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December 15, 2008, Monday

Understanding AK Party’s Kurdish strategy

Given the electoral support the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) received from Kurds in the July 2007 elections and the party's reformist credentials, it was optimistically expected that the long-awaited solution to the Kurdish question was about to come.Instead of developing a comprehensive approach to address the roots of the question, the AK Party developed a strategy of solving the Kurdish question "without recognizing the Kurdish ethnicity."

This is of course an unrealistic strategy but is understandable because the party does not really have a free hand in its approach to the question and thus must act within the limits drawn by the security establishment, which claims to have the final say on the issue.

The security establishment realizes that the AK Party's popularity among Kurds is an opportunity and is pushing the party to the forefront to implement policies to buy the Kurds' loyalty. The "state" therefore wants the AK Party to ease the Kurdish question without damaging the basic characteristics of the Turkish nation-state.

What is left for the AK Party is to develop a three-tier strategy.

First up is providing people in Kurdish areas with economic and social benefits. Pumping resources into the region to complete the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) and implementing small-scale benefit projects are part and parcel of this strategy. Acting like a "social welfare state" in the region is expected to generate relative prosperity among the poverty-ridden Kurds and build a bridge to the "Turkish" state. Fighting against poverty is certainly an issue -- especially since large cities in the region are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to leave their villages. The shantytowns around Diyarbakır have made the Kurds' poverty more visible than ever. There is therefore a rationale behind providing these poor people with some economic benefits in return for their votes. However, this approach presumes that the Kurdish question is a matter of economic backwardness and that a more affluent Kurdish region will acquiesce to the Turkish state's denial of Kurdish identity. This is an approach that fails to understand the identity aspect of the Kurdish question and one that has been adopted many times by other political parties. Yet the AK Party is allowed to pursue such a policy precisely because it is a policy without an identity dimension.

The second element of the AK Party's Kurdish strategy is to appeal to "Kurdish conservatism," a strong social and political force in the region. Though the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is a Marxist-nationalist organization, the outlawed Kurds at large are religious people who have very close connections with various religious orders and groups. The AK Party standing as a conservative party in line with the Kurdish social inclination gives the party a great advantage vis-à-vis the Marxist PKK. What is important for the Turkish security establishment is that a notion of "Muslim brotherhood" pursued by the AK Party may be effective in making Kurds loyal to the Turkish state without recognizing the Kurdish ethnicity. Thus a rhetoric employing Islam, portrayed as anti-secular in the Western part of Turkey, is not a problem in the Kurdish areas so long as it suppresses the Kurdish national identity.

The last element of the AK Party strategy is to develop a closer relationship with Iraqi Kurdish entities and leaders. It is important to note that this is not a unilateral AK Party policy. There is now a broad agreement among the Turkish policy actors -- including the security establishment -- on a policy of rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdish authorities.

There has emerged such a consensus because cooperating with the Iraqi Kurdish entity against the PKK does not mean recognizing Iraqi Kurds' right to statehood or the ethnic identity demands of the Kurds in Turkey. Iraqi Kurds may be instrumental in containing and eliminating the PKK forces stationed in Iraqi territory.

On the part of the government, there is a political dimension as well. To recognize Iraqi Kurdish gains in post-occupation Iraq has been the desire of Turkey's Kurds. Visits by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Ankara and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Baghdad have revealed that Turkey is prepared to develop dialogue with Iraqi Kurds and that it is not unhappy with the newly acquired power of its Kurdish brothers in Iraq.

Given the popularity of Iraqi Kurdish movements in Turkey among the Kurds, the government's dialogue with the Kurdish leaders is certainly welcomed by Turkey's Kurds and will create a political advantage for the AK Party government. The AK Party's opening to northern Iraq can, therefore, also be seen as political maneuvering to reach out to Turkey's Kurdish population just before vital local elections, scheduled for March, without recognizing the Kurdish ethnicity.

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