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The Great Test of Kurdish Protest

Cuma Çiçek*

Since 2012, mainstream Kurdish politics represented by the HDP has entered a process of introspection following a significant loss in the May 2023 elections. It is expected that this process of introspection will be completed at the Green Left Party’s congress in October 2023, which is the new political address.

On one hand, the pressures on the HDP following the failure of the 2013-2015 Solution Process and the ongoing closure case, and on the other hand, the political and organizational crises reflected in the political discourse, institutional performance, and alliance policies not only affect mainstream Kurdish politics but also directly shape the formation of the Kurdish issue with its domestic and cross-border dimensions.

This situation also extends beyond the Kurdish field, playing a functional role in the reproduction of political authoritarianism and economic inequality in Turkey. Despite significant capital transfers causing rapid impoverishment and property loss in a large part of society in the economic field, and despite significant losses of rights in the political field, the resecuritization of the Kurdish issue contributes to the suppression of limited protests and the absence of significant social dissent.

In this sense, discussions about the course of the Kurdish issue should encompass civil society actors beyond the HDP and spread beyond the Kurdish field to the entirety of Turkey. In this article, I want to extend the discussion I started in my previous article titled “The Great Test of the HDP” and continue by addressing the challenges facing the Kurdish protest in general.

In Turkey, one of the most significant challenges determining the course of the Kurdish issue is the inclusion of segments that can be described as the Kurdish right or Kurdish conservatism in the Kurdish protest. As I discussed in detail in my article on Conservative Kurdishness, the second dynamic that significantly increased the HDP’s support, from the 6.5% range to the 13% range after 2014, was the strengthening of the second form of Kurdishness. Alongside the Kurdishness represented by the HDP, a second form of Kurdishness has been constructed since the 1990s. This Kurdishness represents a more religious and conservative societal imagination. The main artery of this Kurdishness is within the AK Party, and a significant part is also within the HDP. Therefore, the level at which the Kurdish protest represents secular Kurdishness, which has concerns such as gender, and is more critical of neoliberalism, alongside conservative and religious Kurdishness, will shape the course of the problem. In this regard, Alevi Kurdishness can be considered a third focus. However, the secular Kurdish imagination represented by the HDP largely includes Alevi Kurds.

This issue can also be formulated as the collective action capability of the two forms of Kurdishness. These two forms of Kurdishness may oppose each other, have different societal imaginations, and build different representation channels in the political field. However, the collective action capability for the solution of the Kurdish issue is of critical importance. Creating a minimum consensus framework for goals such as mother tongue education, the right of Kurds to self-governance, or the expansion of the democratic political sphere, and whether they can build collective action for these goals is a significant challenge for the relevant actors.

Related to this issue, the second challenge is the reconstruction of the Kurdish political field as a field where opposition and critical thinking are stronger. It should be noted that the culture of opposition is weak in Kurdish politics, including political parties, civil society actors, Kurdish media, and academia. While differences between Kurds in social and political aspects are an issue of opposition, in most cases, they can turn into social conflict or fratricide. The strengthening of non-partisan civil society in this field, as well as the increase in the numbers and improvement in the quality of politically and ideologically mixed organizations, can be seen as key indicators in this field.

The third challenge constitutes a class issue. Especially after 1999, the Kurdish protest underwent a class transformation. In brief, the Kurdish protest transformed from a lower-class movement into a coalition of lower and middle classes, partially incorporating upper classes. This coexistence is also a conflicting situation. This conflict is evident in certain areas. While a significant consensus has been reached on identity issues, the conflict over resources and distribution becomes more visible day by day. It should be noted that Kurdish lower classes have lost power over the past 20 years in this conflict. Although this issue was partially discussed during the period of Kurdish local governance, significant progress was not achieved. This situation, which has led to spatial segregation and ghettoization in Diyarbakir, is one of the main dynamics shaping the course of the Kurdish protest. On one hand, there is a need for political imaginaries and organizational models that will further empower lower and middle classes, make it possible for them to access more material and symbolic resources, and on the other hand, maintain the expansion achieved through the inclusion of middle classes. In summary, developing political goals, institutional structures, tools, and methods for collective action by lower and middle classes, and establishing a new political discourse, constitute a significant challenge for the Kurdish protest.

