Ever since 1984 when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK) insurgency erupted in the mountains of south Eastern Turkey, the Turkish authorities in Ankara have attempted to crush the PKK by using authoritarian means. Turkification became the order of the day, for the government there was to be no such thing as a Kurd, they had all become mountain Turk’s. In the mainly Kurdish towns and villages of south eastern Turkey it was the blunt instrument of the military who were chosen to enforce this policy; and as is often the way when soldiers are called in to police an intractably political problem, the Turkish armed forces inevitably helped spark an increasingly violent backlash, which was to divide communities throughout the region and lead to over 37,000 people having their lives stolen.
To its credit, as far as the Kurdish problem is concerned, since coming to power in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has gradually moved government policy away from the authoritarian methods of previous administrations, having passed laws that for the first time allows the Kurdish language to be spoken on the Radio and TV and in private educational establishments. Whilst this legislative program was slowly passing through the Turkish Legislative parliamentary chamber, the AK Party in the south-east had been organizing on the ground through its local party branches and quietly making inroads into the Kurdish community.
This hard work by AK Party activists to the astonishment of the Turkish media pundits paid of handsomely in the 2007 Turkish general election when in the City of Diyarbakır alone, considered to be the base of Kurdish nationalism, the AKP’s votes increased from 68,000 (in 2002) to 190,000. In Bingöl, another Kurdish city in which the PKK has been powerful, the AKP won an astounding 71 percent of the votes. In the southeast region as a whole, which Kurdish nationalists call “Turkish Kurdistan,” the AKP’s votes exceeded 50 percent of votes cast, while the DTP [the Kurdish Movements Party] failed to break the 10% threshold necessary to enter parliament. Although their supporters did manage to get 25 independent candidates elected, the majority of whom joined the DTP after entering parliament.
It is worth analyzing just how the AK Party gathered in their Kurdish vote as it is not dissimilar to how they have campaigned to attract the working classes and especially the rural poor in town and country throughout Turkey. The AK Party understood the culturally conservative nature of Kurdish society as it is not that different from their own core support base in rural Anatolia and instead of condemning it and lecturing it about the need to modernize, the AK attempted to work with it. Becoming the first one nation Turkish Party to court the Kurdish vote in a civilized manner. I suppose in the language of agi-prop they set out to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish dispossessed.
Since 2002, the year the AKP came to power in Ankara, both the central government and the municipalities run by AKP mayors have made a real attempt to bring basic services to these previously neglected Kurdish communities. About 1,100 villages, which had no running water before, now have it. Hundreds of new schools have been built and the students get their text-books for free. For economically poor families there is additional financial support from government for their children’s education. The government also helped finance comparatively low cost apartments for families that were living in the gecekondu [shantytowns] that are found on the edges of most of the largest Turkish cities, including Kurdish cities like Diyarbakır. For many of the dispossessed of the Kurdish regions this was the first time any national party politician had bothered to canvass their opinions and Kurds being no different from the rest if us, are more likely to vote for someone who gives them the time of day.
The AK Party also aimed their propaganda at the Kurdish middle classes, again in the same manner as they have been targeting the newly emerging Anatolian middle classes who felt neglected and excluded from the corridors of power, due to the dominance of the Kemalist middle class founders of the Turkish Republic who mainly reside in the west of the country.
Due to the islamic nature of the AK Party it was also able to canvass the support of the islamic societies, sects, associations and foundations, such as the Naqshbandi sect and Kadiri order which have bedeviled Turkish politics for centuries, but must be taken into account as they have strong historical links with the Kurdish region and in the 2007 general election are thought to have advised their supporters to vote for the AKP.
The strength of the clan system amongst Kurds should also not be underestimated nor the willingness of clan leaders like the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to tweak the tail of the Turkish military by advising his clan members across the Turkish border to vote AKP. Never the less, even if one take into account all of the above the number of votes cast for the AK Party by the Kurdish communities in the south east of Turkey was still a considerable feat; and goes a long way in explaining how this Party has become such a phenomenon in Turkish politics.*
* Look at the photos from right to left.