It is now a dozen years since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, launched a protracted guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Today Turkey’s Kurdish crisis seems to be deadlocked. Both of the warring parties seem to have reached their limit in terms of their military and political capacities to escalate the war and improve their standing. Do the December 1995 legislative elections offer any glimpse of a political solution? Over the past several years, between the end of its first unilateral ceasefire (June 1993) and the beginning of the second one on the eve of the elections, the PKK has managed to sustain and even to intensify its military activities, but despite this and its obvious recruitment appeal among Turkey’s Kurdish youth, Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK is no longer master of the war or the political agenda, as it was in 1991 and 1992. The frequency of its military initiatives has declined, and its indirect control in the major cities has been weakened.

On the other side, an enormous mobilization since 1992, costing nearly $10 billion per year, has enabled the Turkish armed forces to take control of major Kurdish population centers, to destroy dozens of towns and to inflict heavy losses on the PKK. According to army sources, some 8,000 PKK fighters were killed in 1994 and 1995. The campaign, though it has succeeded as a scorched-earth policy, [1] has not seriously diminished the logistical networks of the PKK in the Middle East, or even in the border areas of Turkey itself. Turkey’s 1995 military excursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, the most significant and expensive external armed intervention since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, [2] has given the army deep knowledge of this terrain, but failed to destroy the military capacity of the PKK. [3] In any event, even a clear-cut military victory would not represent a political victory, and certainly would not mean the end of Kurdish radicalism in Turkey.

To refer to the situation as one of deadlock does not mean that the past years have been marked only by routine clashes and insignificant political events. On the contrary: Between the two unilateral ceasefires declared by the PKK in March 1993 and December 1995, the evolution of this conflict has been marked by a combination of historical continuity and radical rupture.

In terms of continuity, for the past several years. Turkey has adopted a policy of aggiornamento, or postponement. Except for Turgut Özal’s 1991 decree to allow publications in Kurdish in 1991, no other reform in the field of cultural rights or in the legalization of Kurdish political actors has been adopted. Instead, the government has banished two successive Kurdish political parties, the People’s Labor Party (HEP) and the Democracy Party (DEP), and arrested their leading members. All of this fully conformed to the policies of the generals who have ruled, directly or otherwise, since the 1980 putsch. In the meantime, the continuing political fragmentation of Turkish political life has enabled the army to continue to play its role as extra-parliamentary arbiter and to set Kurdish policy.

At the same time, two centrifugal dynamics of Turkish political life have continued apace. One is the “anachronization” of Kemalist doctrine in the face of the Islamist challenge of the Welfare Party in the larger cities as well as in Kurdistan. The other is that a Kurdish “micro-space,” which began to emerge in the 1960s, is by now firmly rooted in the Turkish political arena. [4] The Kurdish war has become a “banal” item on the country’s agenda.

The evolution of these issues has also been determined by discontinuities. One of these was the death, in April 1993, of Turgut Özal. This left Turkey without a leader with the necessary imagination and political courage to match the political initiative embodied in the PKK ceasefire a month earlier, in March 1993. This initiative showed that this party could move in the direction of a pragmatic solution that would allow its integration into legal Turkish political life. It was during this period, moreover, that the Kurdish war became a truly internal European problem, certainly in Germany, with the mobilization of the Kurdish and Turkish diasporas there. This led in tum to the more active intervention of European countries.

Finally, the costly routinization of the war inevitably affected how people regarded the conflict: The period between 1993 and 1995 saw the rise and fall of the so-called “military solution.” No longer does anyone, in Turkey or abroad, seriously believe that such a solution is possible. On many occasions, leading politicians and even some high-ranking soldiers have admitted the necessity of a political solution, following the lead of novelists Yaşar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk. The Union of Chambers of Commerce, whose leading members are close to then-Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, last year published a report authored by Doğu Ergil calling for a political solution. Şakıp Sabancı, Rahmi Koç and Ishak Alaton have also argued expressly against the so-called military solution. The departure, in August 1994, of Doğan Güreş as chief of general staff, in spite of heavy pressures from military chiefs that his term be renewed, was also a sign of this failure.

