Initiatives for Solving the Kurdish Question: A Contradiction or “an Ideological Consistency” of AKP?

Nikos Moudouros, Lecturer, University of Cyprus  /  September 25, 2013

Introduction After almost eleven years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule a comprehensive hegemonic strategy in Turkey can be elucidated. This strategy, which leads to the build-up of a “new Turkey,” extends across the entire spectrum of social, economic, and political cleavages. In this sense, we could also speak of a comprehensive “Kurdish policy” by the ruling party. Under the current circumstances, the analysis of the AKP’s policy concerning the Kurdish question is of particular importance because of the staggering developments regarding the matter that greatly affect the course of the broader Middle East.

In order for the ideological background of the AKP’s policy on the Kurdish problem to be decoded, it must first be seen in relation to a broader hegemonic strategy. That is, the policy of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, regarding the Kurdish question should be treated as a specific part of the party’s whole ideological platform and its hegemonic position in the current Turkish political system.

Prior to the analysis of the Kurdish policy it would be necessary to identify the stages of the overall ideological and political hegemony of the ruling party. Thereby analyzing not only the AKP’s identity, but also the impact it has on the process of resolving the Kurdish issue. For example, the policies followed by the ruling party toward the European Union as well as the Turkish neoliberalism as it is expressed by the AKP constitute axes which have to be addressed in order to understand the initiatives for solving the Kurdish question. At the same time, questions regarding the specific policies around the Kurdish question that today is analyzed only in the light of some “contradictions” of the Turkish government itself, will be answered. For example, is it a contradiction or an ideological consistency the fact that the AKP proceeds to the recognition of the Kurdish identity but at the same time advocated for “one flag, one nation, one state”? Therefore this article aims to highlight the AKP’s policy toward the Kurdish question as “an aspect of the whole” and to interpret the apparent contradictions not as coincidental choices but as consistent “internal procedures” of the hegemony of the new political Islam in Turkey. 

The European Union and the Social Alliance: The First Stage of the AKP’s Hegemony

The turbulent decade of the 1990s, which reached its peak with the financial crisis of 2001, had almost completely delegitimized all political currents in Turkey, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Bulent Ecevit, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahçeli and the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Mesut Yılmaz. The elections of November 2002 actually sealed the public discontent, leaving out of the parliament the three parties of the former government, and a total of 500 Members of Parliament (MPs) previously elected[1]. The political gap that was created was successfully filled by the newly established AKP, which within a few months from its creation became a one-party government[2]. At the same period it was clear that the social dynamics that were expressed thought political Islam and the Kurdish movement, maintained their intensity and their oppositional ability against the Kemalist establishment. The 1997 coup against the leader of the National Outlook Movement, Necmettin Erbakan, or the 1999 arrest of Abdullah Öcalan of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party prevented the long-term influence of these two leaders and their parties.

Within this framework, the AKP decided to adapt better to the international environment, to adopt the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) in an integrated way, and to incorporate its Islamic references into the neoliberal framework.  Thus and by building upon Erdoğan’s charismatic personality and the traditional, strong organizational structures of Islam in the country, the AKP succeeded in creating a wider social alliance which along with the European Union’s (EU) contribution would work as a legitimization shield for the party and its protection against the internal pressures coming from the Kemalist establishment.

The poor masses in the periphery, the shopkeepers, the largest part of the religious population, the Kurds and a large part of the Turkish capital, regrouped around the AKP thus helping it to decisively expand its hegemonic strategy, focusing on the European perspective of the country. In short, the EU was presented as the remedy for all diseases. It could satisfy the need of the poorest layers for higher living standards, and help the businessmen integrate into the global neoliberal policies. It could ensure, for the Kurds and the Islamists, everything that the authoritarian Kemalist regime had deprived them from for decades. This regrouping around the AKP was essentially an important “social alliance” with reinforcing dynamics and upward tendencies during the 2002-2011 period. For example the AKP’s vote share raised from 34 per cent in 2002 to 47 per cent in 2007 and to a surprising near 50 per cent in 2011. The party’s rising electoral fortunes had first been signalled in the 2004 municipal elections, where it secured about 42 per cent of the vote (13.5 million votes). In the 2007 national elections the AKP secured 16.3 million votes, with the net increase of nearly three million votes coming from all over the country[3]. In the 2011 national elections the AKP secured approximately 21.4 million votes. An important element is that comparing the AKP’s performance in the 2002 and 2007 national elections we see that about one-quarter of its vote gain comes from the region where the Kurdish political leadership lost nearly one-tenth of its electoral support. Another characteristic data shows that in the 2011 national elections, out of the 81 provincial districts, the AKP came in first in 71 provinces[4].

