From armed peace to democratic confederalism by way of elections?

Abdullah Öcalan’s Newroz statement is a message of peace. He calls for a cease-fire and total commitment to peaceful co-existence in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey). This is not the first message of its kind: since Öcalan’s arrest in 1999, he and the PKK have announced six previous unilateral ceasefires.

On its way to Rojava, our delegation is stranded in Qandil, the hinterland of the guerrilla forces. Öcalan’s cease-fire call is widely supported here. During our stay in the mountains of Northern Iraq, we have the opportunity to speak to Cemil Bayik, one of the founding members of the PKK and general secretary of the KCK, The congress of the people of Kurdistan. We ask him what Öcalan’s message means for the Kurdish cause, which starts us off on a conversation which will last several hours.

“The PKK has experienced time and again that whenever we announce a cease-fire, paramilitary units start their provocations. In the villages surrounding Amed (Dyarbakir), schools are set on fire, people are arbitrarily murdered. The aim is self-explanatory: the Turkish regime wants to incite the Kurdish population into the kind of frenzy that leads to terrorist acts. Since the early 2000’s, however, the PKK has opted to make an all-out effort for political and democratic struggle in Turkey. The violence of the 1980’s and 1990’s has claimed a steep human death toll on both sides. On the one hand, armed resistance has allowed us to gain support among the Kurdish population, but on the other hand it has alienated the Turkish population. In the long term, that does not benefit our struggle.”

Öcalan’s renewed call for peace increases the pressure on Erdogan. In recent years, Erdogan has drastically reduced the political power of the Turkish army which after the 1980 coup had constructed a state within the state. Erdogan also implemented economic reforms which have increased the standard of living on the Anatolian plateau – the home of many Kurds. However, to Erdogan the Kurdish question is still a non-issue. To him there are no Kurds, only ‘mountain Turks who speak a different dialect’. End of story. Today, the population considers the cease-fire as an opportunity which needs to be taken advantage of, but the government does not accept the invitation to peace talks.”

Cemil Bayik goes on to tell how the PKK, together with other Turkish leftist movements, has founded the HDP. In the coming elections, the party hopes to rise above the 10% threshold. The HDP is a well-known defender of the rights of minorities, including the Kurds, but also as a defender of women’s rights and LGBT rights. “We resolutely choose the democratic route, in opposition to Erdogan’s quest for absolutist power and neo-Ottoman grandeur. Many secular nationalists, including many Kemalists – followers of Kemal Ataturk – consider the threat of the appropriation of power by the clique surrounding Erdogan sufficiently dangerous to support the HDP as a necessary counterweight to end this power grab. In actual fact, this signifies that they doubt their own capacity to challenge Erdogan… Meanwhile, Erdogan continuous to create more enemies, even within the ranks his own party. The HDP does not only position itself as a force able to block Erdogan’s machinations, but also as a proponent of the democratic peace process. This is why the Kurdish cause and the recent call of Öcalan have generated such widespread approval, including – and this is new – among the Turkish population.”

We ask why, if Öcalan and the PKK choose the path of peace and democratic confederalism, there is still a guerrilla force? Cemal Bayik explains that the principle of self-defence of the people remains applicable. As long as states claim the monopoly on violence, every nation or community will always run the risk of oppression. This principle, however, does not mean armed struggle is inevitable. In fact the opposite is true.

Turkisch chauvinism and state violence was hiking

But why did you take that path? Cemal Bayik: “When the PKK was founded in 1978, there was already severe and widespread ongoing repression, targeting not only the Kurdish student movement but all progressive and leftist forces and parties in Turkey. Student demonstrations, actions demanding recognition of the Kurdish language and culture and many other events invariably ended with lethal oppression. The state’s violence existed long before we started defending ourselves against it. In1970’s, the extreme rightwing party MHP – whose youth organisation was the infamous Grey Wolves – participated in a coalition government and almost 2,200 leftist militants were physically eliminated. This mean that they were killed. We faced extreme violence and the radical left in Turkey were waging a politics of direct confrontation with the neo-fascist terror gangs. The 1970’s were also extremely violent for the ordinary people: there were pogroms in Eastern Turkey and entire Alevi and Kurdish villages were massacred. The military coup of 1980 still added to that with 650,000 arrests, 1.6 million indictments, routine and daily torture of 150,000 prisoners, 517 death sentences, the dismissal of 30,000 public functionaries and the criminalisation of 667 associations and parties. For over 15 years, Turkey suffered under a climate of absolute repression and the left was suppressed by all means available to the powerful state apparatus.”