Do these signs of change signify a shift in Turkish attitudes with regard to the Kurdish issue — with Turks no longer seeing it strictly in military and coercive terms? It is still too early to say that perceptions have permanently shifted to viewing it solely as a political issue. The attitudes of politicians so far have not reflected the courage necessary to accept a political solution. Also, the PKK has certainly not renounced its reliance on armed struggle and its insistence that it is the “single actor” in Kurdish political life.

Further complicating the situation are two phenomena that intersect with the Kurdish question and perceptions of it. One is the success of the country’s leading Islamist party, the Welfare Party, in garnering some 20 percent of the popular vote in the December elections. The second is the reemergence of the Alevi question. [5] Will the politicization of this community, which includes both Turks and Kurds, produce militant and even violent strategies, pushing both the army and the Kurdish forces toward new options and alignments? The December 1995 elections, which took place during the second ceasefire of the PKK, and in relatively free conditions except for the repression in the Kurdish countryside, may contain some partial answers to these questions. The elections at least offer a relatively accurate picture of the political moment, with regard to both the actors and their limitations pertaining to Kurdistan and the Kurdish political arena. In this regard, the main event was clearly the participation of the People’s Democratic Party (HADEP), successor to the earlier outlawed party embodiments of Kurdish nationalism, the HEP and DEP. It led a so-called “Bloc of Labor, Peace and Freedom,” which was supported by the main Kurdish organizations and the extra-parliamentary Turkish left organizations. In spite of political pressures, juridical restrictions and the demoralizing impact of some 20 assassinations of leading HEP and DEP members of the past several years, this new formation demonstrated a capacity to mobilize important sectors of the Kurdish population.

In the actual election, HADEP obtained only 4.2 percent of the vote, far below the 10 percent required by the constitution to enter the National Assembly. It has nevertheless displayed new signs of dynamism in the Kurdish “micro-space” which includes the provinces of Mardin, Şırnak and Diyarbakır, the main bastions of Kurdish nationalism since the 1960s. In Diyarbakır, HADEP took 46.7 percent, 22 percent in Mardin, 26 percent in both Şırnak and Surt, 27.7 percent in Van, 37.4 percent in Batman and, due to exceptional circumstances, 54.3 percent in Hakkari. [6] This performance was every bit as impressive as that of HEP four years earlier. [7]

This recurrent mobilizing capacity of Kurdish nationalism cannot be explained by the immediate circumstances of guerrilla war or economic discontent. There are deeper, structural causes, which only suggest the potential for greater mobilization in the future. The destruction of the countryside, for example, has magnified the importance of the towns both demographically and politically. In contrast to the past, the towns have become the main arena of policy development and inevitably of nationalist protest and radicalism as well. It will be very difficult to contain this mobilization, and it is likely to remain a presence, either as an independent Kurdish political force or as an element integrated into other Turkey-wide political formations. Only a suspension of political life — such as after the 1980 military coup — seems to be able to eradicate the electoral manifestations of this radicalism.

On the other hand, the elections have also shown the limits of Kurdish radicalism. As in the 1991 elections, in other Kurdish regions (or at least claimed as such by Kurdish nationalists), HADEP did not do as well (18 percent in Agri, 17 percent in Muş and Tunceli, 13.6 percent in Urfa, 10 percent in Bitlis) and even, in some cases, very poorly (7 percent in Bingöl, 6.7 percent in Kars, 6 percent in Erzurum, 4 percent in Elazığ, 1 percent in Erzincan, 2.8 percent in Malatya, 2.7 percent in Maras). In the majority of these towns, Welfare took the largest number of votes (30 percent in Agri, 51.6 percent in Bingöl, 28.8 percent in Bitlis, 42 percent in Elazığ, 32 percent in Erzincan, 38 percent in Erzurum, 37 percent in Malatya, 36 percent in Maras, 27.8 percent in Surt, 26 percent in Urfa). The poor showing of HADEP in those towns is significant, for they are closely linked to intra-Kurdish ethnic differentiations. [8]

Similarly, in the large Turkish cities with sizable Kurdish communities, HADEP’s message did not translate into votes. It did surprisingly well in Mersin (22 percent), but took less than 7 percent of the vote in Adana, less than 3 percent in Ankara, and less than 4 percent in Istanbul and Izmir. Here, though, poor scores can only partly be explained by the intra-Kurdish ethnic differences. Rather, they indicate that the major cities continue to have an important integrative function, giving birth to new political conditions and alignments. This does not mean the end of Kurdish radicalism in Turkey’s big cities, but simply indicates that politics in these towns are shaped by other socio-political determinants.

