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Turkey's silenced Kurdish voters and the guerrilla insurgency
Data suggests a link between the disenfranchisement of Kurdish voters and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
Turkey’s presidential election tomorrow will be a nail-biter. Given how close the polling is, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strongman tendencies, and the heated conspiratorial rhetoric going into the election, there are questions about whether Erdoğan will allow for a fair vote, and whether both sides will respect the outcome.
The nightmare scenario for Turks is reality for much of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The southeast of the country has been in a state of low-grade civil war between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for four decades. It’s come with heavy-handed crackdowns, martial law, extrajudicial murder, and — yes — the government refusing to respect the result of local elections.
That was the starting point for my recent analysis for the Kurdish Peace Institute.
In theory, Kurds have the same legal status as other Turkish citizens, and for awhile Turkey denied the existence of a separate Kurdish people altogether. In practice, Kurdish-majority areas have long lived under a separate legal regime from the rest of Turkey. From 1987 to 2002, millions of Kurds were placed under the State of Emergency Regional Governor, who had the power to censor media, control labor unions, exile citizens, and bulldoze villages.
After a July 2016 coup d’etat attempt, Erdoğan declared all of Turkey under a state of emergency. But even that decree set up a separate regime for Kurdish areas. Erdoğan’s government granted itself the ability to replace elected officials with appointed “trustees,” a power that the state wielded almost exclusively against Kurdish mayors.
The Kurdish Peace Institute estimates that the trustee system effectively disenfranchised 1.2 million people who voted for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the 2014 municipal elections and nearly a million people who voted for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the 2019 municipal elections. A similar number of votes were wiped out at the provincial level.
On top of that, Erdoğan’s coalition voted to strip the HDP of its parliamentary immunity, allowing for the arrest of top HDP lawmakers.
The Kurdish Peace Institute was recently granted access to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project database, which tracks incidents of political violence around the world. (ACLED doesn’t go back as far as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, but it provides much more granular detail.) The Institute asked me to do a simple comparison: violence in districts where the BDP/HDP was allowed to stay in office versus violence in districts where Kurds were disenfranchised.
The most intense stage of the recent Turkish-Kurdish conflict took place in late 2015 and early 2016, before the coup d’etat attempt. What happened next is pretty suggestive. As soon as the disenfranchisements started, the bulk of the violence moved to districts where Kurdish elected officials have been forced out of office. Very little violence — both proportionally and by absolute numbers — took place in districts where the BDP/HDP was allowed to stay in office.
Read my more detailed analysis at the Kurdish Peace Institute website. The correlation probably goes both ways. The Turkish state was more likely to use its new emergency powers against districts that were already seen as “troublesome,” and where the security forces were already acting with a heavier hand.
It’s pretty grim to put that violence into numbers. We’re talking about gunfights, bombings, assassinations, airstrikes, kidnappings, torture, et cetera. According to the Crisis Group, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has killed over 6,500 people in Turkey and Iraq since 2015, not to mention the untold thousands who were traumatized, bereaved, or maimed for life.
But data is also a powerful tool for understanding patterns of violence. And in the case of Turkey, there is reason to be hopeful — respecting Kurdish voters seems to genuinely cut down on violence.
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Header image: HDP lawmaker Dersim Dağ argues with Turkish riot police blocking the road while HDP parliamentarians hold a protest march against the isolation of political prisoners, in Diyarbakır, Turkey, 15 February 2019. EPA-EFE/Stringer