Very soon, Turkey’s accession to the EU became the main point of reference of the AKP’s social and political vision. Having experienced the 1997 “post-modern” coup firsthand, AKP leaders were aware that democracy was not the name of the game in the Turkish political scene[5]. So starting from its first electoral victory AKP based its demilitarization efforts on two axes. The first was the limitation of the army’s authority in the framework of a wide-scale democratization drive and integration with the European Union. Participation in the EU project boosted AKP’s political clout both vis-a-vis the military elite and in the international arena[6]. The second important step which enabled AKP to hold the military accountable was the demilitarization of the Kurdish question and the first steps towards its resolution within the framework of civilian politics[7]. Additionally, highlighting the European prospect, it gave to the ruling party a number of advantages: it showed that it was cut off from the “extreme” traditions of the Islamic National Outlook Movement and that it would reign within the European frameworks. The democratization process could strengthen the party against the military establishment that was “waiting around the corner.” Furthermore, the AKP could build stronger ties with the business elite, while on the base of the accession process it could make several openings towards the temporal demands of the Kurds and the Islamists[8]. The “European” protection of the individual rights could include the right for religious faith (Islam) and the ethnic-cultural diversity (Kurds).

Nevertheless, the EU alone was not enough in order for the AKP to establish its strategy for hegemony. The liberal concept of human rights and freedoms, the Turkish government’s efforts for reform and the steps taken to widen the democratic field of the country, could ensure for the AKP the support of the international framework. They could also expand the support of its social alliance. But they could not account for the whole of the hegemony of the new political Islam, nor could they forever absorb the centrifugal dynamics that were created by the deepening of neoliberalism. In the same context, the continuously rising course of the AKP and its foundation, as the one and only representative of the Turkish conservative right-wing, cannot be explained solely by the need of filling-up of the political vacuum or its legitimization due to the European prospect of the country[9].

Populism, Family and Millet: Aspects of Turkish Neoliberalism

Even though the AKP follows the implementation of a neoliberal program with “religious devotion,” it manages to stabilize, and in some occasions even to broaden, the support of the poorest segments of the population[10]. The neoliberal, market-based approach that dominates party identity in economic preferences has been symbolized by the emphasis on a massive privatization process, by creating incentives for foreign investment and compliance with the criteria determined by the IMF especially during the first years of AKP rule[11]. But still the party’s electoral support was reinforced during these years. So, at a first glance this fact constitutes a contradiction. A deeper analysis of the ruling party’s strategy though, which also influences in a decisive way the policy followed in the Kurdish question, shows that the AKP’s ideological identity can consistently serve the economic transformation, by absorbing any reactions and by incorporating broader masses of the population.

This is perhaps the AKP’s biggest difference from any previous parties that had tried to implement neoliberal policies. The ruling party seems to offer solutions to the immediate needs of the poorest groups of the population, without necessarily ensuring the long-term development of their living standards. The transport of services, and the organization of the Islamic type of charity and social assistance, constitute the key pillars of the AKP’s populism, and also contribute to the strengthening of the party’s ties with broad masses. The party handles the cultural values of the average conservative citizen, while through the social assistance services and charity networks wins the public consensus for its policy, and gradually turns it in a complete and comprehensive ideological hegemony.

Erdoğan’s government, on the one hand ensures cheaper health for the poorest segments of the population, while on the other hand guides the public sources towards the profitability of the private hospitals. It follows policies of low interest rates for housing, and in this way fulfils the basic dream of a poor large family for property ownership, while at the same time grants private construction groups the rights to reconstruction enormous slums[12]. At the same time it must be noted that the increase in “social assistance” by the state during the AKP’s governance, is related to transferring resources to various Islamic organizations and associations, which reproduce the consent of the lower income groups in a strict neoliberal framework[13].

This environment is completed by the decisive presence of the Prime Minister’s personality, the government officials and the party. The relationship of “gratitude” that the AKP developed with the masses is enhanced by the conversion of Erdoğan’s conservative lifestyle into a political model. The Prime Minister prevails as “one of us,” as a personality that abolishes the distance of an alienated secular power from the religious conservative majority of the people. He appears as a man who can better understand the needs and problems of the people exactly because he comes from the same framework of traditional values. This attitude of the AKP, with respect to the economic transformation of the country, it is equally important for decoding the policy parameters that it follows into the Kurdish question.

