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New Turkey-PKK Peace Talks: An Inevitability Postponed
New Turkey-PKK Peace Talks: An Inevitability Postponed
Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict
Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict

New Turkey-PKK Peace Talks: An Inevitability Postponed

Originally published in Turkish Policy Quarterly

When a two-and-a-half year ceasefire collapsed in July 2015, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – listed internationally as a terrorist organization – entered into a dark, dangerous tunnel from which it will take a great effort for both sides to find a peaceful exit.

The problem is not just that the fighting – the worst since the grim 1990s – had within six months killed around 700 people, including at least 220 civilians, according to the open-source tally of the International Crisis Group (ICG). It is that the achievements of a decade of peace efforts have been lost, causing massive new polarization within Turkey that will be harder than ever to repair.

Already, a number of districts in Turkey’s majority Kurdish-speaking southeast are looking more and more like a war zone. Armed young militants are manning sandbagged roadblocks and trenches in urban centers, entering into bloody pitched battles with Turkish security forces. The urban conflict affects the lives of civilians, more than 100,000 of whom ended up having to leave their homes because of the disruption caused by fighting and weeks-long curfews which the security forces say are meant to “cleanse” the region of PKK militants and restore public order. The state, municipalities, and some non-state groups provide financial and humanitarian assistance to the displaced. Reflecting the fallout between the ruling AKP and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the latter which runs a majority of the municipalities in the region, coordination between these actors is virtually non-existent, rendering the assistance disjointed and unsystematic.

The tragic paradox is that the previous peace efforts were born of a realization by the leaderships of both sides that there can be no winner from military confrontation. Turkey and the PKK should urgently build their way back to peace talks.

With expectations that violence will worsen in spring when militants can again move through mountain passes, now is the time to reverse the spiral of mistrust between Ankara and the Kurdish movement, including the legal HDP, which is represented in the Parliament, and the outlawed PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

The biggest beneficiary of the resumption of violence between Turkey and the PKK is the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Ankara certainly worries that the PKK’s offshoot in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), will transform its gains against ISIL into a land corridor along Turkey’s southern border. This dynamic has pit the ruling party and Kurdish movement against each other. Since May 2015, four apparent ISIL attacks targeting pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey strengthened the perception among Kurds that the state is not protecting them. Recently, after an ISIL-linked suicide bombing in Istanbul’s historical center Sultanahmet on 12 January 2016 killed 13 foreigners, 11 of which were German tourists, the shared interest in confronting ISIL has become more apparent.

Turkey’s allies in the West, who remain primarily focused on the Syrian crisis and its regional security and refugee crisis consequences, should not dismiss the risks posed by a swiftly deteriorating conflict in Turkey. In their own interests they should encourage Ankara to focus on achieving a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue.

What the Peace Process Should Look Like

The peace process should have two tracks. On one hand, talks with the PKK should resume with the goal of obtaining the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey and agreement on mechanisms for amnesty and reintegration in Turkey of those who are ready to disarm. Öcalan has underlined the need for a broader and more structured format for the peace talks that would also bring in other PKK figures and the HDP, as well as a monitoring mechanism. To achieve a mutually agreed  roadmap and timeline, the government needs to clarify its position on institutionalizing the process so that the cyclical effort to resolve the conflict does not parallel the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to an endless struggle of rolling a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again.

The PKK and Turkish state must pursue a reinforced ceasefire, with well-defined parameters that can be monitored. While the state needs to ensure that politically motivated arrests end, and that past and present rights abuses are investigated, the PKK must put an end to autonomy declarations that undermine the state and so-called defense of territory using young armed militants behind trenches and barricades in urban centers.

On a separate track, the government and all legal parties in Ankara should gather together, preferably involving Parliament, to address longstanding demands of Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking communities, which accounts for roughly 15 percent of the population. Such an effort would need to include mother-tongue education rights, decentralization for the whole of Turkey, a new constitution that removes even the appearance of discrimination, fairer anti-terrorism laws, and the lowering of the 10 percent national vote threshold for a party to enter Parliament.

Talking Peace, Preparing to Fight

During the 30-month ceasefire, while peace talks were ongoing, both sides were simultaneously preparing for renewed fighting in case negotiations failed. This set the stage for the resumption of violence in July 2015.

