Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why Turkey’s PKK Conflict Looms Larger than Ever in Local Election Aftermath
Why Turkey’s PKK Conflict Looms Larger than Ever in Local Election Aftermath

Why Turkey’s PKK Conflict Looms Larger than Ever in Local Election Aftermath

Turkey’s March 31 local elections were not kind to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Unprecedented opposition victories—if upheld by Turkey’s feeble electoral institutions—are poised to ouster his Justice and Development Party (AKP) from critical mayorships in Istanbul, Ankara, and three of Turkey’s four next largest cities.

Faced with a sweeping political rebuke, however, Erdogan’s party has found a silver lining in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast. There, it has touted unexpected victories as evidence that the government is winning hearts and minds in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The results, however, do not bode well for Turkey’s three-decade-long conflict with the insurgent Kurdish group.

For the AKP, a selective reading of the results has vindicated its security-focused approach in the region, neglecting the anti-government sentiment that seethes in population centers where state security efforts have been most intense.

Should the AKP follow through with its tacit pledge to replace newly elected mayors from the Kurdish-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—which triumphed in almost all of these cities—it risks further deepening a spiral of disillusionment and disenfranchisement that has long been a driver of the PKK conflict.

There is perhaps no better example of the AKP’s electoral victory—and its limits—than the province of Sirnak.

Sirnak has been the scene of at least 1,020 of the estimated 4,290 deaths in battles between the security forces and the PKK since mid-2015, according to an open-source tally maintained by the International Crisis Group.

An electoral bastion of Kurdish nationalism, the restive province seemingly performed the impossible on election night: It chose an AKP mayor with 62% of the vote to just 35% for the HDP, while the AKP also carried three of the province’s remaining six districts. In 2014, the most recent local election, it had won just one district, the province’s smallest.

Critics of Turkey’s government are unlikely to see a miracle in the Sirnak election. The HDP and international rights groups point to the multifaceted ways that competition with the AKP in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southeast has been effectively outlawed: the jailing of the HDP’s political co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag; the replacement since 2016 of 95 HDP-affiliated mayors (including all HDP-affiliated mayors in Sirnak) with government minders; and intense security force pressure on HDP campaigning and ballot box monitoring during the 2019 vote.

A preliminary glance at the 2019 election in Sirnak suggests that, while violence continues to decline in the region, political divergences between the government and Kurdish nationalist movement are as intractable as ever, with both sides politically and militarily defying the other.

AKP wins in rural Kurdish districts, but conflict-torn cities remain defiant

In the four districts won by the AKP, the party’s vote shares swung wildly in comparison to the 2014 local election.

Between 2014 and 2019, the AKP’s vote share increased from 16.7% to 58.9% in Uludere district, from 27.2% to 57.9% in Beytussebap, and from 49.9% to 66.6% in Guclukonak. It doubled its vote share from 29.9% to 61.7% in Sirnak’s provincial capital.

In the three districts won by the HDP, however, the AKP was barely able to move the needle. The AKP’s vote share rose from 16.2% to 19.5% in Silopi, from 13.8% to 16.8% in Idil, and from 9.3% to 17.6% in Cizre.

If one sets aside Sirnak’s provincial capital (discussed below), clear distinctions emerge in AKP- and HDP-voting districts. The AKP’s unambiguous victories occurred in Sirnak’s three most sparsely populated districts: Uludere, Beytusebap, and Guclukonak, which have fewer than 15,000 voters combined. Sirnak’s HDP-voting districts are comparatively more urbanized, with total registered voters in Cizre, Silopi, and Idil districts numbering 65,111, 52,098, and 15,907, respectively.

In Sirnak’s rural districts, voter rolls grew precipitously between 2014 and 2019, rising 80% in Uludere, 47.6% in Beytussebap, and 61% in Guclukonak. These figures are far above the 18.73% expansion in registered voters across Turkey during that time.

Additionally, the rolls of registered voters in these provinces did not change significantly between Turkey’s general elections in 2015 and its most recent in 2018. The most plausible explanation is that large numbers of security forces (who are eligible to vote in the regions in which they are stationed) were recently assigned to these provinces between mid-2018 and 2019. This shift appears logical, coming as the bulk of fighting has swung from urban to rural locales across the southeast since the end of 2016, according to casualty data collected by the International Crisis Group.

This hypothesis is also borne out in Hakkari, a similarly mountainous, conflict-torn province that rests on Turkey’s border with Iraq and Iran. Hakkari’s three most rural provinces witnessed unprecedented voter roll growth between 2014 and 2019, with a growth rate of 83% in Cukurca, and a rise of 97% in Semdinli and Derecik. In all three districts, the AKP swung from a galling loss to lopsided victory between 2014 and 2019.

