When Kurdish Voters Get a Say, Turkey Suffers Less Violence
The districts of Turkey where Kurdish votes weren’t respected saw far more violence, data shows.
Turkish presidential elections are set for May 14, and incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan could lose power for the first time in two decades. Observers warn that the vote will be “neither free not fair,” and opposition supporters fear they will suffer a violent reaction should challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu win.
In the country’s Kurdish southeast, violence and repression have long been a fact of local politics. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won 73 districts during the 2014 mayoral elections, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 50 districts during the 2019 vote. The government rolled back the results of those elections, replacing 68 of the BDP mayors and 38 of the HDP mayors with unelected trustees.
Altogether, about 6.6 million people live in the pro-BDP and pro-HDP districts in 2017, eight percent of Turkey’s total population. These voters’ districts suffered 2,426 incidents of political violence from 2016 to 2022, a full 39% of all political violence in Turkey during the same time period, according to data provided by the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project (ACLED).
According to a study by the Kurdish Peace Institute, the trustee system has erased 1.2 million BDP votes and nearly a million HDP votes, leaving voters effectively disenfranchised.
Turkish authorities justify the crackdown on BDP and HDP supporters as part of the war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency. During the 2019 campaign, Erdogan declared that “if in the upcoming elections people involved in terrorism win at the polls, we will not wait, we will continue on our way with the trustee appointments immediately. No waiting.”
Human Rights Watch noted that the arrest and replacement of HDP mayors “rapidly increased” after Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of northeast Syria.
But the data suggests that leaving Kurdish voters alone leads to far less violence. The five districts where BDP mayors were allowed to complete their terms in office — Baglar, Cinar, Ergani, Hazro, and Igdır Central — suffered only 35 violent incidents from 2016 to 2022. Those districts had a population of 740,766 in 2017, making up 11% of the inhabitants in pro-BDP and pro-HDP districts.
The effect was less strong for HDP mayors. The districts where HDP mayors were allowed to stay in office suffered 208 violent incidents after March 2019, or 21% of all violence in the pro-HDP area during that time period. Those districts had a 2017 population of 1.3 million, a little over 25% of people living in pro-HDP districts. By then, the region was highly securitized.
Some voters were doubly-disenfranchised: their mayor was forced out of office after both the 2015 and 2019 elections. Those districts saw 534 violent incidents after their 2019 mayor was replaced. A region that contains 4% of Turkey’s population — 3.3 million by the 2017 numbers — witnessed a whopping 22% of all violence in Turkey since the 2019 election.
The five most violent districts in the country — Cukurca, Sirnak Central, Yuksekova, Semdinli, Nusaybin, and Cizre — all had their BDP mayors replaced with trustees. All of them are also located on the Iraqi or Syrian borders. The most violent non-border districts, Lice and Ipekyolu, were both doubly disenfranchised, as were Yuksekova, Nusaybin, and Cizre.
Of course, the causation may go both ways. The government may have been more likely to disenfranchise voters where the insurgency was already more intense and the crackdowns already more heavy-handed. And the government may have been more likely to respect the results of votes where the security forces already had a lighter hand.
The conflict in southeastern Turkey peaked in intensity in early 2016, in the months after a renewed government crackdown that began in July 2015. Since then, the insurgency has continued to simmer, with renewed peaks every summer. However, much of the Turkish-Kurdish fighting now takes place in Iraq and Syria rather than Turkey itself.
Repressive measures against Kurds — including a separate legal regime from the rest of Turkey — date back decades. From 1987 to 2002, the Turkish government placed several predominantly-Kurdish provinces under a State of Emergency Governorship (OHAL), whose governor had the ability to censor media, control labor unions, exile citizens, and bulldoze villages.
The regime of trustee mayors is even more recent. After a failed coup d’etat against Erdogan in July 2016, the Turkish government adopted emergency decree KHK/667, which allowed the government to purge elected officials suspected of “contact with terrorist organizations.” A few months later, the government adopted emergency decree KHK/674, which allowed the Minister of Interior to replace purged local officials with “trustees.” While campaigning earlier this month, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu admitted that Erdogan personally instructed him to remove pro-Kurdish mayors on the grounds that they allegedly ‘supported terrorism.’
A widely-shared photo from December 2019 showed riot police lining up to prevent Ikikopru mayor Hatice Tas from entering her municipal building after she was removed from office. She was jailed and released from prison in 2020.
The Turkish parliament also voted in May 2016 to strip the HDP of its parliamentary immunity, opening the way for the arrest of national HDP lawmakers. Party leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have spent most of the time since then in detention or in prison, over charges related to alleged pro-PKK speech.
The HDP and BDP had played a large role in the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, which led to a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government in 2019. But the situation was rapidly deteriorating in nearby Syria, and Erdogan turned against the peace talks after losing his parliamentary majority in the 2015 election.
Following the yet-unsolved murder of two police officers in July 2015, the Turkish government resumed military operations against the PKK. The renewed conflict inside Turkey and Iraq has killed at least 6,500 people, according to the International Crisis Group. Turkey has also invaded Kurdish areas of Syria, leading to a long-term military occupation and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
No matter who prevails in tomorrow’s elections, and whether or not the results are respected, millions of Turkish citizens will continue to live under local governments that are effectively dictatorships. The Kurdish question cannot be separated from Turkey’s other issues of democracy and political violence. And as the data suggests, the former is the key to preventing the latter.
(Photo: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images)