Turkey’s constitutional court banned the country’s only pro-Kurdish party on December 11. Likely to result in an increased number of ethnic conflicts across the country, the decision is both typical and paradoxical.

The ban is typical because the Turkish government is notorious for outlawing political parties. In fact, it’s banned more parties than any other democratic state. The move is paradoxical because it comes at a time when the government proposed to expand Kurdish political rights in a gambit known as the “Kurdish opening.”

The Democratic Society Party (DTP) represented the legal wing of the Kurdish political movement. Its close cousin, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), is a guerrilla organization that Turkey, the European Union, and the United States all consider a terrorist group. The DTP was the latest incarnation of a series of banned pro-Kurdish parties. With its elimination from the political arena, the Kurdish movement temporarily lost its legal representation in the Turkish parliament. In response, pro-Kurdish politicians declared their intention to resign from the parliament collectively. They reversed their decision only after PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan asked them to remain in the parliament. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will be the new banner of pro-Kurdish politics.

The ban on the Kurdish party is the latest display of official intolerance toward ethnic politics in Turkey. The decision by pro-Kurdish politicians to reunite under a new party and remain in the parliament is critical for ethnic peace in Turkey. Never before has a political ban meant so much for the future of Turkey as a multiethnic country.

The Politics of Banishment

Since the first legal pro-Kurdish political party was formed in 1990, the legal and illegal wings of the Kurdish political movement have complemented each other in their ideology and political support base. “The establishment of PKK is the reason we exist today,” DTP co-leader Emine Ayna told the Turkish daily Radikal on December 7. “It is the reason the world accepts us as a reality. PKK and its leader [Abdullah] Ocalan prepared the conditions under which we are able to do politics. I cannot reject this fact. That would be a rejection of myself, my past and my identity. No one should expect DTP to reject this either.”

The recently banned DTP and the PKK are two organizations formed by the same political movement. When its legal counterpart is shut down, the PKK is bound to become the focal point of identity representation for Turkey’s Kurds. Pro-Kurdish parties always had difficulty achieving legality in Turkey, from the establishment of the first party in 1990 and its banning in 1993. The constitutional court went on to ban three of the four pro-Kurdish parties founded by the same movement in the next 16 years. Every time their party was banned, pro-Kurdish politicians reorganized behind a new party banner.

The constitutional court plays a crucial role in identifying who transgresses the boundaries of acceptable politics in Turkey. A strong, vigilant military has in turn shaped which ideologies and interests can be represented by legal political parties through military coups and unwavering political activism. A military government wrote the notoriously illiberal 1982 constitution, which was ratified by a less-than-free referendum. Despite numerous amendments, the same constitution still provides the legal basis to ban political parties that do not conform to the boundaries of Turkey’s official state ideology.

Last year, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself closely escaped the ban. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, Turkey’s top prosecutor, asked the court to ban the AKP, which received over 46% of the votes in the last general elections, because of its “anti-secular activities.” AKP’s high-ranking politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were not strangers to the constitutional court, which banned two of their predecessor parties. The AKP itself was an outsider to the regime when it was elected to office in 2002. With its predecessor Islamist parties forced out of office by the military and eventually shut down by the constitutional court, AKP strategically sought to recruit centrist politicians and local notables in order to establish itself as a party of the center. Despite its efforts to reinvent itself as a pro-EU, centrist party at peace with the secular structures of the state, it faced skepticism and distrust from the military as well as the judiciary. After the prosecutor general’s legal initiative, it escaped the ban by one vote in the 11-member constitutional court.

While in power, AKP sought to demilitarize Turkish politics and strengthen its political position by embracing reforms demanded by the EU for Turkey’s eventual accession. These reforms, which included the establishment of a Kurdish language television station and graduate level courses in Kurdish language in select universities, situated Kurdish political rights and civil liberties at the forefront of mainstream Turkish politics. The pro-Kurdish DTP, as the only rival to the post-Islamist AKP in the mainly Kurdish regions of Turkey, stepped up its criticism of Turkey’s record with its Kurdish minority, both in the parliament and in increasingly violent street demonstrations in cities across Turkey.