One month before Öcalan even called for a ceasefire in March 2013, and a limited withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey actually took place, pro-PKK media had already announced the formation of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). It grew rapidly into an armed, urban youth militia with the capacity to draw security forces into indiscriminate street battles in many cities. During this period, Turkey’s military consolidated its position, building highly-fortified outposts and dams that the PKK considered an abuse of the ceasefire to block its supply routes.

Turkey’s security bureaucracy remained unconvinced of the peace process spearheaded by a narrow circle of leading politicians. In 2014, military officials applied to carry out 290 operations against the PKK in the southeast, though the government, in an attempt to safeguard the process, only approved eight. “The government left the southeast to the PKK,” said a Diyarbakır human rights activist critical of the PKK.

Ankara’s delayed reaction to the siege of Kobani was a turning point for the Turkey-PKK conflict. Kurds across Turkey rushed to the aid of the Kurdish defenders of the besieged Syrian border town, but the government blocked their passage, igniting outrage among the Kurdish movement. Anti-government protests broke out in mainly Kurdish southeastern provinces on 6-8 October 2014, resulting in 50 deaths. Eventually, on 29 October, the government allowed the peshmerga fighters passage to Syria and on 26 January 2015 the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s military wing, announced it had freed Kobani. Ankara justified its delayed response by saying that both ISIL and the PKK (as well as the PYD) are terrorist groups, with no distinction between them. This strengthened the view among Kurds that Ankara was covertly supporting ISIL, and became the main pillar of the Kurdish movement’s political campaign against the government.

The Ceasefire Collapses

Fueled by the failure of a last-ditch effort to salvage the peace process in February 2015 (the unsuccessful “Dolmabahçe consensus”) and simmering Kurdish anger over Kobani, animosity between the AKP and HDP rose sharply in the run-up to parliamentary elections on 7 June 2015. The unexpected success of HDP’s candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, in the August 2014 presidential election prompted the party to contest the parliamentary elections as a party instead of fielding independent candidates. As usual, it could capitalize on the resentments of young Kurds in the southeast. But this time, illustrating how interconnected Turks and Kurds can be in Turkey, it also attracted votes from liberal, leftist segments in the country by arguing that Erdoğan’s ambition to change the government system into a presidential one with weak checks and balances could only be prevented if the HDP crossed the 10 percent threshold to enter Parliament.

Political violence surged during the campaign, but HDP won an unexpectedly high 13.1 percent of the total vote and secured 80 members in Parliament. The AKP, with 40.9 percent, was without a majority for the first time since 2002. Efforts to form a coalition government failed and Erdoğan called new elections for 1 November.

As clashes increased, making this period one of the most violent in Turkey’s modern history, a pro-Kurdish peace rally on 10 October 2015 was targeted by what turned out to be the deadliest terrorist attack ever recorded on Turkish soil. Two ISIL-linked suicide bombers killed 103 people, mainly pro-Kurdish activists. The attack, and the perceived inadequacy of the response of the security forces, fueled growing anti-state sentiment among HDP supporters.

The result of the 1 November election deepened mutual suspicions. The AKP won 49.5 per cent, comfortably enough to form a single party government. The HDP lost nearly a million votes compared to June, though its 10.7 percent share of the total allowed it to narrowly pass the 10 percent threshold and enter Parliament. HDP attributed the losses to an unfair, insecure electoral environment in which they were unable to hold mass rallies and an intimidation campaign hindered party representatives from appearing in mainstream media. Thousands of pro-Kurdish activists were also detained and hundreds arrested. An AKP parliamentarian however interpreted the results differently:

Seeing the unitary nature of the country under threat, both Turkish nationalists and Kurdish constituencies rallied behind the AKP. (…) The people in Silvan, Cizre, Nusaybin did not stand behind the democratic self-rule ideal that the PKK is propagating. If they had stood behind it, we would have seen a completely different, much more violent scenario that could even have led to a civil war.

False Confidence

The outlook for peace is undermined by the fact that both Ankara and the PKK are confident that their role in relation to the Syria crisis is crucial, at the same time as domestic political polarization during the election period has burned down painstakingly-built political bridges. The PKK is trying to capitalize on the successes of its affiliated groups in Syria to bolster its position vis-à-vis Turkey. The West’s growing reliance on the YPG in the struggle against ISIL has increased the legitimacy of the PYD/YPG and given momentum to their aspiration for a PYD-run project of Kurdish autonomous enclaves in Syria. The deterioration of Moscow-Ankara relations since Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet on 24 November 2015 has further elevated PKK confidence.

