Ankara purges end hopes of an inclusive Kurdish project

Ankara purges end hopes of an inclusive Kurdish project
Comment: Turkey's attempts to flush elected Kurds out of state institutions may have caused irreparable damage to the pro-Kuridsh HDP's projects for an inclusive Turkish state, writes Yvo Fitzherbert
5 min read
20 Sep, 2016
Co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP speaks during a rally against the attempted military coup [Getty]
Earlier this month, thousands of teachers were suspended from teaching in Turkey's south-east for suspected links to the PKK. Turkey's Education Ministry confirmed the figure in a tweet, confirming that 11,285 teachers had been placed on paid leave pending an investigation.

Alongside the purging of teachers, the government also announced the takeover of 28 municipalities - 24 of which were run by the pro-Kurdish party DBP - the sister organisation of the nationwide pro-Kurdish HDP. New administrators were appointed to the Kurdish-run municipalities, ousting the elected mayors in the south-east. In a televised speech on national TV, the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, announced: "The administration of 28 municipalities will no longer be in the hands of terrorists."

The purge of teachers and civil servants was announced without parliamentary approval, something that can be done under the emergency powers which were granted to the ruling AK party after the failed coup attempt on the 15th July. Turkey has sacked or suspended 100,000 people since the failed coup, 40,000 of whom have been detained.

"We have run and are currently running the largest operations against the PKK terrorist organisation in its history, both within and across our borders," President Erdogan claimed. Although there is no direct proof of links between DBP and HDP's elected mayors and the PKK - a designated terrorist group - the government has continuously asserted such a link.

The removal of civil servants is considered a key part in the fight against Kurdish militants. "No democratic state can or will allow mayors and MPs to use municipality resources to finance terrorist organisations," Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter. "Being an elected official isn't a license to commit crimes."

"Turkiyelesme" - a strategy for an inclusive Turkey

The targeting of Kurdish municipalities is a blow to the Kurdish project of integrating themselves within the Turkish state. Throughout the 1990s - considered the worst era in the conflict between the Turkey and the Kurdish militants - much of Kurdish-populated areas were under emergency rule. Kurdish parties such as HADEP and DEP, predecessors to the HDP, were continuously banned as a result of their Kurdish identity.

While Kurdish activists tried to represent Kurds democratically through the 90s, the repeated closing of their political parties led to a widespread alienation between Kurdish citizens and the state.

The HDP's project sought to reclaim common ownership over the Turkish state for Kurds as equal citizens to Turks

However, when HDP was formed in 2014, it proposed something new that hadn't been done before: An alliance with certain groups on the Turkish Left, to broaden its appeal across the whole of Turkey. It's flagship project that symbolised this unity between the Kurds and the Turkish left was known as "Turkiyelesme", literally "becoming of Turkey". The project attempted to reconstitute the identity in Turkey away from the ethnic "Turk", and towards the composite variety of people representing Turkey as a whole.

Nazan Ustundag, a professor at Bogazici University in Istanbul, told me that "Turkiyelesme" means "all the citizens in Turkey, and especially Kurds, are candidates for ruling Turkey - they are not just candidates for ruling Kurdistan, but for the whole of Turkey."

In essence, HDP's project attempted to reform the relationship Kurds had with the Turkish state. The Turkish state had long been seen simply as an oppressor that failed to represent Kurds because of its overtly "Turkish" agenda, but HDP's project sought to reclaim common ownership over the Turkish state for Kurds as equal citizens to Turks. 

"Turkiyelesme" was part of a larger project pursued by the HDP which aimed to gain support among voters in western Turkey, something a Kurdish party hadn't done before. While they were somewhat successful in doing this in last year's June election, when they received 13 percent of the national vote, their share of the vote declined during the November election after the peace process with the PKK fell apart and the south-east was once again consumed by violence.

An end to Turkish-Kurdish unity?  

The recent decision by Ankara to appoint trustees as replacements for the elected Kurdish mayors is a clear attempt to delegitimise the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey. Such a move, along with suspending Kurdish teachers for supposed links with the PKK, is a tactic to remove all civil servants with pro-Kurdish sympathies out of the state’s institutions.

The recent decision by Ankara to appoint trustees as replacements for the elected Kurdish mayors is a clear attempt to delegitimise the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey

By flushing out all Kurds from state institutions, Ankara is countering the stated goals of "Turkiyelesme", and in effect alienating the Kurds further from the state. Such a process, while soaking up support from the Sunni nationalist base across Anatolia, will take years to heal as Kurds once again see the Turkish state as not representative of them.

Given the breakdown of peace in the south-east, and the lack of faith Kurds now have in Turkey's institutions to safeguard their rights, there is little hope among Kurdish citizens that "Turkiyelesme" can still work. In fact, Kurdish nationalist sentiment is now growing with many now believing HDPs project was ill-conceived.

Last year, after the prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci was killed on the streets of Diyarbakir, Selahattin Demirtas spoke frankly on the challenges Kurds face: "What killed Tahir Elci was not the state, but the lack of the state," HDP's co-President said during Elci's funeral. "We have laboured for this state to be everyone's, and we are still working on this."

Due to the government's ill-thought up strategy to wage war against Kurdish militants as a means to increase support amongst a nationalist section of Anatolia, it appears that the state once again fails to represent Kurds. What President Erdogan fails to realise is that, for many Kurds, projects of "unity" may not be on the agenda next time round.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.