Spring 2011

Defying the Democracy Cure

– The Wilson Quarterly

When ethnic insurgencies are unable to translate their power into electoral gains, the medicine may not work.

Spurred by the hope of joining the European Union, Turkey embarked on a wave of reform between 1999 and 2004. It abolished its death penalty, liberalized regulation of political parties and the press, and expanded the rights of non-Muslim minorities. Ankara even eased up on treatment of the country’s ethnic Kurds, who are concentrated near the borders with Iraq and Iran, and who have been subjected to a long-standing Turkish policy of repression and forced assimilation. In 2002, the Grand National Assembly voted to allow radio and television programs to be broadcast in Kurdish (albeit for a limited amount of time each day). In 2004, when possibilities were the brightest they had ever been, the Kurdish insurgent group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) announced an end to a four-year-old cease-fire and resumed a two-pronged campaign of urban bombings and rural insurgency.

Why did the PKK not seize the moment? The group needed to assert its power or risk fading into irrelevance, argues political scientist Günes Murat Tezcür of Loyola University Chicago. The conservative ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was growing in power in Kurdish Turkey and taking votes from the Democratic Society Party, a Kurdish party. Moreover, without the galvanizing effect of state repression, the PKK would have trouble signing up recruits.

Since 2005 the pace of reform has slowed, and the AKP’s power in the Kurdish region of Turkey has waned. This has led the PKK to modify its behavior, as evidenced by the declaration of a temporary cease-fire in 2009.

Democratization is often thought to be a salve for ethnic conflict, Tezcür observes, but when ethnic insurgencies are unable to translate their power into electoral gains, the medicine may not work.

* * *

The Source: "When Democratization Radicalizes: The Kurdish Nationlist Movement in Turkey" by Günes Murat Tezcür, in Journal of Peace Research, November 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Moyan Brenn