Maaz
Sep 16 2019

Turkey’s main opposition party reshaping Kurdish rights struggle - activist

The growing alliance between Turkey’s main Kurdish political party and the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has game-changing potential for Kurdish rights, said a Kurdish activist who has met the party’s leaders. 

The CHP could take over the role abandoned by Turkey’s ruling party and become a major partner in the Kurds’ struggle, according to İlyas Buzgan, the leader of Kurdish activist organisation the Defending Freedom Platform.

Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, representing around 20 percent of the population, have for decades been denied basic rights including mother tongue education by governments that viewed expressions of Kurdish identity as a threat.

The 2015 rise of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the first pro-Kurdish party to pass Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold and gain seats in parliament, was followed by a new wave of pressure on Kurdish politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In response, the HDP threw its weight behind CHP candidates in western Turkish cities for this year’s local elections, helping the opposition to victory in key municipalities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. Now the CHP appears to be returning the favor. 

Buzgan told Ahval that the union between the HDP and CHP had shown promise despite the difficulties faced by the Kurdish minority. 

Kurds had taken issue with the fact that İSMEK, an educational institute tied to the Istanbul municipality, offers courses in Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese, yet no Kurdish courses, despite millions of Kurds living in Istanbul.

Thanks to the CHP’s recently elected Istanbul mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, İSMEK is now preparing to open Kurdish courses to the public. İmamoğlu went so far as to promise the HDP that if they taught him Kurdish, he would make an effort to speak the language. 

In a show of solidarity with Kurdish issues, İmamoğlu visited Turkey’s mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir last month and met with the HDP’s dismissed mayors. 

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, has said that his party aims to ensure the presence of Kurdish in literature, cinema, and the arts. “Kurdish literature exists,” he said. “Kurdish is an ancient language, not one that just showed up yesterday. It’s a culture with historical depth.” 

The Culture Exchange, another institution run by the Istanbul municipality, is responsible for many cultural, touristic and historic activities within the city, but none representing Kurdish culture. “This is seen as a continuation of a chronic Kurdish issue,” Buzgan said. 

It is not only in the cultural arena that the CHP has been working to offer services to its Kurdish constituents. The CHP municipality has also said it would provide Kurdish speaking healthcare staff for older Kurds, many of whom cannot speak Turkish.

With millions of Kurdish people living in Turkey, it is wrong to see the minority as a monolithic whole. While the HDP is the strongest representative of the country’s Kurdish political movement, religious and conservative Kurds often vote for the Islamist ruling AKP.

But the AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has a history of vehemently opposing initiatives for Kurdish rights, has pushed many conservative Kurds towards the CHP. Buzgan said conservative Kurds were disappointed by the ruling party’s recent shift, after years of promising to strengthen Kurdish rights.

The AKP came to power in 2002, after a decade of coalition governments and a long conflict between state forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that led to the declaration of a long-running state of emergency in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

When the ruling party eased these restrictions and made moves to start a peace process with the PKK after decades of violence, many Kurds saw it as a sincere partner in resolving the country’s Kurdish issue.

The AKP that introduced Kurdish language and literature departments at universities and the first Kurdish language media outlets in the country, including a state-run channel, TRT Kurdi, after decades of proscriptions on broadcasts and publications in Kurdish.

But after the breakdown of the peace process in 2015 and the AKP’s alliance with the MHP, the restrictions are back in full force, with Kurdish politicians regularly arrested or dismissed by a government that has actively sought to erase Kurdish culture.

Still, Buzgan acknowledged that many Kurds maintain a residual distrust toward the CHP, due to the party’s history of Turkish nationalism and opposition to expressions of Kurdish identity. 

“It will take a lot from the CHP for them to overcome the (Kurds’) mistrust in them brought on by that historical trauma. The CHP is just at the beginning of that path,” he said.

“But through practical steps they’ll get over these fears. Moreover, as the CHP becomes more democratic and places more emphasis on equality, as it grasps the value of freedom and sets it forth in its local municipalities, I believe even their opponents will take note and the party will reap the benefits in future elections,” he said.

In terms of what to expect from the CHP, Buzgan recalled a report called “22 Questions, 22 Answers,” published in 2015 during the AKP’s peace process to resolve the long-running Kurdish–Turkish conflict

The report highlighted the inclusion of Kurdish in the education system as a key to resolving Turkey’s Kurdish issue. 

Buzgan said the report was brought up during a meeting he held with Kılıçdaroğlu, and that the CHP intends to put it into action. 

This would represent a great step towards democratisation for the CHP, which has in the past firmly adhered to the Turkish nationalist ideology espoused by Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Buzgan said.