The HDK enigma
Esen Uslu continues his exploration of the Kurdish question by pointing to the ambiguities in the HDKs democratic autonomy
After examining what the programmes of the legal Communist Party, the Freedom and Socialist Party (ÖDP) and the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) have had to say about the Kurdish national question, it is time to take a look at the position of the newly formed People’s Democratic Congress (HDK). While the HDK is still in the making, it has its roots in the period when the ÖDP was formed in the mid-90s.
Many lesser organisations stayed out of the process leading to the formation of the ÖDP or split from it shortly after taking part in the initial fusion. While they have diverse opinions, they tend to agree that meaningful unity cannot exclude representatives of the Kurdish freedom movement. Many had taken part in the formation in 1990 of the legal People’s Labour Party (HEP), a precursor of the present-day Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and worked within it until it was banned by the constitutional court in 1993.
In 1991, 22 HEP members were elected to parliament from the eastern and south-eastern provinces as part of the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) election list and in 1992 they formed their own independent group in the Grand National Assembly. However, when the intention of the constitutional court to close down the party became apparent, a ‘spare tyre’ - the Party of Democracy (DEP) - was formed.
That era ended with the expulsion of Kurdish members from parliament, and the banning of the DEP in 1994. Afterwards it was no longer a priority for the Kurdish freedom movement to work within a party of the Turkish left, whose aim was to contest parliamentary elections. The successive parties subsequently formed and banned focused on local elections in Kurdistan. Participating in general elections was not seen as a priority on the grounds of prohibitive thresholds.
In the 2007 general election, the Kurdish freedom movement, this time in the guise of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), joined with left organisations in nominating ‘independent’ candidates on a platform called Candidates of a Thousand Hopes. Enough were elected to ‘join’ the DTP and form a parliamentary group. During that time the idea of a more or less permanent umbrella party to organise joint action between the Kurdish freedom movement and the Turkish left, was considered. However, it did not come to fruition.
A platform called the Labour Democracy and Freedom Bloc was formed for the 2011 general election, resulting in the election of 36 MPs. And this time efforts to provide a permanent structure proceeded with more vigour. The HDK was the result of those efforts.
The HDK programme is quite a short document and the section entitled ‘Kurdish question: peace and democratic resolution’ sets out its stall on this central issue:
Our congress supports the right of every diverse identity to maintain itself, and accepts the basic principle that all of them have the right to exist within a law of equal and free citizenship. Our congress approaches the basic rights and liberties of the Kurdish population on the basis of that principle and defends and struggles for a peaceful, democratic solution of the Kurdish question, which has been condemned to irresolution since the establishment of the republic, on the basis of equal rights. It defends the right of forcibly displaced citizens to return to villages that were burnt down or demolished.
Our congress evaluates the resolution on democratic autonomy adapted by the Kurdish people as an important initiative towards the resolution of the Kurdish question. It holds that democratic autonomy could play an important role in the democratisation of Turkey and the formation of a free and voluntary unity of peoples.
At first glance, the HDK programme as a whole does not appear connected to the demands set forth in the PKK programme. However, in reality, the HDK programme closely reflects the current immediate aims of the Kurdish freedom movement, especially its legal component, and those aims can be summarised in two words: ‘democratic autonomy’.
Since 2007 this new term started to appear in various ‘visit notes’ (that is, the near-verbatim transcripts of what imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan told his visiting solicitors, which were regularly published afterwards), as part of comrade Öcalan’s preparations for the PKK programme for ‘democratic confederalism’. It was not very clear in the beginning what ‘democratic autonomy’ entailed. But it became an important aspect of DTP work, especially while it was preparing for the convention of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK).
It became a guiding principle of the DTP, DTK and later the BDP, and various documents were prepared to expound the concept as a response to the 2009 ‘Kurdish overture’ of the AKP government. When it became apparent that the AKP’s eagerness for reform was ebbing, the DTK ‘declared’ democratic autonomy in July 2011. But in the midst of the wave of arrests and trials of prominent Kurdish activists the declaration failed to achieve much.
