While it is common to portray Turkey vs. Kurds as a rigid state-society clash, this dichotomy is not only simplistic but also misleading. As I argue in my book, competition among Kurds and the government’s reaction to it has transformed the trajectory of the conflict over the past decade.
Erdogan’s complicated relationship with Kurds
As prime minister from 2003 to 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a powerful player for Kurdish votes in southeast Turkey, receiving more Kurdish votes than the pro-Kurdish HDP in the 2007 elections. To many Kurds, Erdogan represented a pro-Kurdish rights advocate against Turkey’s secular-nationalist military.
Competition over Kurdish Islam also influenced voters and support for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Until the 2015 elections, he campaigned hard to convince conservative Kurds that Islamic brotherhood was a guarantor of a peaceful future in his “new Turkey.” Symbolically wielding a Kurdish translation of the Koran, Erdogan supported the “Kurdish opening” reforms — long seen as a taboo in Kemalist Turkey — that began in 2009.
So what caused Erdogan to change his tune on the Kurds?
After assuming the presidency in 2014, Erdogan eschewed the political neutrality of the post with his bid for an executive presidency. The pro-Kurdish HDP voiced strong dissent against this power grab, appealing not only to Kurds but also to Turkish leftist and liberal voters. In the 2015 general election, Yuksekdag and party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas guided the HDP from the margins to the center of Turkish politics, tripling its seats and helping the AKP lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since coming to power 13 years earlier.
Facing the possibility of a coalition government, Erdogan called for a snap election, and the government swiftly declared that the peace process — initiated in spring 2013 — had ended. Since then, he has collaborated with Turkish nationalists — who also lost parliamentary seats in 2015 — at the expense of Kurds.
The PKK’s waxing and waning influence
When the Turkish government retaliated against the HDP and retreated from the peace talks, the PKK saw a moment of opportunity. The group mobilized Kurdish youths for urban warfare in southeast Turkey, saving its guerrilla cadres for its ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq.
Although the PKK was the main Kurdish organization for years, a decade of civic dynamism and electoral competition had challenged its authoritarian structure. These increasingly multi-vocal and young pro-Kurdish party leaders successfully drew votes from not only its pro-Kurdish base but also pro-Islamic Kurds — who traditionally voted for the AKP — as well as pro-secular Turks.
This rise of Kurdish politicians at the expense of guerrilla commanders was the result of a civil participation process. In the past decade, Erdogan’s AKP and pro-Kurdish parties rushed to win the hearts and minds of Kurds, which led to a sweeping change in Turkey’s southeast. Hundreds of civic associations of all stripes have emerged in the past 10 years, forming unprecedented channels for Kurdish civil expression.
To win back conservative Kurdish votes that were going to Erdogan, pro-Kurdish party supporters began opening Islamic associations and organizing “civil Friday prayers,” in which the language of sermons was Kurdish. The Kurdish Islamist group Hezbollah started to form legal platforms, criticizing both Erdogan’s policies and Kurdish secular nationalism. These associations and dialogues allowed the HDP to expand its nontraditional base and recruit open critics of the PKK, such as Altan Tan and Serafettin Elci, to its leadership platform.
Post-coup electoral fallout
In the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt, these new alliances might crumble. Turkish nationalists now support Erdogan more strongly than before, while the PKK may reemerge as a champion of Kurdish identity.
With a dozen of its leaders still behind the bars, the HDP has effectively retreated from Turkish politics, following in the footsteps of many Kurdish parties in recent history. The PKK is likely to increase its sway over legal pro-Kurdish parties. Though it may seem counterintuitive to seek help from an armed group to form a civic platform, it is becoming a pattern as Kurdish legal parties are repeatedly shut down by the Turkish state.
Punishing civil politicians may prove to be counterproductive to Turkey’s national security interests as moderate Kurds again revert to supporting the PKK.
Examining intra-Kurdish competition is also essential to grasp the new reality of the militant group Islamic State, which has recruited remarkable numbers of Kurds to its ranks. According to one database, almost 50 percent of recruits from Turkey were Kurdish. While the Islamic State’s recruitment of Kurds may be surprising to a Western audience, for Turkey observers, it is a continuation and transformation of a rivalry between the PKK and the Kurdish Hezbollah during the 1990s.
A new cease-fire round could help break the violent deadlock in Turkey. But in the midst of a heated referendum campaign, this seems highly unlikely. Even if Erdogan secures a victory in the April referendum, the deep mistrust between parties remains a substantial barrier for peace talks. Whatever the outcome, continuing to block electoral competition among Kurds may have long-term consequences for the future of Turkey.
Mustafa Gurbuz is a nonresident analyst at the Arab Center Washington, D.C., and teaches Middle East politics at American University. He is the author of “Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey: Transforming Ethnic Conflict,” (Amsterdam University Press, 2016).