Ankara, meanwhile, sees its critical role for those fighting against ISIL as insurance against PKK ambitions in Syria. Washington would like Turkey to seal a crucial stretch of border across from ISIL-held Syrian territory. At the same time, the PYD, which lacks the legitimacy to occupy and govern majority-Arab cities in northern Syria, appeared in December to have reached its natural limits, though now it is also increasingly supported by Moscow. Turkey, a Turkish expert maintained, “is a strong state. Its strategic importance for the US and the West will always outweigh the PKK’s or the PYD’s. Europe needs Turkey for the refugee crisis, and the US needs Turkey to be able to fight ISIL more effectively.”

Both the PYD/YPG and Ankara are therefore emboldened by their strategic importance for Washington. However, the flare-up in the PKK-Turkey conflict complicates the US-led coalition’s fight against ISIL, especially because Turkey refuses to collaborate directly or indirectly with the YPG. Washington should use its leverage over both the PYD and Ankara to condition its military and political support in Syria to parameters that PYD and Ankara can agree on.  Bringing the PKK and Ankara back to the negotiation table could potentially open the way for a more constructive PYD-Turkey relationship, which can only improve efforts to counter ISIL.

Contributors

Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar greets soldiers of 'Operation Claw' within Eid al-Fitr in Hakkari, Turkey on 4 June 2019. ANADOLU AGENCY/Arif Akdogan

Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict

Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.

Since July 2015, the conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – which Ankara, Brussels and Washington designate a terrorist organisation – has taken more than 4,600 lives in Turkey and northern Iraq. But if the conflict is long-running, open-source data on fatalities collected by Crisis Group and presented in a unique visual conflict explainer show that battlefield dynamics are changing.

For one thing, fighting has moved out of the cities. Over the last two years, neither the PKK nor its affiliate the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks has carried out attacks in metropolitan areas. Fatalities – Crisis Group could confirm an average of 40 per month in 2019 – have been concentrated in the rural areas of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority south east. Over the past year, the death rate among PKK militants, and particularly in northern Iraq, has risen. Ankara’s stepped-up operations, involving curfews, drone strikes and more state security forces, have killed higher numbers of seasoned PKK figures in 2019 than in any of the previous three years of escalation. Killing more PKK militants, however, is not translating into victory for Ankara as the PKK draws on fighters from outside Turkey and capitalises on pent up anti-state resentment among some Kurds.

Ankara’s stepped-up operations, [...] have killed higher numbers of seasoned PKK figures in 2019 than in any of the previous three years of escalation.

Quantitative analysis of fatality and election data since 2014 shows that in the last four years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), mostly consolidated electoral support in conflict-ridden south-eastern districts, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) largely maintained support in the Kurdish movement’s traditional urban strongholds despite an immense state crackdown. While to Ankara it might seem like hardline policies are paying off, on the battlefield and at the ballot box, those same policies continue to fuel the grievances and anger of a segment of Turkey’s Kurds that sustain the conflict with the PKK.

Reliable polls show that support for the AK Party and MHP has fallen below the critical 50 per cent mark, mostly because the ruling party has lost nearly half of its conservative Kurdish backers. It is unclear whether the political leadership in Ankara will be able to make up for lost conservative Kurdish support by garnering more votes from Turkish nationalists moving forward.

At a time when Turkey faces a serious economic downturn and sanctions from its Western allies, the leadership in Ankara [...] might consider exploring avenues of accommodation.

At a time when Turkey faces a serious economic downturn and sanctions from its Western allies, the leadership in Ankara – as the centenary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey nears – might consider exploring avenues of accommodation with a now considerably weakened PKK and seek to pave the way to resolving a conflict that, for over 35 years, has taken a great toll on civilians, drained Turkey’s resources and continues to curb its strategic potential.

PKK cemetery in Qandil, northern Iraq CRISISGROUP/Hugh Pope

Conflict Fatalities

From July 2018 to July 2019, 3.36 PKK militants were killed for each state security force member.

