalan in late 2012 in order to disarm the PKK and settle 30 years of conflict that claimed lives of some 40,000 people. A ceasefire called by Ocalan in March 2013 has been largely held, but the PKK halted a withdrawal to bases in northern Iraq last summer, complaining about the slow pace of negotiations. “How Erdogan reacts from now on in terms of the Kurdish question in general, and in terms of the process his government has initiated with the PKK in particular, will therefore be highly significant for Turks and Kurds alike,” Turkish analyst Semiz Idiz commented on latest incident.
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