But beyond that, the analysis of the party’s hegemony in relation to the steps taken regarding the Kurdish problem should also include its ideological positioning in the Right, a space which the AKP admittedly represents exclusively in the recent years. In this context it could be said that the AKP includes the “three forms” of the Turkish Right in the way that Tanıl Bora[14]had analyzed: nationalism, conservatism and Islamism. Many analyses that address the Turkish government’s policy towards the Kurdish problem, by simply placing it in the above axis, easily end up to the conclusion that the AKP occasionally stresses either the one or the other form of its right-wing identity, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, they end up dealing with the policy towards the Kurdish problem as one full of contradictions and detached from the broader hegemonic strategy. A closer study of the AKP’s ideological background and strategy shows that the party goes far beyond a mere expression of the composition of the three forms of the right-wing. Conservatism and Islamism in the AKP seem not only to be influencing but also determining the meaning and content of nationalism. So, at this point we can no longer talk about a “classical nationalism,” which is inspired by racial or ethnic identity, but something that goes far beyond that, and which plays an important role in the policy of Erdoğan’s government towards the Kurdish problem.

Beyond Islam, conservatism is admittedly one of the dominant elements of the ruling party’s ideological background. The essential particularity of conservatism is that it seeks to defend social homogeneity, in terms of economic and political differences, and to use it as a tool to the end of achieving social cohesion. The AKP’s conservatism seeks to strengthen social institutions such as family, and to elevate the traditional values, the customs and traditions, as elements of strategic importance in the process of the country’s modernization. It seeks to prove that modernisation does not come in contrast to the traditional values of the nation. A nation, however, that is mainly reflected through the reproduction of the millet concept. Islam works both towards maintaining the social system and at the same time determining the personal identity. Prime Minister Erdoğan has many times argued that “secular can be the states, not the people.” In this way Islamic religion is highlighted as an integral part of the identity and lifestyle of the individual.

On another level of conservatism and Islam, the family acquires a leading role. The traditional religious family does not act only as a family model but rather as a model for the nation-millet itself. The nation-millet itself should have the image and content of a traditional Islamic family. In the AKP’s 2002 program of elections it was emphasized that “The Turkish society is a big family that shares the same fate in this geography and that unites together the bitter-sweet memories. All the possibilities will be prepared so that the values creating the identity of this family will be continued, derived anew in the light of new developments”[15].

The strategic importance of this statement lies in the fact that the AKP faces society as an undifferentiated whole. The homogenization of society on the basis of cultural values, and especially of the Islamic religion, delegitimizes any other variations and at the same time seeks to prevent them from gaining any political significance or public support. Any political power that attempts to disturb the “peace and quiet of the family,” that is, the traditional nation-millet, cannot have a place for expression; it is regarded as an enemy of the nation-millet.

In a parallel process, the activation of conservatism and Islam by the AKP has the task of neutralizing and completely erasing the distance that separates the state from the nation-millet. According to a traditional view of Islamic parties and the National Outlook Movement which is continued through the AKP, Turkey was for years under the rule of western, and therefore foreign to the Muslim millet, secular elite. That means that the Turkish secular state was under the occupation of “foreigners”, a situation that bred hostility between the state and the Muslim nation-millet. In this framework, the aim of the Islamic tradition was the “reunion of the state with its own nation,” the prevalence of a historic reconciliation and the embracement of authority with the Muslim millet.

In short, that is the transition of power into the hands of the “true representatives” of the nation-millet. Today, the AKP seems to be encouraging the perception of a conflict between the state and nation, modernizing it according to the new socioeconomic framework. Numan Kurtulmuş, one of the AKP’s Vice Presidents, stated that: “There will be no turning back. After two centuries of struggles, Turkey has been reunited with its roots. This nation has brought back to power its own children, and has now come to its own power and it won’t step back from power ever again”[16].

The above perception, adapted to the Kurdish policy of Erdoğan’s government, is of great importance since it seeks to integrate the Kurds in the broader context of the nation-millet on the basis of a “common Islamic culture.” In a nutshell, it aims to include the Kurdish population in the overall hegemony strategy, marginalizing the Kemalist version of nationalism and remodelling the concept of nation so that it will not only be “friendly” towards the Kurds, but also a symbol of rebirth of “belonging”.

