6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

On the Road to Elections: Turkey and the Kurds

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Three experts discussed the current crises in Turkey and how they would affect the upcoming parliamentary elections.

On September 14, 2015, the Middle East Program and the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson center hosted the event “On the Road to Elections: Turkey and the Kurds” with Akin Unver, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Kadir Has University; Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent, the Economist, and columnist, Diken Turkey and Al Monitor; and Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. David Kenner, Middle East Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, moderated the event.  

Unver began the discussion by comparing the current situation in Turkey with the most violent in period of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) conflict in the early 1990s. Unver explained the crises in 1990s and 2015 resulted from large population shifts of Kurds within Turkey. Both periods also saw the election of a coalition government after a long period of single-party rule; the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) passed the ten percent national threshold required to win seats in Turkish parliament in the June 7 elections. Unver stated the differences between these two periods, however, are found in the location, organization, and social perception of the violence. Currently, the violence occurs in urban Kurdish areas, leading to a higher possibility of civilian casualties. This trend emerged because the PKK has adopted a strategy in which decision-making and subsequent violent clashes are more localized. Unver suggested Turkey must deal with the problem locally on a case-by-case basis. Unver also noted social perception about military action against the PKK is divided along partisan lines.

Zaman stated Turkey had an opportunity to extend the peace process with the Kurds in Northern Syria through the development of economic and political relations. However, Turkey supported military action against these groups. Zaman suggested if the conflict between Turkey and the PKK continues to destabilize the region, the current alliance between the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and the United States would not be sustainable. Zaman suggested the United States use their influence in Turkey as leverage to restart the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government.

Barkey stated the election result of June 7 is the reason for the current violence and unstable state of domestic politics. President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost their parliamentary majority because the public disapproved of Erdoğan’s desire to transform the Turkish government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Barkey further asserted Erdoğan lost the support of conservative Kurds due to his lack of involvement when ISIS tried to take control of the town of Kobane in Northern Syria. According to Barkey, President Erdoğan has made a large gamble by calling a snap election on November 1. Erdoğan could lose another election and be forced to make a coalition government. If Erdoğan wins and the pro-Kurdish HDP does get pushed under the ten percent threshold, young urban Kurdish groups could respond violently and further destabilize Turkey.

During the question and answer period, Kenner inquired why it is it in the United States’ interest to resolve the Kurdish upheaval in Turkey. Barkey and Zaman both asserted Kurdish military forces are effective fighting forces against ISIS and continuing the fight against ISIS is the top priority for the United States. Unver added a strong and stable Turkey is also in the United States’ interest because it acts as an impediment to Russia’s influence in the region. In response to a question on the objective and tactics of the PKK, Zaman stated the PKK is does not want the Kurdish fight to be undermined in Syria and does not want Kurds to be marginalized in Turkey. Unver added the new tactics of the PKK are the result of the group’s splintered autonomous structure lacks organization but maximizes chaos. Kenner ended the discussion with a question on the future of domestic politics in Turkey. Unver noted Turkish politics are becoming more polarized. Zaman stated a party must gain Kurdish support if they want to rule alone and she is doubtful the AKP will win a majority. Barkey noted the possibility that the AKP may splinter if the November 1 elections produce the same results.

Nate Odendahl, Middle East Program




  • Hamid Akin Unver

    Faculty Fellow of Foreign Affairs, Department of International Relations, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Amberin Zaman

    Public Policy Fellow
    Columnist for the independent Turkish online news portal Diken as well as for Al Monitor, a Washington DC based online news outlet covering the Middle East; Turkey Correspondent, The Economist (1999-2015)
  • Henri J. Barkey

    Former Director, Middle East Program
  • David Kenner

    Middle East Editor, Foreign Policy