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When Peace Is Bad Politics

Foreign Policy

Thursday, February 18, 2016

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After years of relative peace, Turkey has once again descended into conflict. Most recently, the Turkish government blamed Kurdish terrorists for a car bomb yesterday that killed 28 people, mostly soldiers, in the country’s capital. Over the past several months, Kurdish fighters have seized the centers of a number of cities in the country’s southeast, and the Turkish military has responded in force, killing hundreds of civilians, destroying thousands of homes, and temporarily displacing tens of thousands of people. Though overshadowed by the conflict in Syria, this violence is particularly tragic because it marks the end of a decade in which many had hoped that Turkey’s government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), would finally find a peaceful and democratic solution to the country’s long-running “Kurdish problem.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish military fought a brutal war against Kurdish nationalists who were demanding independence in response to the government’s systematic suppression of their people’s cultural rights. But the following decade — up until last year — was a period of relative quiet during which the AKP seemed genuinely eager to try to reach out to the Kurds. To understand the failure of the AKP’s unprecedented but ultimately inadequate attempt to make peace, it helps to look back at how Kurdish voters responded to the party’s peacemaking efforts.

When the AKP first came to power in 2003, its leaders believed that making peace and winning elections would go hand in hand. They hoped that their pro-peace policies could create a loyal constituency among grateful Kurdish voters that would ultimately enable the AKP to win the conflict against Kurdish nationalism at the ballot box. In fact, however, the AKP’s efforts consistently failed to win Kurdish votes, while still succeeding in alienating Turkish nationalists. Ultimately, the gulf separating Turkey’s rival Turkish and Kurdish constituencies proved too great. After ten years in power, the AKP finally concluded that in a deeply divided country, peace was bad politics. Now, as a result, it has chosen to seek a military solution instead.

The author, Nicholas Danforth, is a senior analyst with BPC’s National Security Program.