When Peace Is Bad Politics

Not that long ago, Turkey's ruling party was willing to talk peace with the Kurds. But voters had other ideas.

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After years of relative peace, Turkey has once again descended into conflict. Most recently, the Turkish government blamed Kurdish terrorists for a car bomb yesterday that killed 28 people, mostly soldiers, in the country’s capital. Over the past several months, Kurdish fighters have seized the centers of a number of cities in the country’s southeast, and the Turkish military has responded in force, killing hundreds of civilians, destroying thousands of homes, and temporarily displacing tens of thousands of people. Though overshadowed by the conflict in Syria, this violence is particularly tragic because it marks the end of a decade in which many had hoped that Turkey’s government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), would finally find a peaceful and democratic solution to the country’s long-running “Kurdish problem.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish military fought a brutal war against Kurdish nationalists who were demanding independence in response to the government’s systematic suppression of their people’s cultural rights. But the following decade — up until last year — was a period of relative quiet during which the AKP seemed genuinely eager to try to reach out to the Kurds. To understand the failure of the AKP’s unprecedented but ultimately inadequate attempt to make peace, it helps to look back at how Kurdish voters responded to the party’s peacemaking efforts.

When the AKP first came to power in 2003, its leaders believed that making peace and winning elections would go hand in hand. They hoped that their pro-peace policies could create a loyal constituency among grateful Kurdish voters that would ultimately enable the AKP to win the conflict against Kurdish nationalism at the ballot box. In fact, however, the AKP’s efforts consistently failed to win Kurdish votes, while still succeeding in alienating Turkish nationalists. Ultimately, the gulf separating Turkey’s rival Turkish and Kurdish constituencies proved too great. After ten years in power, the AKP finally concluded that in a deeply divided country, peace was bad politics. Now, as a result, it has chosen to seek a military solution instead.

This chart, produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center, compares the AKP’s vote share to that of its main Kurdish political rival, now known as the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), in 10 predominantly Kurdish provinces in southeastern Turkey. Put simply, it suggests that the AKP was never more successful in its competition for Kurdish votes than when it first came to power and its promises for reform were at their most vague. Initially, the AKP assumed that by curbing the power of the Turkish military, bringing good government and economic prosperity to southeastern Turkey, and emphasizing shared Islamic identity to overcome national differences, they could win over Kurdish voters. Yet the optimism that accompanied the AKP’s initial years in power seem to have secured it more Kurdish support than any of the specific policies it implemented later.

The AKP’s 2009 “Kurdish Opening” provides a perfect example of how easily peacemaking efforts could lose Turkish votes without satisfying Kurds. Before the details of the government’s program were even laid out, it had already garnered considerable criticism from opposition parties, who accused the AKP of putting Turkey’s national identity and territorial integrity at risk. And as the proposals became more specific, opposition continued to mount. At the height of the process, for example, when President Abdullah Gul broke a long-standing taboo by referring to a Kurdish village by its Kurdish name, for example, the head of the leading Turkish nationalist party suggested this was merely the first step to renaming Istanbul “Constantinople.” Real if limited steps to expand cultural rights, such as a designated state-run Kurdish language television station, were greeted with equal hostility by Turkish nationalists, while for many Kurds they still seemed woefully inadequate.

At the same time, Kurdish politicians had their own constituency to appease. In what was to mark a key moment of progress in the Kurdish opening, a number of fighters with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a left-wing Kurdish militant organization — took advantage of a government amnesty to return from Iraq in late 2009. But the HDP’s predecessor party turned their welcome ceremony into a victory celebration, complete with pictures of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (currently imprisoned on terrorism charges) and PKK flags. This was, according to scholar Akin Unver, the Kurdish leadership’s way of ensuring that they got credit for the peace process that might have otherwise gone to the ruling AKP. Yet casting the fighters’ return as a PKK victory created a massive backlash in the Turkish press and among Turkish opposition parties. Faced with such widespread opprobrium, the AKP abandoned the opening.

The AKP next attempted to make peace through direct negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan. These negotiations were controversial from the outset, and when they became public in 2012 the AKP was acutely aware of the need to reach an agreement that would be acceptable to nationalist voters. This meant they were eager to see the PKK unilaterally lay down its arms but only grudgingly willing to grant the cultural rights, symbolic recognition of Kurdish identity, and increased local autonomy that were crucial to many Kurdish voters. Deep mutual suspicion, as well as the PKK’s inflated confidence in its own bargaining position, hampered negotiations from the beginning. But in retrospect it’s also clear that, by approaching negotiations within the limits imposed by nationalist voters, the AKP made success all the more difficult.

To further complicate matters, where the AKP initially hoped to co-opt Kurdish voters to increase its power, in these negotiations it sought to co-opt the entire HDP for the same end. That is, Erdogan envisioned reaching a deal where the Kurdish party would support his plan for enhanced presidential powers in return for other constitutional changes that would give the Kurds, and by extension the HDP, more local power. The HDP initially proved receptive to this proposal, and to this end alienated many liberal Turkish voters in the summer of 2013 when it refused to support the widely publicized Gezi Park protests. But in time, the party concluded that empowering Erdogan in pursuit of its own goals was a dangerous bargain. In the spring of 2015, the HDP publicly proclaimed that it would never support Erdogan’s presidential plans. Erdogan then distanced himself from the negotiations, doubled down on his nationalist rhetoric, and helped set the stage for renewed violence.

After taking unprecedented steps in pursuit of peace, the AKP has now returned to war. Where the party once sought to use its political power to secure peace on the terms it wanted, it is now hoping to use military force to compel an acceptable solution. Erdogan and other party members have announced that they will no longer negotiate with either the PKK or the HDP, but instead search for a more amenable Kurdish partner. According to a recently unveiled plan, the government’s new interlocutors will include Kurdish religious figures and leaders of pro-government Kurdish militias that have fought against the PKK for decades — an approach that columnist Cengiz Candar likened to talking to a mirror and calling it dialogue. As for concessions to Kurdish cultural rights, the government’s plan appears equally uninspiring: a pro-AKP columnist hinted that within weeks, airplanes flying to southeastern Turkey might begin making in-flight announcements in Kurdish.

The failure of the AKP’s attempts at peacemaking have revealed the depth of the divide separating voters in Turkey. Now the ongoing military conflict is deepening these divisions, leaving an even more daunting task for the next government that attempts to bridge them. Over the long term, the consolidation of Turkish democracy is undoubtedly a necessity for lasting peace. Yet the events of the past decade offer a discouraging reminder that, under conditions of stark political polarization, democracy can also bring peacemaking challenges of its own.

The author is a senior analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s National Security Program.

In the photo, Turkish army service buses burn after an explosion on February 17, 2016 in Ankara, Turkey. 21 people are believed to have been killed and at least 61 are said to be wounded, according to the city’s governor Mehmet Kiliclar, in what appeared to have been a car bomb attack on a vehicle carrying military personnel.

Photo credit: Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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