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Islamists, Kemalists, and Kurds: will the Kobani crisis force a realignment?


Over the last two days in Turkey, twenty-two people have died protesting the “Islamic State’s” assault on the predominantly Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani.  One died of a wound to the head from a tear gas canister, the others from bullet wounds.  Some shots were fired by police, others by members of far-right organizations.  In the southeastern city of Siirt, relatives of the mayor reportedly shot and killed two rioters who had pursued them to their home after attacking the mayor’s office with molotof cocktails.

In Diyarbakır and Hakkari, clashes with police began as supporters of Kurdish parties set off for the border to help defend Kobani from IS.  All across the country, Kobani’s defenders have risen in outrage over the government’s tacitly compliant posture toward IS, now attacking the city within sight of the Turkish military, using weaponry that many, both in Turkey and abroad, suspect they received from Turkey.

Angry demonstrators have set fire to buses, and broken windows at businesses and banks.  In the Esenyurt neighbourhood of Istanbul, the military is now patrolling the streets.  Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has denounced “vandalism” and the “hypocrisy” of those who make “appeals to conscience” now, but not when Assad’s forces bombed Homs and Aleppo.  He also underlined his resolve not to “sacrifice the peace process” to “vandalism.”

In truth, the conflict still raging in Turkey’s streets is more than just a threat to the “peace process” the government has pursued with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) since 2009.  An entire political alignment based on Kurdish cooperation with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is under threat.  So may be the assumption of some in the secular camp that the Islamist and Kurdish challenges to “republican” nationalism are two faces to one and the same enemy front.

Peace, with retrenchment

Turkey’s political landscape has changed precipitously since 2002.  Little of this change looks good for workers, or for the legal norms of a constitutional state.  Unions have been suppressed, already low wages and safety standards lowered still further, and writers imprisoned for comments made on twitter.

The “new Turkey” plays host to a record number of fatalities from work accidents, and sports the highest number of police per capita of any country in the world except Russia, and the world’s highest number of imprisoned journalists.  In income inequality it ranks third in the OECD, just ahead of the United States, whose influence on its neoliberal economic transformation since the 1980 coup is undeniable.

Yet this era of severe conservatism has also witnessed a cultural renaissance of sorts in one region most chronically afflicted both economically and politically: the predominantly Kurdish southeast.  Though it has been a long time since a ruling faction in Turkey outright denied the existence of the Kurds as a separate ethno-linguistic community—this having been the position of some in the military regime of the early 1980’s—the language and cultural identity of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority have never been so visible to the mainstream as of late under the AKP government, the first Turkish government to negotiate with the PKK.

Popular culture has registered the shift, with several high-profile Turkish movies featuring sympathetic Kurdish protagonists along with elements of their culture and language.  Even in the stridently pro-military war film Nefes (“Breath”) of 2009, a Kurdish-speaking conscript sips tea with his commander and teaches him Kurdish words in a lull just before the climactic scene of battle with the PKK: that a nod to multiculturalism is needed here to legitimize the army’s cause says a lot about changing notions of national unity in Turkey. TRT Şeş, a state TV channel with programs in Kurdish, started operation in 2009. Experts in Kurdish Literature are now sought for at Turkish universities.  Petitions to open the first Kurdish language public schools have been filed with the Education Ministry this fall.

This partial realignment no doubt reflects the ruling party’s realization of the political power of Kurdish voters whose conservative mores and disconnection from the traditional labour movement have rendered them susceptible to the party’s appeal.  To some extent the strategy has succeeded, as the ruling party has been the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP)’s only serious rival in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish regions in the last two parliamentary elections. In some districts in eastern Turkey, the vote was more or less split down the middle, with the mainstream opposition party CHP getting only 1% of the vote.

A similar picture obtains when one looks at the electoral breakdown of poor urban neighbourhoods in western cities where rural people, many or most of them Kurdish, have settled in recent years in search of irregular employment. At a time when union density was already low—fewer than 10% of Turkish citizens being union members in 2002—these seasonal workers felt more drawn to the AKP combination of cultural conservatism and informal patronage than to traditional left-wing politics. As Daniel Johnson has explained in an (as yet unpublished) article, many workers in the occasional economy see unions as the representatives of entitled groups, rather than spokespeople for the working class as a whole.

Understanding this electoral divide requires attention to a complex history that has taken place at the ballot box but also in the street, in the classroom and in the mountains always enlisted as metonymy for Turkey’s thirty-year low-intensity war with the PKK. It includes odd twists of fate and many rumoured conspiracies, as well as an ideological landscape unfamiliar to most foreigners.

