With just weeks to go before Turkey’s June 12 parliamentary vote, discontent among the country’s ethnic Kurdish minority is fostering political uncertainty for the governing Justice and Development Party.
Tumultuous protests in Istanbul and throughout the southeast, home to most of Turkey’s millions-strong Kurdish population, erupted after security forces on May 14 killed 12 members of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); another seven PKK members were killed in April.
For now, leading officials in the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-dominated government deny the Kurdish protests pose a political challenge. “There is no longer a Kurdish question in this country,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared in a May 1 speech in Istanbul. “I do not accept this."
Yet, some political experts don’t expect Kurdish discontent to dissipate anytime soon. One Istanbul-based political scientist linked recent scenes of public outrage to the coming of age of a generation of ethnic Kurds who, as children, were forced out of their villages as part of security forces’ scorched-earth policy against the PKK in the 1990s.
"The generation that was raised since the first village emptying started is now of age and they are much more enraged and much more rebellious than their parents," commented Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University.
The prime minister, however, asserted at a May 18 meeting of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce that such youngsters “are used and exploited as figures in this scenario,” the Hürriyet newspaper reported.
Erdoğan on May 19 traveled to the southeast for a round of campaign rallies that could provide a fresh test for how relations between his AKP and the pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) play out in the short time left before the parliamentary vote. Erdogan and other officials tend to see the BDP as a political front for PKK militants. The PKK announced the end of a unilateral ceasefire in late February.
Little doubt exists that Prime Minister Erdogan has the BDP in his political sights. He has accused the Kurdish party of being indirectly responsible for a May 4 PKK attack on a convoy of AKP supporters during which one police officer died. Leading figures from the BDP are already on trial, including 12 mayors accused of conspiring to support the PKK.
Since the March 21 celebration of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, police have detained more than 2,500 ethnic Kurds on various charges, according to the Turkey-based Human Rights Society. Many of those detentions were linked to protests against a decision by Turkey's electoral board to suspend a number of candidates supported by the BDP. That decision was rescinded following a national outcry.
AKP representatives insist that a heavy-handed approach toward the BDP is justified. "It is not because they have said something. But they are part of a terrorist organization. They have been helping those terrorists who are killing young people,” declared AKP parliamentary candidate Volkan Bozkir, a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union expected to be named State Minister for European Affairs.
A softer tone, however, sometimes prevailed in the past. During the 2007 parliamentary election campaign, the AKP advocated meeting Kurdish demands for greater cultural rights. It was a stance that helped the AKP win Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The party followed this up by backing the establishment of a 24-hour state Kurdish TV station and then launched a short-lived attempt to end the government’s 26-year conflict with the PKK.
The AKP toughened its line against the BDP following a series of electoral setbacks for the governing party. In the 2009 local elections, the BDP took back several cities from the governing party. Last year, the Kurdish party successfully orchestrated a boycott in the southeast against the constitutional reform referendum. But in the same referendum, the AKP scored heavily in electoral bastions of the Turkish nationalist party MHP, which had campaigned against the reforms. That lesson was not lost on the prime minister.
"[T]hey saw the benefit of getting nationalist votes away from the nationalistic party,” commented political scientist Nuray Mert, a columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet. "They saw there is solid [ground for support] and they can easily get more votes by underlining their nationalist credentials, rather than democratic credentials, and this explains their present policy."
Opinion polls show the AKP should retain power in the parliamentary vote. Down the road, however, concerns are growing that the threat of confrontation could undermine one of the AKP's key democratic achievements, -- the decoupling of the Turkish army from politics.
"In their [the AKP’s] minds, there are plenty of bad Kurds and a few good Kurds who belong to their party" said Bahcesehir University Professor Cengiz Aktar, who has advocated reconciliation between the government and Kurds. "When there is a vacuum in policy, others come in and fill this vacuum. Both the Turkish military and PKK may come back. Unless the government solves the Kurdish problem through political means, the military will always be around."
Kurdish parliamentary candidate Aysel Tugluk gave a stark assessment of how relations between the government and Turkey’s Kurdish minority could play out. "We are in limbo, and responsibility belongs to the state and the prime minister,” Tugluk said at a May 5 meeting. “If we end up in heaven, we will live there together, and if we end up in hell, then we will burn together."
Dorian Jones is a freelance journalist living in Turkey.