It’s been a pretty lean time for elections so far this year, but even so, one would hardly expect the Turkish municipal elections, to be held on
29 March, to be a big source of excitement. But some very interesting things are happening in Turkey, which could end up having implications well outside its borders.

First of all, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, while campaigning for the elections last weekend visited the Kurdish south-east of the country, traditionally ignored by mainstream politicians. Kurds make up something like a fifth of Turkey’s population, but have long been the victims of official repression, to which many of them respond by supporting a violent insurgency.

Erdogan, however, was preaching a message of inclusion. Many discriminatory measures have been repealed, and a Kurdish-language television station has finally begun broadcasting. This is a radical step, since as late as 1991 it was illegal to speak Kurdish in public.

The Prime Minister even reportedly spoke a few words in Kurdish, although (at least according to The International Herald Tribune) giving campaign speeches in Kurdish remains against the law.

Then on Tuesday, an MP from the Kurdish region, Democratic Society Party leader Ahmet Turk, decided to test the limits of official tolerance by switching to Kurdish when speaking in parliament. The last person who tried this spent a decade in jail as a result; no one expects such drastic measures this time, but the live parliamentary broadcast was immediately cut.

Erdogan’s political opponents have accused him of encouraging separatism. The centre-right Nationalist Movement Party said that “ethnic separatism backed by terrorism has manifested in the political arena”, while an MP from the centre-left Republican People’s Party said “everyone has to know their limits”, and helpfully remarked that one can speak Kurdish “in the parliamentary parking lot”.

On one view, the two incidents show how far Turkey still is from adopting western standards of human rights. If the cultural identity of such a large minority is still controversial, it lends some credibility to those who argue that Turkey will never be ready for admission to the European Union.

On the other hand, it also shows how much progress has been made in recent years, and how important the project of European integration is.
Every snub that Turkey gets from the Europeans just makes Erdogan’s task more difficult, giving further ammunition to his nationalist opponents and increasing the risk that the country will lapse into military rule, with unknown consequences for the region.

It also shows again the slippery nature of the term “Islamist”: Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party shares a common heritage with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and of course Hamas. If one “Islamist” party can become a leader in supporting democracy and human rights, it raises questions about whether it might be possible to move the others in the same direction.

And in an already unstable region, Kurdish rights represent another wild card. Spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have been repeatedly frustrated by great-power politics in their desire to be united in an independent homeland. Much could rest on whether they are finally able to make their peace with the Turkish state.