The legalization of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), now known on the national level as the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), has coincided with a pervasive tendency on both the radical left and the populist right to present the traditional centre-left CHP as the arrogant bastion of the “secular elite” and enemy of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. While there are plenty of CHP supporters who confirm this stereotype—giving the ruling party such labels as “AKPKK” and even “Arab-Kurd Party”—the effect of the purportedly anti-elitist discourse has been to solidify political Islam as the primary alternative to statist “republican” nationalism.  This polarization has in turn rendered the exploitative political economy of AKP Turkey less visible by overlaying class struggle with identity politics.

Where is the mainstream opposition?

A prevalent pro-government discourse seeks to fix the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in place in 1937, the year in which the one-party republic, as yet only fourteen years old, put down a rebellion in the eastern city of Dersim with an iron hand.  Historians estimate that tens of thousands of civilians were killed.  Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’s adopted daughter and the world’s first female fighter pilot, flew a bombing mission.  Atatürk himself was seriously ill at the time and died a few months after the operation ceased, and it is still a matter of debate what role he played, if any, in ordering the state’s repressive response.  CHP supporters point out that those documented as directing the reprisals—such as Celal Bayar—soon went over to the Demokrat Parti, the new opposition party that would elect Adnan Menderes in 1950.

The people of Dersim (now Tunceli) don’t seem to have made the connection that Erdoğan wanted them to make, or at least not immediately. Tunceli is the family home of the current CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and in the 2007 and 2011 parliamentary elections was the one CHP stronghold in the east. In the local elections of March 2014 and the subsequent presidential election, however, it went over to the BDP column, with one township choosing a municipal government from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP).

Though conservatives courting the Kurdish vote like to portray the CHP as an unchanging bastion of republican nationalism, hostile to minorities to the point of denying their existence, the main opposition party has not always been so unpopular among Kurds.  After the coup-era ban on its leaders’ political activity was lifted in 1985, the old CHP regrouped as the Social Democratic Popular Party (SHP), and reached vote counts as high as 35% from Kurdish regions.  This period under the stewardship of Erdal İnönü, son of the Independence War hero and Prime Minister İsmet İnönü, was a flickering moment of post-coup CHP history in which the party stood for a robust social democratic alternative to the country’s neoliberal restructuring.

In 1989 the party presented a comprehensive report on the political, economic and human rights climate of the Kurdish southeast, which recent participants in the “peace process” have praised as a precursor to their own efforts.  Nevertheless, in the same year a split opened up in the SHP when seven parliamentarians attended a conference in Paris on “Kurdish National Identity and Human Rights,” without permission from party headquarters.  Excluded from the party and soon joined by others who resigned out of solidarity, these parliamentarians and local chairmen founded the People’s Labor Party (HEP), first in a line of pro-Kurdish parties periodically closed by the courts, and culminating in today’s BDP/HDP.

When İnönü still took the risk of running HEP candidates on the SHP ticket in the parliamentary elections of 1991, since HEP could not yet participate directly, he succeeded at running up vote tallies above 50% in some south-eastern districts, but at the cost of a dramatic loss of support in the nationalist north and west, fuelled by aspersions that a vote for the SHP would strengthen separatism and the PKK.

With İnönü’s rival Deniz Baykal at the helm of a re-constituted CHP from the mid 1990’s, the party turned to the right, tightened its line on nationalism and lost what support it had from voters sympathetic to Kurdish interests. Without support from the disadvantaged in the interior, the party of Atatürk has effectively become no more than a regional party, hugging the Aegean and part of the Mediterranean coasts. The party’s image as a preserve for coastal, middle-class “white Turks” still dogs Turkey’s “republicans” under the leadership of the Tunceli alevi Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

The Kurdish Past

While conflicts from the early republic continue to haunt Turkish political life, the recent past is contested terrain as well. Were Kurds arrested, tortured or disappeared in the 1980 coup for being Kurds, or simply for being leftists?  Were the ultranationalist “grey wolves” who escaped from prison under the coup regime let out on condition that they fight rebellious Kurds in the southeast?  Does the assassination of prominent journalist Uğur Mumcu in 1993 confirm that the story he was working on, concerning clandestine connections between the PKK and Turkey’s intelligence services, was true?  Were such “deep state” elements at work on a “strategy of tension,” as they had been in the 1970’s, this time by stoking an on-going civil war in the southeast?