The “Kurdish Dimension” of AKP’s Hegemony

It is a fact that the AKP has greatly diversified itself from any previous ruling parties as far as it concerns the Kurdish question. It has recognized the existence of a separate Kurdish identity, denounced any previous oppressive policies of the Turkish state, while it has even created a Kurdish television channel. The culmination of its efforts came with the beginning of talks with the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, to the end of resolving the problem. One could argue that the AKP’s effort for reform and the admittedly historic opening towards the Kurdish movement are elements that do not classify the ruling party as right-wing or, to be more precise, as politically Islamic. Nevertheless, based on the hegemonic strategy of Erdoğan’s government, the reform policy with regard to the Kurdish question does not constitute a contradiction; it rather constitutes an organic component of the overall ideological foundation of the party. Nor can the general policy to resolve the problem be treated as simply coincidental or “communicational”. That is because the PKK and the Kurdish movement are generally challenging the hegemonic conception of the “nation-family”. The PKK and the Kurdish movement constitute centrifugal dynamics which cannot be part of the AKP’s broader vision for Turkey. In reality they are an obstacle to its own ideological hegemony.

The Turkish government is distinguished for its efforts to bring economic development into the Kurdish regions. It seeks to increase the infrastructure projects and at the same time tries to increase the transference of social assistance and Islamic charity to Turkey’s southeaster region; i.e. Kurdish territories. The policy for economic development could also be seen as a continuation of the Turkish state’s traditional attitude, which used to face the Kurdish question as one of underdevelopment.  However, the simultaneous recognition of the Kurdish identity by the new political Islam and the intensification of the presence of the Islamic movement in the Kurdish regions under various forms, are elements of the efforts to integrate the Kurds, and a way to claim their consensus with the AKP’s general hegemony project. This policy of Erdoğan’s government not only does it aim to accomplish the integration of the Kurds into the state, but much more so to integrate them into the ruling party’s electoral body. At this point, we should mention that the tension of confrontation caused at times with the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), aims to prove that the AKP can represent the Kurdish population in the same way as – if not better than – the organized Kurdish movement. In 2009, during the campaign for the municipal elections, Erdoğan, in his speech in Diyarbakır, noted: “You are not doomed to municipalities without any quality. You mustn’t be doomed to closed rural roads. Within six years we provided water to 1571 villages…These cannot be done with the help of ideologies, but with the help of people who have knowledge on the local administration”[17].

 On another level, the AKP treats the Kurds as its allies in an effort to completely eliminate the Kemalists’ power centres. The recognition of the Kurdish identity, the recognition of the Kurdish rights and the pursuit of economic development in the Kurdish region, as part of the government’s hegemony strategy, seek to prove that the Kurds are just like the Islamists, victims of the “Kemalist authoritarianism.” Then, since the Kurds and the Islamists shared the same fate, they can also share the same claims under the hegemony that AKP is building.

The Kurds are an integral part of the AKP’s perception regarding the nation-millet. Their common Islamic culture as well as the Ottoman past, within the ideological context of Erdoğan’s party, includes the Kurds in the broader view of the “family-millet”. Therefore, the Kurdish identity is not recognized as a separate political existence. The Kurds in this case are not recognized as an independent political entity or as a separate race who can assert their collective rights. Rather, the AKP recognizes the Kurds in terms of their religious and cultural characteristics; that is, as a folkloric type, thus enriching the meaning of the traditional millets, and enhancing the historical ties between the Turks and the Kurds. So at the same time that the AKP seeks to integrate the Kurds into its own wider vision of Turkey, it simultaneously excludes and tries to delegitimize the modern Kurdish nationalism or any other centrifugal dynamics. In turn, the AKP aims to remove political power from the PKK, as well as its political program. Through the “Islamic inclusion” of the Kurds, it is sought the exclusion of Kurdish nationalism and all elements that spoil the meaning of the “family-millet”.

The initiative to solve the Kurdish question, regardless of the final result, should be dealt with as a comprehensive policy that constitutes a part of the AKP’s hegemonic strategy. The importance of the place of the organized Kurdish movement amongst the Kurdish population, demonstrates the different aspects of its continuous influence. With this in mind, the Kurdish movement itself and more specifically the PKK constitute organized barriers to the final ideological hegemony of the ruling party; yet, this remains to be seen and it will depend on the extent to which the Kurds will finally be integrated into the AKP’s vision for Turkish society. In short, the final outcome of the efforts for a resolution of the Kurdish question, at least with regard to the interior of Turkey, depends on the controversy generated between the Islamic concept of the nation-millet and the collective Kurdish national demands.