Although in the space of five years ‘democratic autonomy’ has been modified and extended, the concept itself is still to be clarified. For a while it was regarded as a component of the PKK’s ‘democratic confederalism’, which applies to all peoples of the region, but later it came to be used in support of a Kurdish federal or autonomous region/state. However, a gradual expounding of the ‘democratic autonomy’ concept as the main immediate aim of the Kurdish freedom movement is now discernible. It is the demand that would be put on the table in negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question following a mutually agreed ceasefire with the Turkish government.
The July 2011 meeting of the DTK agreed the following:
[Democratic autonomy] requires a substantial reform of the political and administrative structure of Turkey in order to achieve democratisation.
Accepting that by changing only the state system problems cannot be resolved, it requires the empowerment of society. It is based on the philosophy that in order to develop methods to resolve problems the local should be empowered and the people should have a decision-making voice.
To include people in decision-making processes it defends democratic participation and accepts assemblies at all localities as its basis.
Instead of autonomy based on pure ‘ethnicity’ and ‘territory’, it defends a regional and local structure where cultural diversities can be freely expressed.
It proposes that every regional and autonomous unit develop its self-government under its own colours and symbols, while ‘the flag’ and ‘official language’ are applicable to the ‘nation of Turkey’.
Democratic autonomous administrations are organised through a ‘regional assembly’ and the persons taking part in it are defined as ‘representatives to the regional government’.
A document was prepared by comrade Öcalan in 2009 to lay the basis of the so-called Oslo process - the secret negotiations conducted between the representatives of the PKK and the Turkish MIT intelligence service, representing the prime minister. The so-called ‘road map’, entitled ‘The problems of democratisation of Turkey, models of the solution in Kurdistan’, was kept secret by the state until March 2011. While the text did not contain any direct reference to ‘democratic autonomy’, the demands were clearly in line with other documents expounding the concept.
Kurdish freedom movement leaders have stated that democratic autonomy accepts as a first step the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1985. On the other hand, there are documents containing detailed references to an independent or autonomous federal state enjoying diplomatic relations with other peoples in the region.
The HDK has not attempted to clarify the ambiguities of the ‘democratic autonomy’ project. I believe this failure reflects the sad state of Turkey’s left generally, since it fails to seriously address matters of controversy with a view to dispelling any confusion, which also exists in the disproportionately powerful Kurdish movement. The result is that the confusion is compounded.
In May this year, the HDK adopted a series of resolutions. One of them was entitled ‘The Kurdish question and a democratic solution’:
The impasse over the Kurdish question continues. A quite comprehensive agreement has been reached by the supreme command of the armed forces and the AKP on the basis of ‘security’ [a euphemism for the crushing of the PKK by the military]. This new view of the Kurdish question is being shaped by the prominence of security and total war. The AKP government reiterates at every opportunity that it will proceed with violence instead of taking steps towards democratisation and the resolution of the Kurdish question; it refuses the comprehensive demands of Kurdish people, such as equality, education in the mother tongue and recognition of a status such as democratic autonomy. The ongoing isolation imposed on Öcalan, the Kurdish popular leader, and the inhumane treatment of the detainees in the prisons are other signs of that view.
Considering these developments, the first general meeting of the HDK directs the general assembly to pursue campaigns and actions demanding the termination of fighting and the implementation of mechanisms for a democratic resolution, aiming for the resumption of direct or indirect negotiations.
In this way the HDK plays down the problems faced by the movement - and right in the middle of an intensified military campaign. During the summer hundreds of guerrillas and military personnel, as well as civilians, were killed, and the attacks have been stepped up before the quickly approaching winter lull.
The HDK tries to make people believe that campaigns and activities aimed at stopping the fighting and creating an atmosphere of negotiations have a chance, knowing full well that the previous secret negotiations and ceasefires came to nothing. The HDK general meeting refused to even consider alternative proposals.