Or was, alternately, the Islamist militant organization Hızbullah (not to be confused with the Shiite one in Lebanon) a state plant aimed at disrupting regional Kurdish support for the PKK by supplying an alternative more in line with conservative values? Last year, there were clashes on the campus of the University of Diyarbakır between student sympathizers of the PKK and Hızbullah.  Current reports indicate that at least four of the fatal shootings this week, in Diyarbakır, Batman, and Mardin, were the work of Hızbullah and the related Free Cause Party (HÜDA PAR); four more of the victims appear to have been HÜDA PAR members killed by PKK sympathizers.

The biggest question mark of all concerns the identity and aims of the PKK.  Oscillating between ethnic separatism and a universalist leftist outlook, the true goals of the organization and its civilian backers remains a mystery to many in Turkey, mistrustful of changing public statements whose tactical dimension is clear.  The PKK’s ties to drug trafficking and foreign governments have long been topics of dispute and insinuation.  Its claim, now largely forgotten, to be part of the global communist revolution was in any case dismissed by many in Turkey who call themselves communists.

A sympathizer’s history of the PKK goes something like this.  Out of the Marxist youth scene of the turbulent 1970’s there emerged an organization devoted to the liberation of Kurdish peasants and workers from feudal landowners, incipient capitalism and the nationalist Turkish state.  In response to the repressive measures of the 1980 coup, a guerrilla war against all forms of state authority began in earnest in the mid-1980’s.  Drawing inspiration from Mao’s “people’s war,” the movement cultivated a vigorous personality cult around its leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

After his capture and imprisonment in 1998, Öcalan began to rethink the strategy of terror that had put his group violently at odds with many Kurds and necessitated the resort to extortion and drug trafficking as sources of funding.  Vanguardist hostility to religion also needed to be cast aside.

In prison, Öcalan converted to the “democratic confederalism” of the libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin.  Regional autonomy, decentralized communal economics and demands for cultural rights within Turkey replaced separatist nationalism as the group’s official agenda.  The 2000’s saw the establishment of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) as an overarching organizing body for Kurdish life—though emphatically not, its advocates insist, a state. Many supporters, including journalists who have reported on or publicized the project, have since been imprisoned under a law outlawing “membership in an illegal organization.” Incidentally, this is the same law that now enables the AKP government to try and imprison Gezi Park demonstrators, including members of a football fan club, on charges of plotting to overthrow the state.

The PKK’s critics question the sincerity of Öcalan’s conversion, as a shrewd tactical response to losing his freedom of movement.  They are quick to point out that the PKK’s use of violence has not ceased with the adoption of “democratic confederalism,” or even with the beginning of negotiations with the government in 2009.  Indeed, there have been small-scale violent attacks on state officials and even schools since the announcement of a cease-fire last spring.

Nor has the common lot of Kurdish and Gezi activists as victims of AKP illiberalism yet brought the two groups together on the field of political battle.  A photograph of a young man and woman, arms linked and fleeing from police in Taksim Square last summer, one holding a BDP banner and the other a Turkish flag adorned with Atatürk’s picture, got a lot of attention from Gezi observers, but their ad-hoc alliance has not had many imitators, as a glance at the recent presidenti election will show.

Turkey’s New Left?

In her LeftEast article of September 6, Ezgi Yıldız recalls conversations with voters who felt drawn to the HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş during the presidential election campaign, but could not bring themselves to vote for him on account of his previous advocacy for the Kurdish cause and rumoured PKK membership. She writes that some of these reluctant HDP sympathizers ended up voting for the CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu—and others voted for Erdoğan.

While the mindset of Erdoğan voters tempted to vote for the HDP could be the focus of a study in its own right, we should note how many there are on the more traditional Left who felt that temptation but resisted it. BDP/HDP politicians maintain an open and active partnership with PKK militants, including their jailed mastermind Öcalan, whose face can be seen on banners at party rallies.  This cooperation polarizes the Left as well as the Right in Turkey.

On the Right, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has opposed the negotiations at every step, and often with rhetoric more vehement than that of the rest of the opposition.  Party chairman Devlet Bahçeli, whose culturally conservative following in many ways resembles Erdoğan’s, has not shied away from accusing the latter of treason.

On the Left, many associate socialist themes with the defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of destabilization by global capitalist powers. In spite of the PKK’s own communist identity, there is no lack of self-proclaimed socialists and Marxists in Turkey who see the PKK’s resurgence after its substantial weakening in the late 1990’s as the result of a Western conspiracy. They habitually tie the AKP’s Kurdish and foreign politics to the enigmatic “Greater Middle East Initiative” (Büyük Orta Doğu Projesi or BOP) announced by George W. Bush in 2004, and which Erdoğan seems to have praised in several speeches.  In their eyes, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish government in Northern Iraq on the heels of the US invasion in 2003 confirms the suspected plot—as do international plans to arm Kurdish fighters in the current war with the “Islamic State.”