Of the 15 districts newly won by the AKP in the country’s 11 majority-Kurdish, southeastern-most provinces, 12 are sparsely populated and were won by dramatic spikes in AKP voter share. While six may be the result of security force deployment, the other six cannot be explained by the same demographic changes.

Several possibilities may account for the rural shift in these districts. Across the southeast, authorities have held scores of swearing-in ceremonies for new cadres of village guardspro-government Kurdish paramilitaries that assist in security operations—in rural areas across the region, and promised in the election run-up to hire 25,000 more, ostensibly bolstering its voter base. Additionally, the HDP’s ability to monitor ballot boxes and campaigns in the election run-up—already severely restricted by state pressure—was likely even more limited in rural districts where security forces are especially dominant.

Perhaps more decisively, the tribal chiefs and village headmen who often decide the collective voting preferences of rural voters throughout the southeast may have pragmatically switched sides to the AKP in 2019 in hopes of receiving needed assistance and investment from the central government. In the June 2015 election, the HDP’s careful wooing of rural tribes was linked with its own dramatic electoral victory. In Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, Turkey’s southeast saw some rural villages decide to support Erdogan’s bid for a strengthened presidency in an attempt to hedge their political bets while Turkey’s government ruthlessly cracked down on the HDP.

Voters in conflict-hit districts remain defiant

In Sirnak, the three HDP-voting districts of Cizre, Silopi, and Idil were devastated by extensive urban fighting between pro-PKK youth militias and security forces between late 2015 and 2016. The fighting demolished large swaths of these cities and brought civilians to the frontline of the conflict, which has traditionally been fought in mountainous, sparsely populated border regions.

In these communities, voters have expressed disillusionment with the HDP, as well as anger at the PKK for goading security forces into bringing war to their doorstep.

Nonetheless, they elected HDP candidates with overwhelming majorities in 2019, defying government promises of continued investment and the near certainty that HDP mayors will be charged with terror links and be replaced by government-appointed minders, as was the case prior to the election.

That choice was repeated across the communities that have been most devastated by urban fighting in the region, including Nusaybin in Mardin province, Yuksekova in Hakkari province, and the district of Sur in Diyarbakir province, which all saw modest gains for the AKP but unambiguous victories for the HDP.

These voter preferences suggest that the conflict has returned to its intractable historic norm, with urban centers remaining heavily policed, defiant bastions of Kurdish nationalist sentiment, while fighting occurs in remote border regions.

One standout to the trend is Sirnak’s provincial capital. A months-long battle between security forces and insurgents is estimated to have destroyed around 70% of the city in 2016. Fighting was followed by a years-long government project to demolish ruined housing stock and rebuild a new city in its place. In 2019, the city elected an AKP mayor with 61% of the vote to the HDP’s 35%.

Kurdish observer Nurcan Baysal has alleged that the victory may be due skewed demographics. Indeed, voter roles from the June 2015 and June 2018 general election do show a massive spike in eligible voters in the city, rising 35% in the span of just three years. Amid reports that residents, bereft of housing, had fled to the countryside, the only plausible explanation seems to be that large numbers of security forces and government construction contractors were moved from outside of the region to Sirnak between 2015 and 2018.

However, by 2019, the demographics of Sirnak are more ambiguous. The city saw a 19.7% rise in eligible voters between 2014 and 2019, almost exactly in line with the national average. The cities of Cizre, Idil, and Silopi also saw similar rises. In late 2018 and early 2019, government-funded public housing for individuals displaced by urban fighting in these communities was reported to be largely complete (though construction appears to be ongoing in Sirnak’s provincial capital) and the numbers may indicate most displaced residents have returned.

While the flow of residents and security forces cannot be disaggregated in the election data, some communities have shown real signs of depopulation. In the districts of Nusaybin and Sur, the number of registered voters dropped by 1% and 2.92%, respectively, between 2014 and 2019, compared to a national average of 18.73% growth.

These numbers suggest that depopulation remains a real factor in cities that saw urban combat and that at least some of the population growth seen in other devastated communities is due to security forces being newly stationed there.

Nevertheless, the possible influx of security personnel is unlikely to explain the AKP’s victory in Sirnak’s capital.

Given the effective outlawing of the HDP, as well as the AKP’s promises of investment and security after years of conflict, the decision of Sirnak residents to change allegiances seems highly pragmatic.

For precisely the same reason, however, the defiance of nearly every other hard-hit southeastern city speaks to the depths of the present conflict.

Voter participation rates deliver double-edged message

Turkey’s average voting rates declined in 2019. In a rate that would still be the envy of any Western democracy, the national participation rate fell 4.46% to 84.6%.