In the Kurdish political “micro-space,” however, the national political parties did poorly, with the exception of Welfare. [9] In the municipal elections of 1994, HADEP’s exclusion had allowed Welfare to capture almost all the major Kurdish municipalities. In 1995, despite the fact that some of its candidates had been chosen by the party’s central leadership in Ankara, after being largely rejected by local party rank and file, Welfare marked a second victory, reinforcing its position as one of the two main political forces in Kurdistan.

The Welfare Party’s success in Kurdistan is very different from the ascension of political Islam that we observe in other parts of Turkey. It is linked here to the centrifugal formation of a Kurdish political space and, in some cases, to the larger Kurdish protest. Welfare’s cadres in the Kurdish region are, for the most part, Kurds; even sometimes Kurdish nationalists, like Hashim Hashimi in Diyarbakır. Welfare’s electoral victory shows that it continues to have an integrative function in Kurdistan: Parts of the Kurdish population see it as distinct enough from the social democratic and conservative national parties, which they hold responsible for the country’s policies in Kurdistan, but also universal enough to serve as a link between Kurdistan and the rest of Turkey.

The dynamism of HADEP, whatever its actual and potential links may be with other Kurdish political organizations, shows the continuity of Kurdish nationalism in Turkish political life, while providing a legal Kurdish political protagonist. Some Kurdish deputies elected on the Welfare ticket fit into this category, and the repeated success of the Welfare Party clearly shows the pluralistic, or at least the dichotomous, structure of the Kurdish political arena.

In order to answer the question of whether the deadlock can be broken, we have also to consider the capacity of Turkey’s political system and Turkish state to accept a political solution. Did the 1995 elections reveal anything new in this regard?

The 1995 elections clearly did not produce the necessary conditions for a stable government. There is no obvious majority in the new National Assembly, at a time when the short term requires a triple integration of Kurdish radicalism, Alevi mobilization and political Islam. Kurdish radicalism is, of course, the most urgent, because of the war situation in Kurdistan. More and more leading Turkish businesspeople agree, the Kurdish war cannot continue indefinitely without provoking a militarization of the economy as a whole. [10] Turkey today stands at a crossroads between the path of a greater and more intense cycle of coercion and the path of integrating Kurdish radicalism into the political system through appropriate administrative and political structures.

The Kurdish question, though, is closely linked to the Alevi issue and the political Islam phenomenon, calling into question the very foundation of the Turkish doctrine of state. [11] The radicalization of one of these protests tends to radicalize the other two, while the failure to integrate one can well mean the failure to integrate the others. At the same time, we observe a certain “saturation” of the political system. Its capacity for renewal seems quite problematic. The 1995 elections were a clear manifestation of the suspicion of voters towards reform attempts, even quite legal ones, coming from outside the already fragmented political system. Thus the New Democracy Party, an initiative of liberal intellectuals and “enlightened” businesspeople, had been credited only a few months earlier with 7-8 percent of the vote, but was in fact unable to demonstrate a social basis. Such “saturation” reinforces the impact of extra-parliamentary political confrontations such as the riots in the Alevi neighborhoods of Istanbul earlier in 1995.

The question is whether the existing political system as such can create a new “social contract” that goes beyond existing doctrinal taboos. This would require the elaboration of a reform program that would include a political solution to the Kurdish question while simultaneously coping with Alevi radicalism and political Islam in ways that do not engender new tensions.

Such a resolution will require, above all, the formation of solid political blocs — right, left and Islamist — able to negotiate a consensus on such a reform project. Everyone agrees on the necessity of such a consensus, but there are no indications that it will materialize soon. Political antagonisms are too sharp, and Turkish nationalism and Kemalism remain too attractive in short-term political calculations. The “consensual” decision to lift the parliamentary immunity of six DEP deputies in March 1994 is all too illustrative of this fact.

