The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, chose to announce plans for a referendum on independence today — the same day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan picked to announce his bid to run for president. If that’s a coincidence, it’s a significant one.
Officials in Erdogan’s government have indicated at least twice in recent weeks that they are willing to end Turkey’s historical opposition to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. There are several reasons, but the most urgent one is the electoral arithmetic Erdogan faces in next month’s vote.
The stakes in the presidential race are especially high this time. Whoever wins Aug. 10 — and it will almost certainly be Erdogan — will become the first Turkish president elected directly rather than by parliament. With the legitimacy of a popular mandate, together with his dominance of the ruling party and the flexibility of existing laws, Erdogan would be able to turn what has been a ceremonial presidency into a powerful executive position.
This prospect was enough to motivate the two main opposition parties — the secularist Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party — to put aside their differences to select a joint candidate, historian and diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The third contender, Selahattin Demirtas, is from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which accounts for about 20 percent of the population.
May’s local elections were a dry run for the presidential race, in that both Erdogan and his opponents turned the polls into a referendum on him. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party won 43 percent of the vote, a good result but not the majority he needs to win the presidency in the first round. The two main opposition parties together won 44 percent.
The even split between Erdogan and the main opposition means that Turkey’s Kurds will be the kingmakers. For them, any concern over Erdogan’s authoritarian bent pales next to securing an independent Kurdish state in Iraq and a better deal for themselves in Turkey. Erdogan is letting them know he is the man to deliver both.
Just days before Erdogan announced his presidential bid, the government submitted to parliament a bill that would allow Kurdish militants living in camps to return to society as civilians without fear of prosecution, potentially ending 30 years of armed conflict. The law would also grant immunity to Turks who, as part of the peace process, speak to convicted terrorist Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish leader.
Equally important, Huseyin Celik, a top Erdogan official, on Sunday repeated his earlier statement that the Kurds in northern Iraq should be allowed to determine their own status. Celik, of course, is not Erdogan, and encouraging Iraq’s dissolution runs counter to U.S. policy, with which Turkey professes to agree. Still, the door for Iraq’s Kurds to declare independence without being punished by Turkey — allowing them to go on exporting oil and receiving billions of dollars in investments — was opened wide.
For decades, the very idea of a Kurdish state was neuralgic for Turkish leaders. They feared it would trigger an all-out war for secession along the predominantly Kurdish-populated border areas with Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, time, the dispersal of Kurds throughout the country, and Iraqi Kurdistan’s growing economic dependence on Turkey have dissipated resistance in Ankara. Barzani could also prove a useful ally for Erdogan in his talks with Ocalan and the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party.
A coincidence of timing has a lot to do with it, too. Just at the moment Erdogan needs the Kurds’ support to keep him in power for up to a decade longer, the Kurds need Erdogan to seize an opportunity to realize their century-old dream of independence.
As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stephen Cook, just back from Iraqi Kurdistan, told me: “Barzani can make Erdogan king of Turkey and Erdogan can make Barzani king of Kurdistan.” That’s a powerful lobby for the breakup of Iraq.