The long road toward Kurdish accommodation in Turkey: the role of elections and international pressures
The Turkish Republic emerged in 1923 as a modernizing, Western-oriented, secular and authoritarian state. In 1946 Turkey began implementing the procedural requirements to transition the state to electoral democratic politics. In 1950 the country held its first free and fair elections and the opposition Democrat Party (DP) dethroned the Republican People’s Party (CHP) which had run the country since its founding. For the ethnic Kurdish minority in the country, however, more substantive, liberal democratic politics did not begin to appear until after 2002. The following analysis explains how the original Kemalist founding ideology of the Turkish Republic, which remained dominant from 1923 until 2002, created a very closed, undemocratic and intolerant atmosphere for Kurds wishing to politically mobilize as Kurds. Not all democratic states are liberal of course, and for most of its history the Turkish state pursued extremely illiberal policies vis-à-vis its Kurdish population. The democratic system that emerged in 1950 was more of a procedural, majoritarian democracy than a substantive, liberal democracy able to allow space for all its minorities to thrive while maintaining their identity. As outlined in the opening chapter of this book, Kemalist Turkey followed a similar route to Romania, Serbia and Malaysia, “whereby the nation is cast as an expression of a particular group” (in these cases Turks, Romanians, Serbs and Malays) and the state is dominated by the majority nation and ethnocentric political leaders (Snyder 2000; Carothers 2007; Miall 2007). At 15 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population, the Kurds remain the only politically relevant ethnic minority in modern Turkey (Alevis form the only politically significant religious minority).1 A series of Kurdish revolts in the early years of the new republic were suppressed with extreme force. The introduction of electoral politics in Turkey eventually provided Kurdish dissidents with new opportunities to challenge state policy and mobilize opposition. Electoral politics likewise laid the foundations for increasing levels of political liberalization, or “democratic deepening,” that began to take hold after 2002. Especially as political parties competed for the votes of the country’s 15 to 20 percent ethnic Kurdish population, the state’s understanding of and approach to ethnic minorities came into question. Although it took approximately 50 years and another violent insurgency for the right combination of factors to begin working
together, Turkey has begun a gradual democratic accommodation of ethnic conflict. One might view a time lag of 50 years between the introduction of democratic politics and the beginning of ethnic minority accommodation as inordinately long, however. A country that introduced real elections in 1950 hardly seems like a “new” or “transitional” democracy today. One must remember Turkey’s history of military coups and the central role that the Turkish military played in the political system until quite recently to make sense of this. With military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 (this last one was referred to as a “soft” coup), we may more accurately view the Turkish political system as a new and transitional democracy after each instance of a return to civilian rule. Although previous episodes of civilian democratic rule helped build the institutions necessary for democracy, each military intervention brought the process a few steps backwards, particularly following the military’s constitutional modifications of 1970 and its introduction of a completely new, less liberal constitution in 1982 (civilian rule was restored in 1983 in that case, a year after the constitution was written under the military) (Ahmad 1993). The case of Turkey shows that democratization does not necessarily produce immediate improvements in minority status, even if it does not provoke violent conflict. As Bertrand and Haklai argue in the introduction to this volume, democratization opens up new channels for the expression of grievances, and creates new sets of constraints and incentives that can improve prospects of accommodation for ethnic groups previously facing strong state repression. Yet, these processes can face very significant blockages, lags and reversals, especially when self-designated military “state guardians” periodically intervene in the political process. Over time, however, the logic of electoral politics can dictate greater accommodation to win votes, particularly where an ethnic minority commands sufficient numbers to influence electoral outcomes. This did not happen for several decades in Turkey because other factors interrupted and trumped the electoral process. Besides periodic military interventions, a mono-nationalist state ideology and strong majority support for this ideology prevented state leaders from accepting possibilities of shifting away from Turkish nationalist ideology. Furthermore, decades of strong repression often paralyzed Kurdish mobilization when opportunities arose after 1950. Nonetheless, sustained and more intense mobilization combined with international pressures to reinforce the electoral logic after 2002. The accession to power of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) in 2002 marked an effort on its part to strengthen electoral support among anti-Kemalist forces. Gaining support from the Kurds proved to be strategically important to advance its own agenda against the secularist, strongly Kemalist nationalist parties. Although the DP pursued a similar strategy following its 1950 electoral win, the 1960 military coup put an end to this. In the contrasting case of the AKP, this new political party’s electoral calculus, the need to finally come to grips with sustained Kurdish nationalist mobilization (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party insurgency that
began in 1984), and the supportive influence of the European Union accession process (respect for minority rights is an important criterion in assessing potential EU members) created a new Kurdish opening in Turkey.