Secondly, such a resolution necessitates the “neutralization” of the army and the civil bureaucracy. The attitude of the military and the political establishments towards these three core issues, Kurdish, Alevi and Islamist, is still a determining element for future policies that the country will adopt. Here we face the major unknown of Turkish political life. The anti-PKK and “progressive” declarations made by the army’s chief of staff, Gen. Ismail Hakkı Karadayı on the eve of the December elections showed, first, that the army was carefully following developments in the political arena and, second, that it would not remain silent in the event of a massive Welfare Party victory. Clearly the army is not ready to renounce its position as arbiter of Turkey’s political life and the terms of any political solution to the Kurdish issue.

At the same time, the conditions of the recent period have meant that the military has lost some ground. A new intervention, like that of September 1980, would face serious legitimization problems. Moreover, without renouncing the role of arbiters, the military, along with the bosses of Internal Security, feel the need to play the partisan game. Witness the fact that Güreş, former general staff and architect of Turkey’s repressive Kurdish policy, Ural Erkan and Hayri Kozakçıoğlu, former governors of the “region of exception,” and Mehmet Ağar, the former chief of police, have all transferred formally to the political arena, becoming deputies in Çiller’s True Path Party. This displays, on the one hand, the “militarization” of Turkey’s political life, but also, on the other hand, the increasingly difficult job of the military and civil bureaucracy to perpetuate themselves as a supra-political actor.

In these circumstances, the political evolution of Turkey and its Kurdish dilemma are not easy to forecast. The necessary elements to overcome the actual circumstances of deadlock seem to be there. It is nevertheless quite difficult to imagine what strategies the main actors will in fact adopt. One point, however, bears emphasizing: The 1995 elections mark a new period, one in which Turkey’s political class might well not be able to replay the policy of aggiornamento that served them so well but Turkey so poorly from 1991 to 1996.


[1] According to the figures of the Turkish Associations for Human Rights, 1,500 villages were destroyed by the army during 1994. See the Bulletin de Liaison et d’Informations of Kurdish Institute in Paris, January 1995.
[2] 20,000 soldiers were involved in this excursion. According to the Turkish Probe (Istanbul) of April 21, 1995, it cost between $250-375 million.
[3] According to Turkish sources, 555 militants of the PKK, out of an estimated 2,400-2,800 have been killed and 13 arrested. While the figures seem to be highly exaggerated, the PKK seem to have taken important measures as far as its protection and spatial mobility is concerned.
[4] This “micro-space” emerged at the beginning of the 1960s, during a period of large urban mobilizations. Since then it has known other important events like the election of Mehdi Zana as mayor of Diyarbakır, the urban demonstrations of the 1980s and the election of some 20 Kurdish deputies in 1991.
[5] The Alevis of Turkey are part of a minority Muslim sect that deviates from traditional Sunni interpretations of the Qur’an and Islamic principles. In the next issue of Middle East Report (MER 200), see Martin van Bruinessen on the Alevis in Turkey.
[6] HADEP obtained 27,792 votes in this province. It owes this success both to its mobilization and to its tribal alliances. In fact, it obtained the support of two major tribal leaders Macit Piruzbeyoğlu from the Pinyanis tribe and Hamit Geylani of the Geylani tribe. See A. Harmanci, “Hakkari’de Dengeler HADEP’ten Yana,” Özgür Politika, December 12, 1995.
[7] During the 1991 elections, some 20 REP deputies, presented on the lists of the Social Democratic Populist Party, were elected.
[8] On the impact of the intra-Kurdish ethnicities see Martin van Bruinessen, “Nationalisme kurde et ethnicites intra-kurdes,” in Peuples Mediterraneens 68-69 (1994).
[9] The old mechanisms of clientelism, which, in the past, allowed a large mobilization of social-democratic and conservative parties, have not disappeared; in fact, they were reinforced during the process of retribalization. At the same time, there has been some movement toward the Welfare Party and, as in the case of Hakkari, toward HADEP.
[10] See the interview with Ishak Alaton, Milliyet, January 8, 1996.
[11] I have analyzed this aspect in my article “The Kurdish Issue and Political Crisis in Turkey,” in R. Olson and A. Nigogosian, eds., The Kurdish Nationalist Movement and Its Impact on Turkey Since the Gulf War (University of Kentucky Press, forthcoming).

How to cite this article:

Hamit Bozarslan "Turkey’s Elections and the Kurds," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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