Crisis Group’s data shows that 4,686 individuals have been killed since July 2015. Of those individuals, more than half are PKK militants (2,758), 22.4 per cent of whom are female. Around a quarter (1,215) consist of State Security Force members (including soldiers, police and village guards). There have been 490 civilians confirmed dead (the remaining 223 are “individuals of unknown affiliation”, a category Crisis Group uses for those killed in urban centres – almost all between December 2015 and June 2016 – about whom it is not known if they are civilians or PKK militants).

Ankara’s tactics in the last three years – imposing curfews in rural areas to clear out PKK members, calling in drone strikes, deploying soldiers in high numbers, killing experienced militants and stifling recruitment – appear to have significantly narrowed the PKK’s space for manoeuvre in the rural south east.

The militant-to-state security force member fatality ratio provides some indication of the Turkish campaign’s impact. Since fighting shifted back into rural areas in July 2016 (after a deadly urban phase between December 2015 and June 2016), the Turkish military has been on the offensive. In the first year, 1.65 PKK militants were killed for each soldier, police officer or village guard; this figure rose to 2.22 in the second year and then to 3.22 in the third. In the last year, from July 2018 to July 2019, 3.36 PKK militants were killed for each state security force member.

While the impact in Turkey itself of Ankara’s military incursion into north east Syria [...] remains unclear, it could fuel the PKK’s insurgency against Turkey.

Three reasons likely explain the PKK’s higher fatality rate over the last year. First, the PKK is having a harder time sheltering among and securing supplies from core supporters in south-eastern villages, who are usually intimidated by Turkish forces’ curfews and security cordons. Secondly, drones and other new military technology have helped Ankara clear militants from mountain strongholds. Thirdly, U.S. pressure on the PKK to rein in attacks in Turkey has meant that it remains largely in a defensive posture. On the U.S.’s part this pressure was mostly an effort to avert further Turkish backlash against Washington’s partnership in Syria with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)/People’s Protection Units (YPG), closely affiliated with the PKK. While the impact in Turkey itself of Ankara’s military incursion into north east Syria against the SDF/YPG that began on 9 October remains unclear, it could fuel the PKK’s insurgency against Turkey.

Turkey’s Offensive in Northern Iraq

The last year of escalation saw the highest number of fatalities from Turkish air and land operations against the PKK in northern Iraq since July 2015. Crisis Group could confirm 101 fatalities linked to such operations in that area in 2019, of whom 90 were PKK militants and 11 were Turkish soldiers. According to open-source data collected between May and September 2019, the Turkish army has conducted at least 76 cross-border air operations, most of them targeting PKK hideouts and ammunition depots in and around the Qandil mountains where the PKK’s “headquarters” are located as well as in Hakurk, in the north west of Qandil toward the Turkey border (see map below).

CRISISGROUP

With the stated goal of “ending the PKK”, the Turkish military launched air and ground offensives against the militants in northern Iraq (dubbed Operation Claw) on 27 May 2019. In a first since 2008, Turkish ground forces penetrated around 20km deep into Iraqi territory to clear out militants, cut off logistical routes and destroy ammunition depots. The Turkish military also created new security outposts. As of 4 October, Crisis Group could confirm the deaths of 57 PKK militants and nine Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq since Operation Claw began.

Security analysts cite three main objectives for Turkey’s scaled-up cross-border operation in northern Iraq: to disrupt PKK mobilisation in the Hakurk region, which is tactically important as a logistical channel for the PKK insurgency in Turkey and also hosts PKK training camps; to create a buffer zone along the Turkey-Iraq border that could eventually afford the Turkish army access to PKK headquarters in Qandil; and to reduce PKK dominance in Sinjar, the north-eastern Iraqi region that the insurgency uses as a transit route between Iraq and Syria. Warmer relations among Ankara, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil have facilitated intelligence sharing that aids the cross-border offensive.

Changing Profile of PKK Fatalities

An important component of Ankara’s campaign in the last year has been the targeting of seasoned PKK operatives. The exact number killed is disputed. The Turkish interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said on 7 August that the army had “neutralised” (which could mean killed or captured) 87 “high-ranking” PKK militants in the first seven months of 2019. Turkish media outlets reported the deaths of twenty in the same period. The PKK has so far only confirmed ten of these militants dead, nine in Turkey and one in northern Iraq.

