What about Turkey’s Kurds?
The capture of Raqqa in northern Syria by Kurdish-led forces and the seizure of Kirkuk by Iraqi government troops placed Kurds in the international spotlight to a greater degree than usual. Yet in Turkey and Iran, as usual, the situation of the Kurdish minorities is less reported.
In Turkey, the instrument of emergency rule that came into play in July 2016 provided the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an effective means of silencing opposition. Newspapers, universities and civil society organisations were shut down with thousands sacked and imprisoned.
Arguably the most damaging of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crusades in terms of the country’s declining democratic health is the one he has waged against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an amalgam of centre-left interests with a focus on Kurdish issues. Its electoral successes across national and local platforms reconfigured the political landscape while each of the three established parties lost ground.
The HDP was once seen by Erdogan as a means of securing extended powers for his presidency but its very public refusal in 2015 to lend parliamentary support to his ambitions to change the country’s constitution removed it from favour with the modern sultan.
Under the emergency rule the HDP’s leaders were imprisoned and 11 of its elected representatives were put behind bars accused of supporting terrorism. Five have been stripped of their parliamentary seats. In the eastern provinces, where it draws most of its support, HDP or affiliated elected mayors and municipalities were removed, replaced by centrally appointed “trustees.”
The party has been targeted at the grass-roots level, with members subject to arbitrary arrest and detention and not just in the east. In Eskisehir, for example, a lively university city in western Turkey, both of the local party’s co-chairmen were imprisoned and dozens of members charged with being part of a terrorist organisation.
In degrading the HDP by attrition and its wider support base by linking the party with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at every turn, Erdogan’s apparent aim is to remove it as an actor from the political arena. Doubtless in its place he would have what would amount to a Kurdish branch of his own party, realised and sustained by promises of devolution and large-scale regional investment.
While his brand of social and religious conservatism commands a natural appeal across the south-eastern region and links it organically with the wider AKP voter base in the heartlands of Anatolia, in the past decade Kurdish society has experienced a measurable heightening of awareness in its own identity.
Ironically, the AKP’s reforms in this regard, decriminalising the language and the launching of a state TV Kurdish channel, have been significant. Other factors are the developments in the neighbouring Kurdish regions. The success of the autonomous enclave in northern Iraq and the emergence of Rojava in northern Syria have provided models of Kurdish governance.
The HDP lent a voice to the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds for greater political latitude, articulating an egalitarian view that resonated with a society shedding prescribed labels and ready to extend the boundaries of its traditional identity. Yet a persistent weakness, exploited by the party’s political opponents, has been its inability, or unwillingness, to detach itself from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. At the choosing of Ankara, he has remained a key player in the politics of the region.
Granted his symbolism for the Kurdish struggle and his supposed move towards peaceful means, Ocalan’s interest in, even his grasp of, democratic politics is suspect and he remains the largest shadow over the HDP’s aspiration to become a political force in Turkey.
An example of his negative effect came in the costly failure of the self-rule experiment that his writings inspired in centres across Turkey’s south-east in 2015-16. Behind trenches and barricades to keep out the police, libertarian cantons were supposed to rise and take on the functions of the state. A movement that had no hope of success left hundreds of young activists dead and tens of thousands of residents homeless with massive damage to infrastructure.
It went some way to enabling the state to achieve its strategic goal of creating a buffer between Kurds on either side of the border — if international powers were not going to permit a security corridor in northern Syria, then the same effect could be achieved by sterilising urban centres on the Turkish side. In Nusaybin, a restive border town adjacent to Qamishli in Syria, many residents have not been allowed to return following the destruction there in 2016. An assessment by the United Nations identified more than 1,700 damaged buildings, almost 400 of which were destroyed.
The assessment attributed the “damage to the use of heavy weapons and, possibly, air-dropped munitions.” It noted that shelling in Nusaybin and Sur, the old city of Diyarbakır, was said to have caused a permanent change in the population, patterns of ownership and architectural character.
HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag (since replaced) have been in prison for a year. In the absence of a credible judiciary, their eventual release will likely be tied to the political climate. However, even if they have been temporarily silenced, their imprisonment speaks loudly to a repression of Kurdish identity and a fundamental democratic deficit in the Turkish Republic.