Pride, Prejudice, and Presidency: A Social Identity Theory Approach to Opportunities Missed in Turkey's Kurdish Question

By Lisel Hintz
Submitted to Session P4934 (From Hope to Disappointment: The Failure of Reconciliation Processes in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Conflict Resolution;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the last three years alone, the approach of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) towards the country’s Kurdish population has swung from substantive overtures appearing to address the minority group’s main concerns to highly polarizing nationalist rhetoric, deadly sieges targeting Kurdish cities, and the persecution of individuals demonstrating support for the Kurdish cause. Prior to this devolution into crisis, the AKP had taken unprecedented steps toward resolving the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with the “Solution Process” (Çozüm Süreci) approach it announced in 2013. Most notably, the AKP crossed a former political red line in Turkish politics by holding secret negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. In return for promises to make concessions such as allowing legal defenses to be in one’s mother tongue, the Kurdish delegation – comprised, importantly, of politicians who publicly advocated a peaceful resolution to the conflict – promised to work towards the PKK’s laying down of arms and withdrawal from Turkish territory. While a solution to the “Kurdish Question,” whose contestation has cost tens of thousands of lives and has plagued the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923, seemed closer than ever in 2014, by the end of 2015 the country seemed poised on the brink of civil war. How are these political and societal swings possible?
Rather detail the bafflingly intricate set of back-and-forth gambits in the rise and fall of the Kurdish Question under the AKP – many of which are disputed by each party to the renewed conflict – this paper explores the conditions of how the shift in perceptions of Kurds from enemies to allies to enemies again takes place. I employ social identity theory, an approach ideally suited to grappling with questions of Ingroup-Outgroup relations, to explain both how the initial, ground-breaking overtures by the AKP toward solving the Kurdish Question were possible, as well how Kurds went from partners to traitors in the government’s eyes. In brief, I argue that nothing inherent in the AKP’s understanding of Turkish national identity precludes the political expression of Kurdishness, but that failure to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision of a presidential system that consolidated power in his own hands generated a shift in the AKP’s attitude toward Kurds from one of pride to one of prejudice, scuppering a prime opportunity to resolve the Kurdish Question.