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Democracy Destroyed: Turkey’s Crackdown on Local Pro-Kurdish Politics

The armed conflict between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has a detrimental impact on security, stability and governance in the Middle East and beyond and is one of the longest-running active conflicts in the region today.

One major reason why the conflict began and why it has gone unresolved for four decades is the systematic exclusion of Kurdish demands for equal political, civil, and cultural rights from Turkey’s political sphere.

Since the early 1990s, a civilian pro-Kurdish political movement has made sustained efforts to participate in legal politics, address Kurdish grievances by non-violent means, and advocate for a negotiated resolution to the Kurdish issue based on democratization within Turkey’s existing borders.

Successive Turkish governments have used both legal and extra-legal means to repress pro-Kurdish parties, politicians and activists and their constituencies—securitizing peaceful Kurdish political activity even as these parties seek to bring the Kurdish question out of the realm of armed conflict and into the realm of politics.

Since peace talks collapsed in 2015, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been a central driver of democratic backsliding in Turkey and of cross-border military operations that have heightened violence and instability to Iraq and Syria. It has opened up opportunities for Russia and Iran in the region and threatened the goals of the counter-ISIS campaign.

The United States has become increasingly aware of these problems in recent years. In July, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul said there was “no military solution” to the conflict and questioned the efficacy of Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria, the first time a U.S. official has publicly taken that position.

The fate of democracy in Kurdish regions of Turkey is thus directly linked to broader concerns about security and democracy in the Middle East that occupy the attention of policymakers today. Despite this, there have been few attempts to analyze this issue as both a central example of and contributing factor to Turkey’s broader autocratic and militaristic turn after the breakdown of peace talks and the failed coup attempt.

This report will make two main arguments:

  1. Local pro-Kurdish politics has unique relevance for democratization, Kurdish inclusion, and peace-building in Turkey. As such, the thus the degree to which it is able or unable to function is relevant to the status of a geopolitically significant regional conflict.
  2. The legal and institutional framework used to repress local pro-Kurdish politics today is a central example of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s consolidation of power and increasing reliance on the most nationalist and militarist individuals and entities in Turkish politics.

It will then use electoral data from districts won by pro-Kurdish parties in the 2014 and 2019 local election cycles and reports from human rights organizations and local media to quantify the impacts of this repressive framework on local democracy in Kurdish regions.

Local Pro-Kurdish Politics, Peace, and Democratization

The pro-Kurdish political movement faces several structural barriers to effective participation in national politics in Turkey.

One is demographic: Kurds make up just 15 to 20% of the population, concentrated in the southeast. Due to several dynamics, including competing class and religious identities, not all Kurds support pro-Kurdish parties. Yet even if they did, there would still not be enough Kurdish voters in Turkey to give the pro-Kurdish political movement a national parliamentary presence large enough to pass legislation.

Others are political: every major Turkish political party, including both parties now in government, is currently opposed to full political and cultural rights for Kurds and supportive of a military solution to the Kurdish conflict. This means that larger parties are unlikely to support policies put forward by pro-Kurdish politicians.

There are also structural challenges to Kurdish inclusion at the local level. Turkey is a highly centralized unitary state. The central government has significant power over local governments. In Kurdish regions in particular, highly politicized and centralized institutions, like the security forces and the judiciary, have outsized influence on people’s lives but cannot meaningfully be held accountable by democratic means.

However, opportunities also exist. In many southeastern provinces, Kurds form a significant majority of the population. As a result, at the local level, pro-Kurdish parties can compete in Kurdish-majority constituencies and do not have to deal with Turkish nationalist prejudices against their views.

They also face less competition from mainstream Turkish parties. The only Turkish party to meaningfully compete with pro-Kurdish parties in Kurdish regions is the AKP, which wins support from right-wing Sunni Muslim Kurds who prioritize their religious identity over their ethnic identity and from wealthy Kurdish elites who often benefit materially from links to the state.

This allows these parties to take action on pro-Kurdish policy priorities that cannot be advanced at the national level: the public use and promotion of the Kurdish language and other minority languages; the promotion of Kurdish history and culture and the history and culture of other ethnic and religious minorities; and the advancement of women’s rights.

At the local level, pro-Kurdish parties and their constituents can also also engage in grassroots social and political organizing in cooperation with their role in the formal structures of government—putting their ideas about what a political solution to the Kurdish issue based on the democratization and decentralization of Turkey’s existing structures could look like into practice.

For example, when pro-Kurdish parties first succeeded in the Sur district of Diyarbakir in the mid-2000s, they offered municipal services in Kurdish, Armenian, and Syriac in addition to Turkish; established a council of representatives of different ethnic and religious communities and a women’s assembly to promote pluralism and gender equality and implemented gender-sensitive labor contracts to promote girls’ education and tackle domestic violence. The book Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan provides the most comprehensive account published in English of pro-Kurdish policies and social and political organizing strategies implemented there and in other Kurdish municipalities prior to the breakdown of the peace process.

These policies and strategies build legitimacy and popular support for the pro-Kurdish political movement, helping bring Kurdish issues into the realm of legal politics. They also develop politicians and activists capable of continuing its mission and expanding its project.

Anatomy of a Crackdown

Since abandoning peace talks with the PKK in 2015, the Turkish government’s strategy of choice for targeting pro-Kurdish politics at the local level has been twofold:

  1. Denying voters who support pro-Kurdish parties the elected representation to which they are entitled by removing elected pro-Kurdish mayors and transferring control of municipalities to state appointees (commonly referred to as trustees).
  2. Targeting politicians who step up to lead at the local level with politicized accusations of terrorism that facilitate arbitrary detentions, unfair trials, cruel and degrading treatment in custody, and other rights abuses.

This strategy was created and directed by highest echelons of the state in Turkey. Leading human rights groups and international organizations have consistently found the measures that make this strategy possible to be undemocratic and often contrary to international standards.

The following sections of the report will look at how each element of this strategy developed and provide new data to assess its impacts on local democracy in Kurdish regions.


  • Since 2015, the government of Turkey has systematically overturned democratic election results in Kurdish regions by installing unelected leaders in place of elected ones in order to prevent pro-Kurdish parties from governing at the local level.
  • This strategy has consistently left more than 75% of voters who supported successful pro-Kurdish candidates at various levels of local government without elected representation, effectively ending local democracy for these constituencies during the time period under review.
  • Currently, 77% of voters who supported successful pro-Kurdish candidates at the district level in 2019 and 100% of voters who supported successful pro-Kurdish candidates at the metropolitan municipality level in 2019 live under unelected state appointees.
  • The frameworks under which this strategy is possible were fundamentally anti-democratic in their creation, intent, and application and have been condemned by the United Nations and major international human rights organizations.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, among other actors, hold responsibility for this policy and for any and all detrimental impacts it has had on peace and human rights.

Click here to read the full section and view the data.

Part 2: Targeting OF Local Pro-Kurdish Politicians

Forthcoming November 2022.

Photo: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images

About the Author

Meghan Bodette - KPI Research Associate

Meghan Bodette

Director of Research

Meghan Bodette is the Director of Research at the Kurdish Peace Institute. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, where she concentrated in international law, institutions, and ethics. Her research focu…

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