Battle for Hearts and Minds

The battle over the hearts and minds of the Kurdish voters is far from over. The AKP tries to woo the Kurds with promises of further democratic reforms as well as its close links with leaders of influential Kurdish clans and extended family networks. The DTP, on the other hand, relies on the support base of PKK sympathizers for its votes. According to Loyola University political scientist Gunes Murat Tezcur, the outlawed PKK stepped up its guerilla recruitment efforts and armed assaults over the past seven years, at a time when opportunities for a political solution to the Kurdish question were unprecedented in Turkey. The PKK claimed responsibility for two car bombs in Izmir and Mersin in August 2008. Turkish authorities blamed it for two explosions in Istanbul, which killed 17 and wounded 150 in July the same year. A PKK guerilla assault on an army station near the Iraqi border in October 2008 resulted in the death of 15 soldiers. A recent attack this month killed seven soldiers.

While the DTP advocated for more political freedoms, the PKK reasserted itself as an armed force in the mountains of Turkey and Northern Iraq. Due to PKK’s armed response, more political freedom has paradoxically led to more violence between Kurdish militants and the Turkish military.

Despite narrowly escaping the ban itself, a fiercely pragmatic AKP has advocated for Turkey’s top court to close down its Kurdish rival. The leader of the Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution, Burhan Kuzu of the AKP, appeared on nationally broadcast television shows to explain how Spain had earlier banned Batasuna, an ethnic Basque party, on similar grounds. The constitutional court used the same precedent to justify its decision. An unconvincing AKP later claimed that it disagrees with the ruling but stopped short of criticizing the court’s decision.

The ban on the DTP has already caused widespread street demonstrations and violence across Turkey’s cities. In Bulanik, an ethnically mixed town in southeast Turkey, protesters burned down shops and set cars on fire. A shop owner randomly fired his machine gun on protesters, killing two. Local vigilante mobs armed with handguns, cleavers, and knives chased Kurdish protesters in Adana and Istanbul.

Pro-Kurdish politicians are now gathering behind a new party. When their party was banned the last time in 2003, Turkey was relatively more peaceful. This time the transition to the new party may not be so smooth. The PKK continues to pursue armed struggle, which heightens Turkish nationalist sentiments. These sentiments are turning into violent encounters between Kurdish protesters and Turkish nationalists in large cities. If the legal wing of the Kurdish political movement fails to reassert itself quickly in its new incarnation, the alternative to party politics — violence — may come to dominate Kurdish politics for now.

What Washington Can Do

Stability in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and a healthy integration of Kurds into the Turkish political system is in Washington’s interest. A politically unstable Turkey is a liability in the Middle East, and the Kurdish question is the biggest source of potential instability in Turkey. Increased ethnic tensions have already turned violent not only in mainly Kurdish cities but also in Western metropoles like Izmir and Istanbul.

The United States must cooperate with Turkish and Northern Iraqi authorities to prevent the PKK from using Northern Iraq as a base. The PKK’s military activism limits the scope of action of legal pro-Kurdish parties No other party in Turkey will risk engaging with pro-Kurdish parties on the Kurdish issue for fear of alienating its own voters. In order to become a partner in a political solution to the Kurdish issue, legal pro-Kurdish parties need to acquire and demonstrate more autonomy from the illegal wing of the Kurdish political movement.

The United States should also continue to refrain from direct involvement in Turkey’s political machinations. Despite the desirability of wide-ranging reforms aimed at integrating Kurdish political demands more thoroughly into Turkish politics, Washington should not actively demand legal changes from Turkey à la the European Union. Resolution of the Kurdish question requires broad social support, and external demands result in strengthening of more extreme, nationalist positions. This restricts the hand of the government and societal actors that are interested in reforming the system.

Feryaz Ocakli is a doctoral candidate at Brown University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.