What will Kurds do in Turkey’s upcoming local elections?

We have experienced for 125 years that democratization of Turkey is not possible without the Kurds. Both the government and the opposition should know that the Kurds are not always at the disposal of the opposition to cooperate.

Cahit Kırkazak*

The right of nations to self-determination began to be discussed with the French Revolution. As a result of this successful revolution initiated by the people against the monarchical order of the king, the concept of nationalism (nation state) came to the fore. This concept, which did not go beyond the borders of France at first, later spread throughout Europe and empires, especially the Ottoman Empire, which were the multinational structures of the period, were deeply affected. In multinational structures where the people united and put an end to the rule of the king, who claimed to derive sovereignty from God, the ideas of full independence were established with the revolution.

After 1870, the Young Ottomans tried to keep the empire together with the ideas of Islamism and Ottomanism against the nationalism movements and the independence demands of the nations. However, when the idea of Turanism came to the forefront among the Young Ottomans, the idea of Ottomanism turned into Turkism in time. As a matter of fact, two ideas came to the fore after the 1st Congress of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which was founded with the slogans of equality, freedom and justice. The first idea was decentralization under the leadership of Prince Sebahattin and the second was centralism and Turkism under the leadership of Ahmet Rıza. However, after the Second Constitutional Era, the idea of Turkism became decisive in the CUP and became the final straw  in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire with strict centralization.

Despite the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Anatolia, where the new state was to be established, was a multi-identity, multi-faith, multilingual and multicultural geography. Moreover, the right of nations to self-determination and Wilsonian principles were in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. It was precisely for this reason that Mustafa Kemal contacted all the peoples from all beliefs in Anatolia in order to establish the new state. On many occasions, he talked about the administrative form of autonomy for the self-governance of the peoples in open and secret meetings, and made promises. However, Mustafa Kemal, especially after the Treaty of Lausanne, turned his course towards Turkism and built the Republic on Turkish identity with the 1924 Constitution.

Since the foundation of the Republic, the identities, beliefs, languages and cultures in this geography, especially the Kurds, have been subjected to inequalities such as not being able to express themselves, not being able to participate in decisions about their rights, and not being able to determine their status. Inequality has brought injustice, and injustice has brought the problem of peace.

The Republic has been governed by strict centralization until today. The local governments have never been autonomous. Local governments have only carried out bureaucratic operations under central tutelage. Local people have never been included in the administration under any circumstances, and local governments have never taken into account the language, identity, culture and beliefs of the people in their bureaucratic activities. Although there have been partial administrative autonomies, local administrators are no longer elected, but civil servants are appointed, taking the form of a strict tutelage regime, with the general inspectors, military coups, State of Emergency regional governors and finally Erdoğan's trustee regime. 

The key to solving the country's century-old political, social, economic and cultural problems lies in achieving social peace. Social peace can be achieved in a multi-identity, multi-faith, multilingual and multicultural republic by ensuring that everyone has the right to have a say, especially about themselves and the common life and patriotism, and the responsibility to contribute to the common life and patriotism. This could be achieved by opening the way for people to participate in governance mechanisms and decision-making processes for the protection and promotion of their individual and collective rights. Opening the way for the people to participate in decision-making mechanisms regarding their individual and collective rights does not weaken society, on the contrary, it strengthens democracy by ensuring social peace.

Mustafa Kemal calls the participation of the people in decision-making mechanisms regarding their individual and collective rights “muhtariyet,” Kurdish politics calls it “autonomy,” Lenin calls it “people's right to self-determination.” Islamic civilization put this into practice with the “Medina contract.” Öcalan has formulated his proposals for a solution to regional peace as well as national peace with “Democratic Confederalism.”

We are on the eve of local elections in the 101st year of the Republic. Political parties are in a feverish and hectic struggle. Which party/alliance will take which municipality, which party will cooperate with which party in which provinces? Which name will be nominated as a mayoral candidate?

