Turkey’s Turning Point
What Will Erdogan Do to Stay in Power?
Turkey is poised to escalate its war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by prosecuting elected Kurdish politicians. Many observers, including some government supporters, fear that the move will prove just as counterproductive as previous efforts to criminalize Kurdish politics over the past three decades. Indeed, since the 1980s, the Turkish government has regularly arrested Kurdish politicians and banned half a dozen Kurdish political parties, without coming any closer to defeating the movement they represent. If anything, these efforts have only helped build support for the PKK and its violent tactics.
So why does the Turkish government now expect better results from a strategy that has repeatedly backfired? The most cynical analysis holds that it is all a short-term tactic aimed at ensuring that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the votes he needs to enhance his power as president. But the more frightening possibility is that Erdogan and his government actually believe their own rhetoric and imagine that, in part as a result of the real progress they once made on behalf of Kurdish rights, they are finally on the verge of an unprecedented victory: militarily against the PKK and politically against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP).
Since fighting between the government and the PKK resumed last summer, Turkey’s pro-government press has consistently emphasized the support that the government enjoys among Turkey’s Kurds. The government narrative presents Kurds as angry at the PKK for the suffering it has caused the Kurdish community and grateful to the AKP for all the party has done to advance Kurdish rights. In this case, the propaganda is just plausible enough to be particularly dangerous. But the government has conflated a moral argument about the way it believes Kurds should respond with an objective assessment of the way available evidence suggests they will respond.
Recently, 16 villagers were killed when the PKK blew up a truck packed with explosives in a Kurdish community outside Diyarbakir, apparently following a conflict with several community members. Pro-government papers quickly reported the story in all its undeniable horror, sometimes alongside grim photographs of flesh collected in plastic bags awaiting identification. Yet much of the coverage went beyond presenting the attack as simply a moral indictment of the PKK. Rather, government supporters presented it as further evidence of why the Kurdish people were turning against the PKK. But (as these same sources would, in other circumstances, be eager to emphasize) the PKK has been brutally killing Kurdish civilians for a long time. So far, though, it has done so while maintaining its considerable Kurdish political constituency. The anger that the PKK’s often brutal behavior has created among many of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens is deep, but, for better or worse, many continue to support the group so long as their anger at the Turkish state remains deeper.
Writing in the late 1980s, anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen described a “long series of reports in the Turkish press on brutalities committed by the PKK against innocent civilians” that were “partly aimed at undermining popular sympathies for the guerrilla fighters.” Other accounts from the period emphasize just how confident Turkish politicians were that the approach was working. Suleyman Demirel said, “There is no local support for the terrorists—that’s why people are being killed by the separatists. People are afraid of the terrorists.” Bulent Ecevit, Demirel’s political rival at the time, used almost the same words, saying, “There is no widespread popular support for the terrorists.” A source at the Foreign Ministry, too, insisted that “most of the people in the southeast don’t support them, because they attack civilians—women and children—and try to intimidate the local population.”
Today, of course, rather than euphemistically insisting that “the people of the southeast” don’t support the PKK, politicians can confidently insist that it is “the Kurds” who don’t support them. This is undeniably important change is in large part the result of the AKP’s efforts to challenge long-standing nationalist taboos, which at their most extreme led some to insist that Kurds simply did not exist. Since publicly acknowledging Turkey’s “Kurdish reality” in 2005, Erdogan and his government took unprecedented steps to allow Kurdish-language radio and television, as well as elective courses in Kurdish at universities.
For those in the AKP who remain confident in the party’s aggressive approach to the problem of Kurdish nationalism, these changes provide a justification for thinking that it is time to try the same old policies that didn’t work before. Many claim, in essence, that the Kurds don’t have anything to complain about anymore, implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of Kurdish complaints in an earlier, more oppressive era but also crediting the AKP with bringing that era to a close. Yet the question of how much credit Erdogan deserves for improving Kurdish rights is separate from the question of how much credit Kurds are prepared to give him. And to date, all available evidence suggests that a significant constituency of Turkey’s Kurds not only see these efforts as too little, too late, but also feel that they pale in comparison to the suffering caused by other aspects of the AKP’s policies. If the AKP insists that Kurds should really blame the PKK for the lives, homes, and cities destroyed over the last ten months of fighting, it doesn’t change the fact that many Kurds insist on blaming the AKP instead.
In Turkey’s June, 2015 parliamentary election, the HDP received an unprecedented number of votes in southeastern Turkey, even winning the support of a number of conservative Kurdish voters who had previously backed the AKP. In July, conflict between the PKK and the government resumed. After several months of fighting, a second election took place in November. This time, the HDP’s support fell, as some of its new conservative supporters, apparently blaming the PKK for re-starting the conflict, returned to the AKP. Nonetheless, the election results revealed that in the predominantly Kurdish regions hardest hit by the fighting the HDP’s support remained higher than it had been at any other time since the AKP came to power.
It is possible that, since November, Kurdish opinion has undergone an unprecedented shift, and a previously unseen anger toward the PKK and the HDP has come to the fore. But if this is what the AKP is counting on for its current policies to succeed, it is misguided. It seems far more likely that these policies will only deepen Turkey’s already dangerous divisions—just as they did over the past thirty years.