Yahya Madra
Dec 13 2017

It all started with the Kurds…

It all started in early October 2014, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked Kurds to give up the northern Syrian town of Kobane, then under the siege by Islamic State forces.

“Kobane is about the fall,” he said. And he added, “I don’t understand all this interest, there is no strategic importance to this little town.” Yet, both him and the National Security Council of the Republic of Turkey knew very well not only the strategic importance of this small town for connecting the three cantons of Rojava – the Kurdish parts of Syria - but also its symbolic meaning for Kurds.

On Oct. 30, 2014, in what turned out to be the longest ever meeting of the National Security Council, the Turkish state decided that the increasingly self-confident political will for Kurdish self-governance was an existential threat for its survival as a unified entity. An autonomous Kurdish region in Syria might strengthen separatists demands in Turkey were the Kurdistan Workers Party has fought for more than 30 years.

Arguably, Oct. 30, 2014 is a much more important historical date than the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. It did not only achieve its aim to radically reverse the trajectory of democratisation in Turkey by ending the peace process, but also prepared the state of siege conditions that led to the abortive coup. Most notably, many of the high-ranking officers who conducted operations in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces during the summer and autumn of 2015 turned out to be implicated in the failed putsch.

What was the nature of the threat? On the surface, the threat was supposed to be Kurdish separatism. Yet, it is a well-established fact that the mainstream of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, given jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s political project of council democracy, is very critical of the nation-state as a modernist form and does not want to reproduce it through a separatist programme.

In contrast, the Kurds of Bashur (Northern Iraq) have always been explicit about their desire to establish an independent state yet this did not deter Erdoğan’s government from bypassing Baghdad to establish economic and diplomatic ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government. That ironically may have encouraged KRG President Masoud Barzani in his push to hold an independence referendum.  

So, if the threat was not separatism, what was it? In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the radical democratic language and politics of the Kurdish body politic was quickly becoming contagious and connecting with the rest of the population. Leveraged by the political charisma of its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) was quickly becoming, at least for some sections of the electorate, a palpable alternative to both Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

First, the HDP’s sister party, DBP won many of the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the March 30, 2014 local elections. This was in stark contrast to the CHP’s failure to make any inroads into AKP-held districts. Then, Demirtaş, after a very successful campaign, won 9,76% of the national vote in the August 10, 2014 presidential election.

By the end of the summer of 2014, as the DBP-led local governments were gearing up to enact radically democratic, gender-egalitarian, ecologically sound policies and modes of governance, Islamic State attacked the Kurdish town of Kobane just south of the Turkish border.

After that point, the DBP’s project of constructing the institutions of local self-governance as an alternative to the corporate municipalities of AKP and CHP, was overshadowed by the war of survival taking place in Rojava.

It is true that the full-scale attack on the DBP-led local governments happened only after the failed coup attempt, during the fall of 2016. But even before that they were under extensive pressure: their infrastructural projects were denied approval; their attempts to provide humanitarian support and shelter to refugees coming from Rojava were undermined; their credit lines from international funding agencies were blocked.

When the first round of administrators was appointed by the state to run the municipalities, it was widely interpreted as an exceptional act to contain and suppress the Kurdish political will. Yet, in the last couple of months, first when Erdoğan forced the mayors of the AKP-governed cities such as Ankara, Istanbul and Bursa and now as CHP-controlled municipalities are targeted, what initially seemed to be an act of usurpation of power towards DBP-led municipalities has begun to take on a different meaning.

Recent leaks regarding the possibility of eliminating local elections in 2019 and running local government by appointed administrators may sound like far-fetched conspiracy theories for some. Yet, when considered in the context of all that has transpired in the last three years, these acts suddenly begin to cohere as components of a broader corporate sovereign drive towards centralisation and de-democratisation. The political rationality of this push as well as the contradictions that it will unleash will need to be unpacked in a separate essay.