The pool of recruits the PKK can draw on in its insurgency against Turkey goes beyond Turkey’s borders.

The showdown in northern Iraq and more Turkish military pressure targeting the PKK’s upper echelons were likely the triggers for an attack on 17 July that killed a Turkish diplomat. That day, an unidentified gunman opened fire in a restaurant in the Deream area in Erbil, killing Osman Köse, who worked at the consulate, and an Iraqi national. The PKK denied direct involvement, but in an interview on 24 July, senior PKK figure Bahoz Erdal praised the attack saying “well done to whoever carried out this activity”. He also claimed that Köse was no regular diplomat but an intelligence officer in charge of Turkey’s anti-PKK campaign in northern Iraq. Turkish media reported on 20 July that Kurdistan Regional Government security officials had caught the suspected assassin, Mazlum Dağ. The targeting of upper echelons of the PKK and retaliatory assassinations like the one that appears to have taken place in Erbil could further escalate violence.

Besides the higher-ranking PKK militant fatalities, Crisis Group data on PKK militants killed in Turkey and northern Iraq between July 2018 and July 2019 (a total of 361) shows that around 8.5 per cent (31) were from western Iran, around twice the number in the same period of the previous year. The majority were born in Mariwan, Serdesht, Urmia or Khoy (see map above). This data suggests that the PKK is compensating for the manpower shortage in its insurgency against Turkey by bringing in more cadres from Iran. It also means that the pool of recruits the PKK can draw on in its insurgency against Turkey goes beyond Turkey’s borders. In fact, as of 4 October 2019, 9 per cent of all PKK militants killed since July 2015 were from either western Iran (4.7 per cent), northern Syria (3 per cent) or northern Iraq (1.3 per cent).

Hometowns Map: Click on fatality locations (red dots) to view hometowns (province-to-province) of state security force members and PKK militants. This tool is included in our unique tracker of the death toll in the PKK conflict.

Fatalities type:

All

Date

Fatalities per Province

Fatalities per Location

Legend

The Conflict and Votes in Turkey’s South East

Kurdish support for the ruling AK Party is dropping, especially among city dwellers in western Turkey.

The fatalities data, together with data from recent Turkish elections, also reveals a link between voting patterns and levels of violence.

As demonstrated by the 31 March local elections and the 23 June rerun in Istanbul, Kurdish support for the ruling AK Party is dropping, especially among city dwellers in western Turkey. In fact, according to a nationwide poll conducted in June by the Center for American Progress and Metropoll Strategic and Social Research Center, only around 24 per cent of self-identified Kurds said they supported the AK Party, while this figure stood at over 45 per cent before 2015.

The trend in conflict-ridden Kurdish-majority south-eastern districts paints a nuanced picture. Data from three general elections and two local elections since 2014 suggests that the more intense the conflict was in a given district, the more support the AK Party and MHP (or their combined alliance) received in that district. In both general and local polls, the MHP gained most in south-eastern districts with fatalities. In districts with fatalities, the AK Party itself maintained its percentage of votes in general polls and was able to increase its share of votes in local polls. In contrast, its vote share diminished in places where no clashes had occurred in both general and local elections.

The AK Party lost a small percentage of vote share in conflict-affected districts but a larger one in comparable districts without conflict.

The experience of the pro-Kurdish HDP, thousands of whose members are in prison for alleged links to the PKK, was for the most part the opposite. In general elections, high fatality rates coincided with weakened electoral support, while in areas outside the southeast that did not experience violence, the party largely maintained its share of votes. In local elections in the conflict-affected southeast it maintained support in urban centres but significantly lost out in rural areas.

Analysis of general election results found that the MHP increased its vote share (2.66 percentage points per district on average) in conflict-ridden districts but lost votes in socially, demographically and economically comparable districts with no conflict. The AK Party lost a small percentage of vote share in conflict-affected districts but a larger one in comparable districts without conflict. In contrast, the pro-Kurdish HDP lost support to the tune of 2.78 percentage points per conflict-affected district but tended to retain it in other comparable districts. The graphs below depict the change in vote shares for the AK Party, MHP and the HDP across three general elections.

