By Afro-Middle East Centre
Turkey’s Kurdish question: Historic foundations and contemporary issues
After about eighty years of marginalisation and persecution, Turkey’s Kurdish population had a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the ‘Kurdish question’ through talks between the Justice and Development (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2013. The PKK had pursued an armed insurgency against the state since 1984, but proximity talks between Turkish National Intelligence Service and PKK representatives in Oslo in 2009 suggested the possibility of a new dawn. The talks developed into a dialogue with PKK leader and ideologue, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island prison since 1999. In 2013 both sides declared a ceasefire, which substantially held until 2015. In September 2015 Turkey and the armed PKK renewed hostilities, effectively terminating two years of peace talks. Since then, the Turkish military has bombed PKK bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains and implemented martial law across Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast, as a string of bombings rocked Turkish cities, and an uprising erupted in various Kurdish urban centres.
Numbering between 15 and 20 million, Turkey’s Kurds form the largest part of the Kurdish community, which is split across Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Caucasus. Since the division of these areas following the Second World War, Kurdish groups across this region have called for increased autonomy from central governments, and, often, complete secession that would allow the various parts of the Kurdish community to unite into a new Kurdish state. That discourse has changed over the past few years, with new ideas of democratic autonomy diluting the push for succession which once dominated the Kurdish national movement.
Victims of Ataturk’s nationalist project
After the First World War, with the Ottoman empire divided into several new states, a group of former Ottoman Officers headed by Mustafa Kemal, a charismatic general known among Turkish nationalists as the ‘father’ of modern Turkey, or Ataturk, led the Turkish War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In his vision for a secular republican Turkey, Ataturk pursued a programme of social and political reform which included the abolition of Islamic institutions; the introduction of western legal codes, dress, and calendar; and the latinisation of the Turkish language from the Arabic Ottoman alphabet. The reforms formed part of a Turkish nationalist project which championed the primacy of Turkishness over other ethnic identities. Secular Turkish nationalism ensured that development in the Kurdish regions was stymied, and the Kurdish language was banned in public spaces, including schools, resulting in disproportionately high illiteracy levels among Kurds. The effects of this policy persist. The channelling of state development projects to West Turkey resulted in the underdevelopment of the east, which was used as a cheap reservoir of labour. The 1950s were years of major political upheaval for the Kurdish southeast; feudal relations suffered as numerous rural uprisings took place against the state, increasing urbanisation.
Roots and evolution of the PKK
In the 1960s, educated and unionised Kurdish counter-elites gained control of the Kurdish national movement from its more traditional and conservative support base. Years of cultural patronisation and economic neglect stemming from Ankara’s Kemalist socioeconomic policies radicalised Kurdish youth. The combination of socioeconomic factors and renascent Kurdish cultural idioms produced a new Kurdish movement. Soon the leadership began to use a Marxist discourse, mainly within trade union movements – the only legal avenues for Kurdish political thought and action. In 1978 Ocalan and a number of radical Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals established the PKK with the aim of seceding from Turkey and joining with other Kurdish regions to form a Kurdish state – a call which grew stronger among Turkish Kurds after military rule in 1980. In 1984 the PKK’s armed wing, The People’s Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARKG) began an armed insurgency against the state. Although the armed campaigns enjoyed rural support, there were also Kurds who were opposed this strategy. This section of the Kurdish community was mostly tribal, conservative and religious. Ankara, aware of these fissures, sought to divide support for the PKK through increased urbanisation programmes, and the introduction of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as The Village Guard, ostensibly to protect Kurdish villages from PKK insurgents. Rogue elements in the Turkish security apparatus also provided support to the Turkish Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese Hizbullah), a militant Islamist group which fought the PKK, adding another dimension to Kurdish infighting.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Turkish state was unable to destroy Kurdish identity and political expression, and the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups were unable to secede from Turkey through armed force. In 1993, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ocalan began discussing autonomy for the Kurdish regions, promoting self-rule within existing states, and abandoning the notion of secession to create a Kurdish state. This ‘Democratic Confederalism’ project, as he called it, would provide for the development of autonomous sociocultural systems with defined independent economic domains aiming to move away from the central state and parochial nationalism, diversifying governance from the ‘bottom up’, and championing localised governance whilst celebrating ethnic and linguistic difference. The PKK reframed armed resistance as ‘self defence’, and the ARKG changed its name to People’s Defence Forces (HPG). Inserted into the Democratic Confederalism discourse, ‘self-defence’ was a way to address the contradictions between the continued existence of an armed wing, and the official policy of peace.
Kurdish participatory politics
Between 1993 and 2008, Kurds attempted to create political parties which could contest Turkish parliamentary elections. Seven were launched in this period, and all were banned by Turkey’s constitutional court. They also suffered state repression in the form of imprisonment and assassinations. Although some parties had ties to the PKK, many were banned due to their policies of autonomy – consistent with the Democratic Confederalism model – which they attempted to institutionalise in municipalities that their members controlled. Since 2005 the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which promotes Democratic Confederalism through assemblies and grassroots participatory politics, has expanded its operations. With a similar objective, the Democratic Society Congress, a brainchild of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) – one of the seven banned parties, was formed in 2007, aiming to further autonomy in Kurdish areas.
By 2007 Kurdish political leaders regarded the hegemonic Kurdish nationalist discourse as the cause for poor performance at the polls, and for consistent legislative attacks from the state. In order to address this, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) aligned with twenty socialist parties to form the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK); it won thirty-six seats in the 2011 general elections. In 2013 HDK was given a historic opportunity to push its pluralist agenda to an even broader audience after the Gezi Park protest movement erupted in central Istanbul, driven by objections to gentrification in Istanbul and deteriorating press freedoms. The Gezi Park movement offered the HDK a mouthpiece within Turkish urban centres. In October 2013 the HDK established the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most inclusive Kurdish-led political party thus far, which appealed to anti-austerity, socialist and progressive Turks who had found a platform at Gezi.
As Kurdish political parties grew throughout the 1990s, Islamist Turkish parties emerged. The roots of these parties lie deep within the Turkish social fabric, and date back to the founding of Turkish nationalism, when Turkish identity was founded as a derivative of Islam. The military junta played a role in the mid-1980s in laying the ground for the entrance of Islamist political discourse into the fiercely secular Turkish political scene. As part of its attempt to combat the rise of left-wing politics, it introduced ‘Islamisation from above’ policies which included compulsory religious education, and the reopening of religious schools and institutions. More profoundly, it fused Islamic symbols with nationalism in the hope of combating the revolutionary Islamic thought emanating from post-revolutionary Iran. It also introduced deregulation reforms which strengthened the emergence of an Anatolian bourgeoisie which had strong roots in Islamic culture. This, together with the elitism of Kemalist parties, resulted in the emergence of the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor to the AKP.
In1997 eighteen ‘28 February Recommendations’ by military and Kemalist leaders were issued, designed to stem the growth of Islamism Turkish politics. The military gave the Welfare party-led coalition government an ultimatum over issues regarding secularism and political Islam. A year later the Welfare Party was outlawed. Despite the retaking of the political realm by Turkey’s military elite, the growth and popularity of Islamic politics had been established, and it had captured the imagination of groups of people – particularly conservative or religious Turks and Kurds – who had been marginalised by elitist, secular fundamentalist and nationalist politics. The AKP emerged in 2001 within this context, and secured substantial Kurdish support by utilising the influence of religious Kurdish groups, particularly the Naqshbandi Sufi order. From the 2002 to the 2007 parliamentary election the AKP doubled its support in the southeast due to the support of conservative and religious Kurds.
The 2012 Peace Process
AKP victories at the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections symbolised the return and victory of Islamist politics within Turkey. These electoral wins were secured partly through consistent support from the southeast, where the Kurdish electorate saw the AKP as the only party willing and able to resolve the Kurdish question and to secure a lasting peace with the PKK. To address the Kurdish issue decisively, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened a dialogue with Ocalan and the PKK high command in late 2012. He wanted to finally resolve the problem of Kurdish marginalisation, while securing a diplomatic coup for his party. The PKK claims, cynically and in retrospect, that he also wanted to create a peaceful environment in the run up to the 2014 elections, and to build support for a presidential system in Turkey among Kurds.
The emergence of the HDP as the voice of participatory and radical Kurdish politics, however, challenged the AKP’s position as the sole political force for peace. The HDP could not be ignored in any peace process, and was chosen as a courier between Imrali Island and Ankara, and, at points, to represent Ocalan in negotiations with government. A February 2015 meeting between HDP leaders and the deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, at the Domalbache Palace resulted in a ten-point roadmap for a final resolution. Erdogan, however, rejected the Domalbache agreement, blaming continuing violence between state security forces and the PKK, and criticising the HDP for not condemning the Kurdish group.
The PKK’s main complaint about the peace process was that it only guaranteed the rehabilitation of PKK fighters, and gave few guarantees regarding demands for autonomy. This strengthened an environment of distrust, intensified when Ankara began building military bases as PKK fighters were withdrawing. As a result of this PKK scepticism, its military units began to return from the Qandil Mountains in 2014, enforcing checkpoints and imposing taxes, resulting in pitched battles between PKK militants and the army, and skirmishes between PKK youth and Kurdish Islamists. By late 2014 the PKK had accused Ankara of negotiating in bad faith, and of marginalising the HDP. This saw an increase in militancy within the PKK and other groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), with them undertaking bombing campaigns and armed attacks. The situation exploded early 2015 with Erdogan’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State group’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, which was controlled by PKK-affiliated Peoples Protection Units. This perceived complicity in the siege saw two dramatic developments for the tattered Kurdish peace process: the PKK called on youth in the southeast to rise up against the state, and the significant Kurdish vote the AKP had enjoyed gravitated to the HDP and another Kurdish party, Huda Par, in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
Future for Turkey’s Kurdish question
In the subsequent October 2015 elections, the HDP lost a large number of votes to the AKP and lost twenty-one of its eighty parliamentary seats. With armed battles and deep suspicion now characterising the relationship between the PKK and the state, it is unlikely that talks between them will resume anytime soon. In this context, the AKP hopes to solve the Kurdish issue unilaterally, without negotiating with Kurdish representatives.
With the HDP’s loss in the October election, many frustrated Kurds that had been drawn to the party’s participatory narrative became more amenable to PKK militancy. However, the PKK does not enjoy complete support in Kurdish areas, and has made a number of strategic errors in 2015. Its call on urban youth to revolt, for example, failed to attract broad support among Kurds. The instability on the Syrian border, and the emergence of the PKK-linked PYD as a potential power broker in any Syrian solution has complicated the Kurdish question for Ankara. Failure to engage meaningfully with the political forces ranged against it has emboldened those in the PKK who advocate a violent response.