Turkey entered the 21st century talking about the Kurdish question. Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed many transformations, from the normalization of the Kurdish question to its return to violence. We have witnessed the shift from a political discourse that sees normalization and the solution process as essential for Turkey’s future to re-securing the Kurdish issue in a very short time. How has Turkey’s view on the Kurdish question changed in this tumultuous and very bumpy political road?
The report that we prepared for the Peace Foundation with my colleagues Ayşe Betül Çelik and Mehmet Gürses and which was shared with the public last week, instead of focusing on this uneven political history and the attitudes of political parties, focuses on how public opinion has changed on the Kurdish question over the past decade, using data from KONDA.
What is Turkey’s biggest problem?
The Kurdish question is on the agenda today mainly through the electoral behavior of Kurdish voters. In fact, this is a time when the gap between the opposition and the government is closing. The way to stand out in the race for elections, for both the opposition bloc and the government, is to establish a relationship with Kurdish voters. But it is a difficult political task. On the one hand, political parties must respond to the demands of Kurdish voters, but on the other hand, they must be able to appeal to the Turkish average and bring together the demands/desires of these two electoral groups. Moreover, it is even more difficult to do so in an extraordinarily secure political space after the 2015 elections.
On the one hand, the Kurdish question has come to the agenda of political parties through the elections (and Kurdish voters), but on the other hand, the data shows that the Kurdish question is in the background as an urgent and burning issue that needs to be resolved on Turkey’s agenda. According to KONDA data from January 2020, the Kurdish issue has remained in the background among groups who define themselves as ethnically Turkish. According to these groups, the Kurdish issue comes after many of Turkey’s burning issues, such as education, inflation, immigrants, democratization and gender equality. While only 12% of Turkey considers the Kurdish issue a priority issue, this rate does not exceed 40% among those who identify as ethnically Kurdish.
The report that we have prepared affirms that this situation offers a favorable climate for political parties to propose policies on the Kurdish question. As Mesut Yeğen said so well in one of his articles, the Kurdish question is not an issue that can be suppressed by force, ignored or evaporated over time.
The fact that the Kurdish problem has taken a back seat among Turkey’s most important problems today does not show that it has evaporated, but that the country has great common problems which must be solved together. Moreover, considering that the Kurdish question only becomes the hottest topic of Turkish public opinion when it is secure, this situation of abandonment shows that the potential for securing the Kurdish question has diminished, at least in a near future.
Supporters of the solution
Another important (and optimistic) conclusion of our study is that, regardless of the political climate, there is a group of 35-40% who do not compromise on the fundamental rights of Kurds and advocate negotiation, and this ratio does not decrease. ever, even though Turkey is going through its safest and most violent period.
For example, in December 2016, when the peace table in KONDA Turkey was completely closed and the Kurdish issue was all about violence, participants were asked, “What do you think should be done to resolve the Kurdish problem? When asked, about a third of participants can answer this question: “You should sit at the table with the addressees of the problem and reach a compromise”.
These data hardly change in terms of fundamental cultural and political rights. A group of 30-40% support political/cultural rights regardless of the political climate. In fact, in research conducted by KONDA in April 2010, there is 41% social support for Kurds to receive education in their mother tongue. When KONDA asks the same question about 10 years later, support for mother tongue education is still around 40%, just as it was in 2010.
Who is in favor of this solution?
But of course, the 30-40% support level is just an average and that average doesn’t always include the same people. Another most important finding of the report, in which we trace the transformation of many different aspects of the Kurdish problem, from cultural rights to foreign policy, is that voters are directly affected by the peace/conflict narratives of their own parties. In other words, support for basic Kurdish political and cultural rights has been supported by voters from different political parties at different times.
For example, AK party voters support the peace process while their party is in the negotiation process, but when their party shifts to a security-oriented axis, their belief that the Kurdish problem will be solved by “destroying terrorism ” increased. Similarly, CHP voters are skeptical when the AK party assumes the solution of the Kurdish question as the main actor, but CHP voters are more enthusiastic about a political solution when the AK party turns to a military solution.
In other words, political parties do not propose policies to a nationalist, exclusionary or security-minded public opinion, which they take into account to the detriment of the sensitivities of this public opinion. On the contrary, they themselves establish this public opinion. A relatively small part of Turkish public opinion has clear ideas on the Kurdish question, independently of political parties. For this very reason, the responsibility of political parties on the Kurdish question is of extraordinary importance.
Political party cadres
It has been frequently written that the inclusive position of the AK party on the Kurdish question has two fundamental characteristics: the imagination of national unity over religion and the transfer of the political actor from the Kurds to the center. In other words, the Kurdish project of the AKP Party involved an authoritarian bargain, accepting the political domination and the common identity framework of the AKP Party in exchange for the recognition of the cultural identity of the Kurds.
KONDA data also shows that this market has found a response in the eyes of AK Party voters. Voters of the AK party, for example, are the voters with the highest level of support after those who voted for the BDP/HDP on the right to education in their mother tongue. Voters of political parties such as the CHP and MHP, who view language as a national unifying cultural element, are less supportive of cultural rights and education in their mother tongue (although it should be noted that this rate is around 20% even for MHP voters with the lowest rate).
When it comes to political representation rights, such as political actors, administrators, and lobbying the HDP, support is lowest among AK party voters, while CHP voters have the highest support and strongest objection to performance rights. Undoubtedly, this is in line with the CHP’s definition of the Kurdish question primarily as a question of democracy and representation.
In short, there are two important variables that fundamentally determine the attitudes of the Turkish public on the Kurdish question: political party identity and ethnic identity. Depending on the policies pursued, the distance between those who define themselves as Turks and Kurds sometimes narrows, and from time to time this distance widens. And at this distance, political parties are essential.
The deepening and broadening of this rapprochement depends on the existence of a supra-partisan discourse and reconciliation. Due to the polarization of political parties, the voters of the ruling and opposition political parties take a completely opposite attitude to the politics of the party they consider to be their opposition. A large majority shapes its policies and frameworks based on the attitudes of its own political parties. When political parties falter or fail to present a meaningful and coherent framework to voters, the electorate also falters.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of voters changing their attitude to their political parties’ approaches to the Kurdish issue is that the change in political parties’ discourse indicates that their change in discourse will also find a response. in the eyes of society. For example, education in the mother tongue is one of the topics that can be addressed in this issue and social reconciliation can be achieved in the most comfortable way. The CHP has an important task here to build a new framework and transform its base in this regard.
The negative side of this situation is that the activation of discriminatory, marginalizing and violent political language will distract society from the will to solve this problem. It is a great danger that the deep social fears and anxieties regarding the Kurdish question will be “tactically” instrumentalized by the leaders in order to win the elections and stay in power. The democratic history of the Republic of Turkey is full of examples of the manifestation of this danger. However, as I said at the beginning of this article, the fact that the Kurdish question has lost its sting in the eyes of the electorate can be a turning point where we can express our common problems with our different identities.