In the southeast, however, the trend was just the opposite.

The average voter participation rates rose 2% to an average of 82.4% among 64 districts surveyed in the provinces of Mardin, Diyarbakir, Siirt, Batman, Van, Hakkari, and Sirnak.

If that growth in turnout gives added weight to the AKP’s wins in the region, it also gives weight to stubborn mandates for renewed HDP rule in other districts.

After the government replaced 95 HDP-affiliated mayors in the southeast between 2016 and 2018, the HDP won mayoral races in nearly every major city in the southeast.

In some cases, the HDP was able to increase its voter share. In Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast, the HDP increased its lead over the AKP from 55% in 2014 to 62.9% in 2019. Participation rates rose from 77.9% in to 78.9%.

In Mardin, HDP politician Ahmet Turk, removed from his mayorship in 2016, won 56% of the vote, 4% more than he won in 2014. Participation rates rose from 80.61% to 87.48%. Van, the southeast’s third largest metropolitan municipality, the HDP won with 53.79% to the AKP’s 40.51%, a near repeat of the 2014 election results, with nearly identical participation rates. Voter participation appeared to increase equally in districts that elected AKP or HDP mayors across the 64 surveyed districts.

At the very least, voters in Turkey’s southeast have indicated that they still deeply care about choosing their local leaders and will vote for them even if, in some cases, they know that the government may simply remove them.

Already however, the government has signaled that it will not evenly uphold southeastern voters’ defiant electoral mandate.

As of April 7, authorities had already opened a terrorism investigation into the HDP winner of Diyarbakir’s mayoral race, Adnan Selcuk Mızrakli. In two other districts, it had barred HDP winners from their mayor posts. In both cases, candidates had previously been dismissed from public service under a state of emergency decree, causing courts to declare that they are ineligible for office. In one of those districts, the runner-up AKP candidate has applied to be recognized as mayor in the HDP frontrunner’s place.

In conflict zones, an unsettling drop in voter participation rates

In contrast to overall voter patterns in the southeast, participation rates fell in all districts that were impacted by heavy urban conflict.

In Cukurca, a mountainous district in Hakkari province that borders Iraq and is scene to continuous fighting between security forces and the PKK, voter participation declined 11.9% to just 68% between 2014 and 2019. In Cizre, Silopi, and Idil, cities devastated by prolonged urban battles, participation rates declined 4.47% to 80.5%, 3.3% to 83.5%, and 2.7% to 74.%, respectively.

In Nusaybin and in Sur, two urban districts which also saw mass destruction between 2015 and 2016, participation fell by 0.83% to 78.52%, and 0.9% to 79.7%, respectively.

Though far higher than participation in most democracies, these rates stand in worrying contrast with the determination of voters in neighboring southeastern districts.

In the most optimistic reading, these falling participation rates signal a general disillusionment with a political process which, while promising peace, instead has delivered conflict.

But another, more unsettling possibility looms. Rather than passive disillusionment, this trend could also indicate growing numbers of persons who have been so radicalized by recent fighting that they no longer accept the ballot box as a means of change.

New dangers in the southeast

The election results suggest a worrying future for the Turkey-PKK conflict.

On March 31, Kurdish voters signaled that they want more, not less, engagement with the political process. Kurdish-majority regions saw higher turnout compared to 2014, even while turnout in other regions fell. This result suggests a mandate against continued disenfranchisement.

Nevertheless, the AKP is likely to view a sharp uptick in rural support as a mandate for its security-focused policies.

The misleading narrative that voters have rejected the HDP could be used to justify the closure of the party, or the continued removals of local HDP mayors. Meanwhile, the AKP’s efforts to engage with rural Kurdish voters might, in a future election, split the Kurdish vote and leave the HDP below the 10% parliamentary threshold. These outcomes would be disastrous for all parties, as they could incentivize disenfranchised voters to give up on electoral politics and contemplate taking up arms instead.

For the HDP, the results have meant survival. Withstanding anger from its own voters and nearly every form of government pressure short of outright closure, it secured 62 municipalities, overwhelmingly in the southeast.

The price of its victory, however, has been steep. Once a party willing to deliver mild but significant rebukes to the PKK, it now plays to its Kurdish nationalist base, holding hunger strikes in solidarity with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, rather than the party’s own jailed leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.

Most worrying of all, the damaged, disillusioned, and defiant cities of Turkey’s southeast largely remain forgotten. Intensely policed by security forces, they are unlikely to suffer a new wave of violence in the near future. But anger still remains—at the state, at the AKP and HDP alike, and at a local economy perpetually handicapped by war.

If not given a way forward, they are likely to remain drivers of a conflict that presently has no end in sight.