The fourth main challenge is related to the relationship between the Kurdish protest and the AK Party. This relationship is important in two ways. Firstly, according to the results of the May 2023 elections, there is a nationalist bloc against the Kurdish protest at around 84%. Ultra-nationalists make up 23% of this bloc, while the nationalist parties forming an alliance with ultra-nationalists represent 61%. There is no significant difference between mainstream parties in Ankara regarding the Kurdish issue. In this sense, the maneuvering space for Kurdish political actors is quite narrow. Although there have been limited openings in electoral periods due to slight differences between mainstream parties, their contributions to the solution of the Kurdish issue have remained largely neglected. For all these reasons, the main addressee of the Kurdish protest is not political parties but the state. In the next five years, saying “the state” means saying the AK Party. Therefore, the ability of the Kurdish protest’s main actors to position the political line beyond elections and frame it as a dialogue and negotiation with the state, as well as their ability to talk to actors within the state who are in favor of a solution, will determine their progress.

Secondly, the AK Party is not just a party representing the state in the center; it is also the main representation area for conservative and religious Kurds in the region. Outside of the HDP, most Kurds in the region engage in politics and mobilize within the AK Party. Neither HUDA-PAR nor any other party is the main address for the second form of Kurdishness. Therefore, dialogue between the HDP and the AK Party is crucial as it represents both inter-Kurdish dialogue and dialogue between Kurds and the state, thus determining the direction of the Kurdish issue.

The fifth challenge is for the Kurdish protest in Turkey to establish relationships with the cross-border Kurdish field. The level at which Kurdish political actors position themselves as cross-border actors in a sense that includes civil society actors, media, academia, labor and employer organizations, will directly shape the course of the issue. Considering that the Kurdish issue is a regional issue with cross-border dimensions, contacts and dialogues with Kurdish political groups, civil society actors, media and academia in Rojava, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Iran are important. The critical issue here is for Kurdish actors to move beyond the game field established by the state, which has confined the issue within the framework of “terrorism” and “security,” and create a new game field. This is not an easy challenge to overcome. It can be said that the collective action capability of the two forms of Kurdishness and the course of relations with the AK Party will also determine this field.

Finally, it is important to emphasize the relationship with Turkish nationalists. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the Kurdish protest. Except for Kurdish non-Kurds who have maintained a friendly relationship with Kurdish politics for many years, the dominant color in the Turkish street is nationalism. To democratize the Turkish street and lead it to social democracy, as referred to by Hamit Bozarslan, is a burden that Kurdish politics can hardly bear. More importantly, it is almost impossible for Kurdish politics to operationalize a mission that can be done operationally, due to paths constructed from the past, which have mutual limitations and have restrictive effects on the future. While Kurdish politics can support and contribute to the emergence of a social democratic politics in the Turkish street, it is almost impossible for it to fulfill the mission of leading it. The capacity and capability of the Kurdish protest to face this reality will play a critical role in the solution of the Kurdish issue.

Here, we can draw attention to two points. First, if the Kurdish issue is to be resolved within the borders of Turkey and through non-violent means, Turks must see the needs of the Kurds. Referring to approaches highlighted in conflict theory, we can say this: without recognizing the needs of the Kurdish street, Turkey cannot make progress while constantly in conflict with it. On the other hand, similarly, Kurds must see the needs of the predominantly nationalist Turkish street. Because the cost of the conflict is higher for the Kurds than for anyone else. Therefore, for the construction of social peace, Kurds must consider the needs of both themselves and the Turks.

The second point is that both the Turkish street and the Kurdish street need to develop political solutions that take into account the needs of the other party as much as their own needs. In this regard, it is important to build options, methods, political discourses, tools, and means that are operational, rather than normatively ideal. As long as it is possible to develop ways and methods, political discourses, tools, and means that can demonstrate that meeting the needs of the Kurdish street, its need for peace, its need for self-governance, or its need to share power can also benefit the Turkish street, progress can be made towards building social peace. This is the greatest challenge.

This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine on September 7, 2023 and translated into English by Politurco.

Cuma Cicek is assistant professor in the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey. He received his PhD from Sciences Po in Paris and has published several books in Turkish.

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