On Sunday, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan racked up an astounding victory in municipal elections. The party’s success came despite waves of civil unrest last year, the economy taking a downturn, daily revelations about corruption in the highest echelons of government and a crackdown on online media. There are many political and socio-economic reasons for the AKP’s dominance, but in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, Erdogan was able to count on one unexpected campaigner on his behalf: the president of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, Massoud Barzani.
On Nov. 18, facing his darkest hour after the Gezi Park protests and after losing Istanbul’s Olympics bid, Erdogan landed his greatest public relations coup to date, when he staged a mass rally with Barzani in Diyarbakir, the spiritual center of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. There Erdogan broke a taboo by referring for the first time in a public address to “Kurdistan” as a territorial concept. He also listened to Barzani addressing the crowds in Kurdish and enjoyed the performance of artist Shivan Perwer, another legendary figure of Kurdish ethnic identity, who after 37 years in exile had returned to his homeland. Barzani, in turn, concluded his speech by shouting, in Turkish, “Long live Turk-Kurd brotherhood, long live freedom, long live peace.’’
For decades, Turkey vehemently opposed any degree of Kurdish autonomy in neighboring Iraq for fear of instigating similar demands among Turkey’s Kurds. How, then, does one explain the Turkish prime minister drawing on support from the president of the Kurdish quasi-state in Iraq in order to secure the Kurdish vote for his party in local elections?