The mistrust between this ulusalcı (left-nationalist) camp and the “post-nationalists” of the HDP stripe is mutual. Several HDP supporters and activists have expressed ambivalence toward the Gezi Park movement, whose own anti-capitalist tendencies were not sufficient to earn a whole-hearted embrace from a pro-Kurdish party engaged in negotiations with Turkey’s AKP government.

Some in the HDP seem to see the Taksim square activists as entitled western Turks unconcerned for the plight of the Kurds—even though it was a HDP politician, Sırrı Sürreye Önder, who started the demonstrations by standing in front of a bulldozer that was about to rip up part of the park! PKK commander Cemil Bayık stated recently that his comrades needed to distance themselves from “marginal types in Beyoğlu,” using the same language as Erdoğan in reference to the partisans of Gezi.  An unhappy Önder told CNNTürk’s Şirin Payzın that Bayık’s comment “wounded” him personally.  Gezi divides the HDP camp as much as “the Kurdish question” divides the republic.

During the election, Selahattin Demirtaş was asked whether he would endorse either of his rivals should the election go to a second round with himself eliminated.  When Demirtaş declined to state a preference, many ulusalcı voters inferred that he would in fact support Erdoğan, in order to set himself up as a “kingmaker” and thereby gain power at the negotiating table after the election.  Anecdotally, I can report that this fear alone shifted some votes from Demirtaş to Ihsanoğlu.

Much has been written in both Turkish and western media celebrating the unprecedented popularity of the HDP in the presidential election, even to the point of claiming that Selahattin Demirtaş was the “real winner” of the election.  The real winner was Tayyip Erdoğan; he did, after all, win. And it was not inevitable that he should win in the first round. The polarizing effect of “the Kurdish question” was almost certainly one of the reasons for this early victory.

This is not to deny that Demirtaş was the best, in fact the only, candidate for a socialist voter. He was the only one of the three candidates to advance an agenda in support of women, workers, the environment, social inclusivity, and even gay and lesbian rights. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, as Ezgi Yıldız aptly remarks, represented the AKP Turkey of 2010, before its attacks on labor and secularism became legible as assaults on internationally recognized liberal-democratic norms.  He was a conservative countering a revolution from the right. Demirtaş, on the other hand, evoked a pluralistic and egalitarian Turkey that has never yet existed, either in the republican past or the neo-Ottoman present.

Yet the euphoria over Demirtaş’s strong showing should not obscure the fact that 9.6% is still not that high a vote tally, even if it nearly doubles the BDP/HDP showing from the parliamentary elections in the spring.  Demirtaş was demonstrably the only leftist candidate in the running, but 9.6% is not the total number of leftist votes in Turkey.  It is not the case that 90% of the Turkish electorate voted for conservatism—even if this is literally the ideology of the candidates they chose—because that is not what they were all voting for.  This means that many voters could not find a candidate who represented them.

This is true by definition of those who did not vote. Over 20% of the electorate made this choice. It is easy to blame them for Erdoğan’s victory, but in a democracy candidates have the responsibility to attract voters. The refusal of many to choose between a conservative and a suspected ethnic separatist was principled, even if the principles at work do not convince most international leftists.

If a solid left front is to come into being, everyone will have to make concessions.  Left-nationalists will have to put aside their reservations about working with people who have previously supported armed rebellion against the Republic of Turkey; they may have to acknowledge that their republic’s treatment of minorities has frequently fallen short of the standard conducive to human emancipation.

This would be easier to do if they could see more daylight between the political party HDP and the armed militant organization PKK.  Some mainstream, left-leaning Turks would be more at ease making an alliance with Kurdish activists if they didn’t see so many likenesses of Öcalan at party rallies.  Demands for education in Kurdish might meet with more sympathy from that crowd if they weren’t accompanied by attempts to set Turkish-language elementary schools on fire, as happened two weeks ago.

Of course, it is not self-evident that the Kurdish movement would most like to work with others in the opposition.  After the election came the spectacle of a celebratory gathering attended by AKP and BDP/HDP politicians, without the other parties.  Newly elected President Erdoğan and the representatives of Kurdish politics relaxed and cracked jokes together.  Sırrı Sürreye Önder invited his host to visit his hometown of Adıyaman, known as a predominantly Turkish city in the southeast.  When “first lady” Emine Erdoğan showed surprise at hearing where Önder was from, he quipped, Affedersiniz, türküm; tedavi oluyorum: “pardon me, I’m Turkish; but now I’m receiving treatment.”