Graph 1: AK Party Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

 Graph 2: MHP Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Graph 3: HDP Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Analysis of local election results shows that across Turkey’s districts with no fatalities, the combined AK Party-MHP vote share dropped by 9.44 percentage points in the 2019 local elections as compared to 2014. But in the same period the alliance increased its vote share by 0.63 percentage points in predominantly Kurdish-speaking districts where deaths occurred (see Graph 4). No firm conclusion could be made regarding changes in the HDP vote in the 2019 local elections because, particularly in western metropoles where it has a large support base, the party chose not to run, so as to boost the votes of other opposition candidates. But a comparison of net vote share changes in south-eastern districts between 2014 and 2019 local polls shows that the HDP lost more votes in rural south-eastern districts (mostly to the benefit of the AK Party) while largely retaining its vote share in urban areas.

Graph 4: Average AK Party + MHP Vote Share in Two Local Elections

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Note: The figures are based on AK Party and MHP votes in municipal and provincial council elections in metropolitan and non-metropolitan provinces, respectively.

Further analysis of 2014 and 2019 local elections suggests a picture similar to national polls: the presence of conflict in a district correlates with an increase in the AK Party and MHP’s combined vote share by an average of 5.35 percentage points. The AK Party’s stand-alone vote share between those two local elections increased along with the conflict’s intensity in a given district. The presence of conflict correlated strongly with an increase in the MHP’s stand-alone vote share (an average increase of 4.73 percentage points), and a decrease in the HDP’s vote share (-1.52 percentage points). While outmigration of HDP-supporting Kurds might partly explain the latter drop, our analysis found that controlling for that factor demonstrated that it alone could not account for the decrease.

The MHP’s vote share in high-fatality districts could have been boosted by the high numbers of state appointees and security personnel deployed to those areas (usually together with their families), as these people are traditionally aligned with nationalist parties. Controlling for this factor, however, revealed that the positive effect of conflict on the MHP vote is so strong that the deployment of state appointees alone cannot account for the increase. Based on our analysis, it was not possible to draw firm conclusions about which voters switched to the MHP or to the AK Party as the conflict raged.

Lower turnout in conflict-affected districts in national polls could hint at less willingness on the part of Kurdish movement sympathisers to participate in formal politics.

Political parties are aware of these dynamics, and each interprets the results in its own fashion. In public statements, AK Party and MHP representatives say their improved performance in these districts proves the success of their policies. The HDP attributes its loss to these same state policies, which involve large-scale intimidation of HDP supporters.

To understand how fatalities may influence voting behaviour, one must also look at those who do not vote. Crisis Group’s analysis suggests that across three general elections turnout was 1.4 percentage points lower in districts with fatalities than in districts with no fatalities. Lower turnout in conflict-affected districts in national polls could hint at less willingness on the part of Kurdish movement sympathisers to participate in formal politics. Indeed, Crisis Group’s field research in 2017 and 2018 suggested that, among some segments of the population, an uptick in conflict-related grievances, along with their sense they lacked representation, led to alienation from formal political channels. The appointment of state trustees replacing elected mayors in three Kurdish-majority metropolitan municipalities (Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin) on 19 August 2019 may have added to such tendencies.

Graph 5: Turnout across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Together, these findings suggest that even though the AK Party is losing support among mostly conservative Kurds living in metropolitan areas nationwide, in the past four years there has been virtually no electoral slippage for the ruling party and its alliance partner in violence-ridden Kurdish-majority south-eastern districts: indeed, their vote shares may even have risen. On the other hand, the pro-Kurdish HDP’s support has dropped off in rural south-eastern localities that are suffering conflict.

The nationalist rallying effect of the conflict that benefited the ruling party will likely not hold indefinitely.

None of this means that Ankara’s hardline tactics are working. The government has read its battlefield advantage against the PKK and the south-eastern electoral shifts as vindication of its hardline policies. But while numbers of those killed in fighting can show basic conflict dynamics, they are far from the whole story, particularly when the PKK can draw on militants from further afield. Importantly, the figures reveal nothing about the depth of the grievances among many of Turkey’s Kurds that keep the conflict alive.

The nationalist rallying effect of the conflict that benefited the ruling party will likely not hold indefinitely. At a time when Turkey is grappling with a myriad of security and economic challenges and its relations with the West are in decline, it would be wise for the political leadership in Ankara not to box itself in to the nationalist corner but to keep policy options open, including a potential shift away from its hardline course on the Kurdish front.