Rather than which candidates will win the mayorships, there is a need for attitudes and changes that will ensure social peace and strengthen the sense of belonging of the pluralism in the country against the idea of “centralism and Turkism” that has threatened social peace in this country for 125 years. The government, which is fed with a new sauce mixed with nationalism and religion, does not give up power, does not localize democracy, and does not involve the people in decision-making mechanisms at the expense of polarizing the people, causing poverty, hunger and division.

What should Turkish society and political parties do against this? In this context, do political parties have any promises or pledges to the society to free local governments from central tutelage?

For example, what should be the role of local governments (municipalities) for the peoples living in Anatolia and Mesopotamia to live their beliefs freely, to receive public services and education in their mother tongue? Will they be able to carry out cultural and artistic activities in their mother tongue? Will they be able to use the names of the geography they live in in local governments? Will these rights be constitutionally guaranteed? What will be their attitudes and initiatives regarding women's agency in local governments and the practice of co-mayors? Or what will they do in the event that trustees are appointed to the will of the Kurdish people? Will they remain silent against the centralized and monist state mind's practices of denial and ignoring?

Let's make it more concrete: Will Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Adana, Mersin and all other municipalities provide services in Kurdish in their work and institutions? Will they allocate the necessary budget for Newroz Day events? Will public transportation be free of charge? Will they remove obstacles to the worship of peoples of different faiths? Will they restore the Turkishized names of geographies and places belonging to peoples and cultures? Will venues be provided or budgeted for concerts and theaters in different languages? These are the questions the people of Turkey are looking for answers to.

Kurds have played their part for a common life / homeland from the beginning of the 20th century until today. Coexistence is possible through a form of governance in which each stakeholder lives and develops its own values, identities, languages, cultures, arts, and has a say in decisions about itself. Kurds have not given up their determination for a common life despite paying political, social and economic prices. To this end, Kurds have valued and supported all the promises made for coexistence since Abdulhamid II. They even took the initiative for the construction of a common life, sometimes unilaterally.

The most recent example of this is the 2019 local elections. In the 2019 local elections, the HDP unilaterally supported opposition candidates against the AKP/MHP bloc that established an authoritarian hegemony in Turkey. The aim here was to break the authoritarian hegemony of the ruling bloc. If the peoples of Turkey act in unison, if the opposition in Turkey unites from a point of view that recognizes Turkey's differences and takes the ballot box and democracy as its starting point, the country is not obliged to authoritarian rule. The HDP's stance yielded results and important municipalities that were in the hands of the AKP/MHP government were taken over by the opposition.

However, the opposition ignored the influence of the HDP/Kurds in the election results. It did not make efforts to build a common life with these results and to transform the polarization created into dialogue and communication. It did not react to the appointment of trustees in 48 municipalities of the HDP. Maybe the opposition has a monist authoritarian mentality like the AKP/MHP mentality? That is another question, of course. The only thing that changed in the municipalities were the party names, there was no change in the mentality.

There were various reasons why the main opposition party did not take the necessary stance for a common life after the 2019 local elections. Both the Trojan horse within the opposition, the opposition's inability to transcend the political boundaries drawn by the government, and the monist mentality that has made itself felt in the opposition parties did not contribute to the construction of a common life.

The opposition's ignoring the HDP and the Kurds, its failure to respond to the HDP's position paper of September 27, 2021, and its failure to partner with the HDP in the 2023 general and presidential elections have cost Turkey and gained the AKP/MHP.

After all these experiences, no one should expect unconditional support from the Kurds. No one should treat Kurds as criminals. It has been seen for 125 years that democratization of the country is possible, but not without the Kurds. Kurds also see that the democratization of the country and the change of the monist authoritarian mentality is possible through alliance/collaboration with the opposition and democracy forces in Turkey. However, this cooperation must be egalitarian, democratic, transparent and sincere. Both the government and the opposition should know that the Kurds are not always at the disposal of the opposition to cooperate. Because Kurds no longer feel obliged to cooperate.

*Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair