Turkish election officials on April 21 approved the bids of seven out of 12 mainly Kurdish-backed candidates who were earlier disqualified from running in the country's upcoming June 12 general elections.
But the original decision to bar popular Kurds prompted fury within the 15-million-strong minority and led to three days of violent demonstrations across the country. In the southeastern, predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, masked youths fought street battles with police, and 30,000 people gathered for the funeral of a man shot dead during the protests. Kurdish activists claim he was killed when police opened fire on demonstrators.
While the violence is now expected to subside, analysts have warned that it shows the depth of Kurds’ unrest and the urgent need to address their longstanding political grievances.
"If there's a silver lining to this, it’s that it demonstrates that dealing with the Kurdish issue is a priority," said Henri Barkey, a specialist on Kurdish issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
"The 'Arab Spring' is becoming a model for Turkey's Kurds. They are very aware of what is happening in all these countries in the Middle East; hence their willingness to be far more aggressive," Barkey added.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, who have waged a bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984, have maintained a ceasefire recently. But Kurdish political leaders announced last month a program of civil disobedience and for nearly a year have been setting up local assemblies in protest at Ankara’s failure to deliver reform.
The latest violence is also an embarrassment to Turkish leaders as they attempt to position their country as a moral voice on the world stage and a democratic beacon for the troubled Middle East, analysts say.
“People are making fun of Turkey," said Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "On the one hand, it pretends to be a model for the region and, at the same time, is not capable of making reforms itself."
In an apparent attempt to defuse the crisis, Turkish President Abdullah Gül on April 21 attributed the rejections of the 12 candidates to missing “documents,” and told reporters that [t]here should not be any further problem now if they were provided,” Hürriyet Daily News reported.
Among those now cleared to run were the iconic Kurdish activist Leyla Zana, a human rights activist and two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was imprisoned for ten years until 2004 after being convicted of membership in the PKK.
Some analysts believe the original decisions to ban the candidates, many of which were based on minor or spurious legal technicalities, were a calculated move by opponents of Turkey's Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
Turkey's judiciary and bureaucracy, much of which is still dominated by staunch secularists, have been fighting a bitter power struggle in recent years with the AKP.
Barkey believes the decision by the board was an attempt to damage the governing party ahead of the June elections. "This was a political decision and it was taken back under political pressure," he said.
Although leading AKP politicians, including Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin, called for the bans to be lifted, the government's position was made awkward by rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissing Kurdish grievances only hours before the crisis erupted.
"There is no longer a Kurdish problem," he told AKP election candidates on April 18, blaming Kurdish unrest on manipulation by opposition political parties.
But after more than eight years of the AKP’s rule, during which time the party has enjoyed a strong parliamentary majority and has pledged to democratize the country and push it toward European Union membership, Kurds entering politics still face substantial persecution.
Around 2,200 activists from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the main Kurdish political grouping, are currently imprisoned under draconian anti-terror laws -- some for up to three years without trial.
Their parties have also regularly been liquidated by the country's top court over the past decade, most recently in 2009.
Erdogan has also ruled out lowering Turkey's 10-percent threshold for parties seeking representation in parliament, which cripples Kurdish parties and forces their candidates to run as independents.
Meanwhile, a government initiative started two years ago and intended to address their grievances has now largely been abandoned.
Abdullah Demirbas, the BDP mayor for Sur district in Diyarbakir, said he believes that the atmosphere generated by the protests has risked fostering divisions between Kurds and Turks.
"People started to feel that not just the state, but the government and the people in the West don't see us as their fellow citizens… “ Demirbas commented. “People need to be encouraged to believe in a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul where he writes for The Times.