And yet the struggle opposing the Turkish right wing – which is chauvinist in a racist sense – and the democratic Turkish movements was never about the recognition of minorities or about cultural autonomy. This fight was primarily over the distribution of power between the different factions of the political and economic elites. It was a struggle between the urban liberal elite on the one hand and conservative religious and feudal elites on the other. When the official and quite legalist Turkish communist party (which for constitutional reasons was not allowed to call itself that) brought the Kurdish question up for the first time in 1967, the party was immediately banned.

The centre left forces too were very chauvinist and even the radical left in Turkey was not interested in the Kurdish cause. The PKK emerged in 1978 when various militants concluded that the Turkish nationalism within the left had to be fought and the Kurdish right to self-determination had to be put on the agenda. Initially the preferred method was non-violent resistance, but this proved an inefficient tactic against the brutal repression and extreme violence of the Turkish state. The guerrilla forces were not founded until 1984. They were well-organised and disciplined and proved able to offer forceful opposition to the Turkish army. Partly thanks to its armed struggle, the PKK enjoyed widespread support among the Kurdish population. “Yet this engagement has never meant that a peaceful solution was excluded. Since 1999, the PKK has declared seven cease-fires, mostly unilaterally, in order to give peace talks a better chance. Each time, the Turkish state has either considered this as a sign of weakness and reacted by starting a new offensive, or just ignored it and continued to deny that there was such a things as a ‘Kurdish question’.”

Yet it has become ever clearer that neither the PKK nor the Turkish state could win this war. In the most conservative estimates, 45,000 dead have been counted since the start of the armed conflict, as well as 17,000 missing persons and over 2 million internally displaced persons and emigrants who fled the incessant violence in the mountains.

So has armed resistance produced any benefits at all? Cemil explains that after the arrest of Öcalan, the PKK has drawn up the balance sheet of the more than 30 years of armed struggle. It is clear that the struggle has succeeded in putting the Kurdish question on the national and international agenda. However, the usefulness of armed struggle has now ended. Öcalan doesn’t shy away from self-criticism here: within the ranks of the PKK too, human rights offences have occurred and at a certain moment, a form of political banditry threatened to gain the upper hand within the organisation. The time for a different approach has clearly arrived.

During this year’s Newroz celebration, Öcalan has launched 10 proposals which could initiate real and sustainable peace in Turkey. These 10 articles do not only concern the Kurdish question, but call for a reinforcement and deepening of the democratic process which should not only guarantee the rights of the Kurds, but those of all minorities in Turkey. Women’s emancipation and ecological issues, in addition to the struggle against income inequality and exploitation, are top priorities for Öcalan. He has called for the establishment of a parliamentary commission to monitor the peace process. When this commission will be up and working, he promises to convene a PKK congress to declare an end to the armed struggle in Turkey.

Öcalan has launched a similar proposal in 2013, to which Turkey responded with renewed violence in Turkish Kurdistan. More unexpectedly, however, Bülent Arinç, vice prime minister and spokesman of the Turkish government, and together with Erdogan founding member of the AKP, criticised the latter for his negative response to the meetings held between the AKP and the HDP to discuss launching the peace process. Arinç said he found Erdogan’s remarks misplaced. “This is the personal opinion of Erdogan. However, it is the government which rules the country.” As Turkey’s president, Erdogan is technically not part of the government. The incident illustrates the increasing divergence of opinions among Ankara’s political elites on the Kurdish question and their increasing inability to ignore the calls for a democratic and peaceful reconciliation process.

Democratic confederalism

But is all this reconcilable with the new concepts of democratic confederalism and direct bottom-up democracy which are currently taking concrete shape in Rojava? Is it wise to place so much expectation on a peace process which depends on the internal power games within the Turkish political elites?

Cemil Bayik understands these concerns. He assures us that the Kurds in Turkey are not sitting around idly waiting for the outcome of the peace process. The HDP and its local sister party in Turkish Kurdistan, the BDP – which often gains absolute majorities in local elections – have been making efforts to turn Öcalan’s calls into concrete realities for years. As in Rojava, they also work together with the local population to institute a governing system of direct democracy. They found schools, libraries, health clinics and other public institutions that are brought under the direct control of the population, by way of local councils. In this way, a parallel power structure is created with democratic confederated people’s councils coexisting with the official local authorities of the Turkish state. The democratisation which the peace process is expected to generate, is already being established as facts on the ground. “Communities and people are taking their future in their own hands and this power will change profoundly our society.”

(For a historical overview, see ‘Living Freedom. the evolution of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and the Efforts to Resolve it’, by Adem Uzun)

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