It is not easy to make a light-hearted joke about Erdoğan’s recent comment asking forgiveness for uttering the word “Armenian” (Ermeni) in public, while simultaneously pointing up one’s own stance as an ethnic Turk committed to the Kurdish cause, but Önder managed it.

If the leaders of these two parties have been comfortable with each other, that may not be solely an effect of their on-going negotiations.  Whatever their ideological differences, AKP and BDP/HDP have a lot in common.  Both parties have faced and survived attempts at closure by the courts.  Both espouse agendas at odds with the constitutionally mandated nature of the republic as a secular, unitary national state.  Both represent movements that have worked for decades to achieve their current exposure.  Together, they have made the CHP and the MHP look like a defensive old guard.

This configuration makes for an intriguing political story, but it comes at a cost to the country.  A progressive cause should be in the hands of progressives.  It would be good for a unified Left to take the “peace process” away from Erdoğanlest acquiescence in theocratic capitalism be the price of peace.

Enter IS

We know now that elections and negotiations are not the last word.  For three weeks, Kobani (Ayn-al Arab) has been under siege from IS forces, within sight of the Turkish border.  As catastrophic as the Kobani crisis is for both Rojava and Turkey, it has also opened the way for a potential realignment in Turkish politics.

Last week the Turkish parliament (meclis) debated a resolution prepared by the government authorizing a potential land operation in northern Syria to ensure a “security zone” (tampon bölge) free of all forces threatening Turkey.  The document named IS, the PKK, and the Assad regime, and drew support from nationalist MHP parliamentarians as well as their erstwhile rivals in the ruling party. The measure passed over the objections of the CHP and the HDP.

Will this common “no” vote be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?  Let us take a brief look at the helter-skelter events that have lead to this pass:

Late this summer, with their homeland under attack, Kurdish organizations solicited weapons, money, and support from the West.  Though the focus was on peshmerga forces with western recognition, in some quarters the PKK too got a sympathetic hearing.  Turkey at first declined to join the US coalition of the marginally persuadable, until IS released its hostages.  Then it joined.

Turkey and the Kurds now faced a common enemy—but that was not how it looked in Turkey, even before the events of this week.  On September 26, IS supporters attacked leftist students at Istanbul University with clubs, while security guards stood and watched.  Kurds crossing the border to defend the city of Kobani from IS met with gas bombs from Turkish police on one side of the border, while on the other side IS opened fire on the city.  Twenty-two students at Aegean University in Izmir were taken into custody for demonstrating in support of Kobani, while IS supporters carried banners and chanted slogans in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood, without police interference.

Turkey’s Minister of Health defends the practice of providing emergency medical care to IS fighters wounded in battle just across the border, while denying that right to Gezi protestors wounded by police.  Doctors are now on trial for treating wounded protestors in makeshift hospitals in Istanbul, while in Gaziantep a new hospital reports having treated as many as 700 wounded mujahedeen since opening its doors three months ago for that purpose.  To be sure, the fighters interviewed there were members of Jabhat-al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, not IS.

Kurds voice their suspicion that Turkey’s intelligence community has been cooperating with IS in order to weaken the Kurdish forces.  Erdoğan berates his audience at the World Economic Forum for demanding support against IS without recognizing Turkey’s fight against the PKK as a struggle with terrorism.  Some left-nationalist newspapers wonder why CHP parliamentarians have taken to the stage along with HDP members at a conference in the US on “the new Kurdish reality,” and lament that, “the PKK agenda has become the CHP’s.”

Kurds and the leftists who support them rally to the defense of Kobani, either militarily or politically, under the avowed leadership of the PKK and its Syrian affiliates.  Turkish secularists condemn their government’s lax attitude toward jihadi border crossing and suspected collaboration with IS, though many remain sceptical of the American air war, suspecting ulterior motives.  Erdoğan joins the US alliance and then some—demanding a no-fly zone in northern Syria.  Not surprising, since the only other birds in the sky belong to the Assad regime, whom Erdoğan and Davutoğlu still want to see targeted.

Such a complex collision is likely to scramble alliances.  Will opposition to Erdoğan’s plans in Syria lead the CHP and the HDP into a lasting partnership capable of reviving left-wing politics in Turkey?  Time will tell, and maybe not even that much time.


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