This article tried to investigate the AKP’s strategies vis a vis the Kurdish question in Turkey through an effort to underline the party’s position within the universe of the Turkish centre-right political spectrum. In order to better understand the policies of the ruling AKP toward the Kurdish question we have first to decode the party’s specific ideological position and its place within the traditions of the Turkish centre-right politics. In this respect the article tried to analyze the AKP’s politics concerning the Kurdish question through the party’s hegemonic strategy and through its social vision. The main argument at this point is that the coexistence of the AKP’s tendency to recognize the presence of the Kurds and/or the Kurdish identity and its discourses like the “one state, one nation and one flag” is not a contradiction created by the party’s electoral strategy but a basic component of its political and ideological orientation. That is also why the Kurdish population is “positioned” by the ruling AKP as a part of the nation-millet that is a part of the whole social vision which is based on a cultural and religious “partnership”. In such a framework the Kurdish identity recognized by the AKP does not constitute a political identity but rather a “folkloric” one. In any case and under the current circumstances, the analysis of the AKP’s policy concerning the Kurdish question and a comprehensive debate on this issue are of particular importance because of the staggering developments regarding the matter that greatly affect the course of the broader Middle East.

Nikos Moudouros, Lecturer, Department of Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cyprus

Please cite this publication as follows:

Moudouros, Nikos (September, 2013), “Initiatives for Solving the Kurdish Question: A Contradiction or “an Ideological Consistency” of AKP?”, Vol. II, Issue 7, pp.44-54, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (

[1] Nikos Moudouros, Turkey’s Transformation. From the Kemalist Domination to ‘Islamic’ Neoliberalism, Aleksantria Publications, Athens 2012, p. 261 [in Greek].

[2] Alev Özkazanç “3 Kasım Seçimi ve Sonuçlarına Dair”, Ankara Üniversitesi SBF Dergisi, Vol. 57 (4), (2002), p. 209.

[3] Ali Çarkoğlu, “A New Electoral Victory for the ‘Pro-Islamists’ or the ‘New Centre-Right’? The Justice and Development Party Phenomenon in the July 2007 Parliamentary Elections in Turkey”, South European Society and Politics, Vol. 12 (4), 2009, p. 512.

[4] [entrance on 23 August 2013].

[5] [entrance 23 August 2013].

[6] For further information, see Ali Resul Usul, “The Justice and Development Party and the European Union: From Euro-skepticisim to Euro-enthusiasm and Euro-fatigue,” Ümit Cizre (ed.) Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey. The Making of the Justice and Development Party. Routledge London and New York 2008, pp: 175–97

[7] [entrance 23 August 2013]

[8] Menderes Çınar, “Turkey’s Transformation Under the AKP Rule”, Muslim World, Vol. 96 (3), 2006, p. 470.

[9] Ümit Kurt, AKP: Yeni Merkez Sağı mı?, Dipnot, Ankara 2009, p. 8.

[10] William Hale & Ergun Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, Routledge, London 2010, pp. 36-38.

[11] Simten Coşar, Aylın Özman, “Centre-right politics in Turkey after the November 2002 general election: neo-liberalism with a Muslim face”, Contemporary Politics, Vol. 10 (1), 2004, p. 63.

[12] Deniz Yıldırım, “AKP ve Neoliberal Popülizm”, İlhan Uzgel & Bülent Duru (ed.), AKP Kitabı: Bir Dönemin Bilançosu, Phonenix Yayınevi, Ankara 2009, pp. 81-82.

[13] Pinar Bedirhanoğlu, “Türkiye’de Neoliberal Otoriter Devletin AKP’li Yüzü”, İlhan Uzgel & Bülent Duru (ed.), AKP Kitabı: Bir Dönemin Bilançosu, Phonenix Yayınevi, Ankara 2009, p. 51.

[14] Tanıl Bora, Türk Sağının Üç Hali, Birikim Yayınları, İstanbul 1998.

[15] Cenk Saraçoğlu,“İslami-Muhafazakâr Milliyetçiliğin Millet Tasarımı: AKP Döneminde Kürt Politikası”, Praksis, Vol. 26, Issue 2, 2011, p. 41.

[16] Extract from Numan Kurtulmuş’ speech in an AKP’s gathering of officials in Adana on 27th April 2013. “Kurtulmuş başkanlık sistemi için ne dedi?”, [entrance on 27th April 2013].

[17] Cenk Saraçoğlu,“İslami-Muhafazakâr Milliyetçiliğin Millet Tasarımı: AKP Döneminde Kürt Politikası”, Praksis, Vol. 26, Issue 2, 2011, p. 49.