In December 2003, Osman Baydemir was finishing his first semester of English-language instruction in San Francisco when he received a phone call suggesting it might be an opportune time for him to return to Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeastern region. Somewhat reluctant to abandon his English study, Baydemir hesitated before going back to his home town. Three months later, the long-time human rights activist was sworn into office as the new mayor of Diyarbakir, becoming the second consecutive candidate from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party, currently known as the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), to win the post. Indeed, the soft-spoken, 33 year-old Baydemir, an ethnic Kurd and a lawyer by training, was considered such a sure winner that Radikal, one of the country’s national dailies, opined that there was “no need to have an election” in Diyarbakir.

The March 2004 municipal elections were a kind of benchmark for democratization in the southeast, an area that was consumed by fighting between the Turkish military and the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) between 1984 and 1999, and that remained under emergency rule law until late 2002. The prominence of pro-Kurdish candidates in the contests also highlighted the dramatic, if halting relaxation of Turkish state policies that, in the name of national unity, have long sought to suppress public expressions of Kurdish identity and even deny its existence. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came on June 9, when the state released Leyla Zana, a parliamentary deputy who had been imprisoned with three colleagues since 1994 on charges of supporting the outlawed PKK. On the same day, state television inaugurated nationwide broadcasts in Kurdish. After nearly a century of conflict between Kurdish activists and the Turkish state, Zana’s release seems the latest portent of a tentative normalization of pro-Kurdish politics in Turkey.

Newfound Freedom of Movement

Upon their release, Zana and her fellow parliamentarians staged a triumphal return to Diyarbakir, symbolizing a newfound freedom of movement for pro-Kurdish politicians in the southeast. For almost a quarter century, Diyarbakir was under martial law or emergency rule law, which suspended civil liberties and allowed the authorities to curtail political activities of all kinds, sometimes forcefully. Zana was one of many Kurdish activists who were arrested during the most brutal phase of the confrontation with the army in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the last municipal election, in 1999, police detained 551 pro-Kurdish party members, sending 57 to prison, according to Turkey’s Human Rights Association. Candidates were prevented from campaigning in some villages and towns.

In 2004, by contrast, Baydemir and other mayoral candidates from DEHAP (running, confusingly, under the banner of the centrist Social Democratic Populist Party, or SHP) were able to campaign where they liked. Other than time-wasting gendarme checkpoints along the highways east and west of Diyarbakir, they encountered few obstacles to the dissemination of their electoral platform. Like candidates anywhere, they went door to door on streets lined with small businesses, shaking hands, kissing children and reassuring shop owners—often, in Kurdish—that they would do their best to fix Diyarbakir’s roads, reduce unemployment from its current rate of over 50 percent and prevent the sale of “dirty bread” that did not meet weight quotas. They put up glossy posters at bus stops and on billboards, visited Friday markets, met with local civic and trade union leaders, gave numerous newspaper and TV interviews, and attended taziye (remembrance) ceremonies to cement relationships with local families. They organized lively canvassers’ convoys to far-flung towns and villages, where Baydemir gave public speeches—in Turkish and, sometimes, for brief moments, in Kurdish—calling for democracy, human rights and equal recognition of all of Turkey’s cultural and ethnic minorities.

Perhaps even more than the election campaign, the Diyarbakir Newroz festival, held a week prior to the elections, bespoke the freer climate. Newroz is a new year holiday celebrated in Iran and Central Asia and among Kurds. Although Turkish officials claim it as a Turkic holiday as well, Newroz has become a potent symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey and was banned across the southeast until recently. At one Newroz demonstration in 1992 at least 70 people were killed in clashes between security forces and demonstrators; in some years, hundreds have been detained. In 2004, buoyed by good weather and confidence that the event would be safe, an estimated 800,000 people attended the Diyarbakir Newroz celebration to listen to music, light bonfires, dance and picnic. The event passed “more like a holiday,” as one newspaper put it, than a violent political protest. Although police closed the highway to the festival site, forcing thousands of people to walk several kilometers along the dusty road to the grounds, and a military helicopter buzzed overhead, the biggest threat to security came from poor crowd control, rock concert-style body passing and ardent fans who climbed onto the stage to embrace the singers.

Uncertain Direction of Reform

Since the Turkish parliament passed a series of reforms in August 2002, as part of Turkey’s attempt to meet human rights standards for accession to the European Union, there has been a palpable “Kurdification” of civil society in parts of the southeast. Kurdish private language instruction has become legal and selected news stations can broadcast in Kurdish for several hours a day. Music and video stores in cities like Diyarbakir proudly display posters advertising the latest locally produced Kurdish films, Kurdish-language newspapers are sold openly on the streets and pro-PKK newspapers are read in public—even on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, for instance.

These very real changes notwithstanding, the Newroz celebrations—and Baydemir’s election—also highlight the uncertain direction of the contemporary Kurdish rights movement in Turkey. Few of the state-directed reforms have been fully or even partially institutionalized in the military, the police, government bureaucracies or the judicial system. Hence, restrictions on publishing, broadcasting, teaching Kurdish and collective action continue, as do human rights abuses including police misconduct, torture and arbitrary detention. Only a few private institutes have actually been given formal permission to hold Kurdish language classes.

Whereas political support for democratic liberalization exists among some civilian leaders in the Turkish capital of Ankara, there appears to be little serious effort to foster new cultures in institutions that have typically functioned with impunity in the southeast. Only an hour after Baydemir gave his victory speech on national TV, an argument between bystanders and police concerning the transportation of election ballots into the Diyarbakir courthouse resulted in a police assault on civilians and members of the press. Dozens of people were hospitalized and some TV cameras were destroyed. Baydemir and other pro-Kurdish activists may be pushing the envelope on the sensitive topic of Kurdish rights, but they still work carefully within clearly understood parameters. It was acceptable to demand the release of Leyla Zana, but it is not acceptable to discuss Kurdish autonomy or the legalization of the former PKK. Even speaking Kurdish in public is still not without its risks. In defiance of a political party law mandating the use of Turkish, Baydemir said he speaks Kurdish “maybe 10 percent” of the time in public speeches, just enough to connect with Kurdish speakers, but (he hopes) not enough to get him in trouble.

Challenges of Moderation

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, even moderate liberalization has produced another set of challenges for Kurdish rights activists, who must now contend more openly with the movement’s internal diversity. There is little consensus, for example, on exactly how to define and present the movement’s goals, or on how to balance the competing demands of Kurdish nationalism and legal strictures. Most pro-Kurdish activists genuinely want full democracy in Turkey and some may be content with that, but many also dream of at least some degree of Kurdish regional devolution. Although perhaps more muted than in the past, these tensions and contradictions were apparent at the 2004 Newroz celebration (as they are at nearly every large, pro-Kurdish gathering). On the one hand, festival organizers billed the event as a multicultural “rainbow” celebration, a tactic pro-Kurdish activists have increasingly used as a way to duck charges of separatism and to recast notions of Turkish nationhood. On the other hand, there was no doubting that organizers and participants saw Newroz as a Kurdish national (though not necessarily nationalistic) event. Songs were mostly in Kurdish, and Kurdish national colors of red, yellow and green flags were everywhere on clothes and banners.

Particularly challenging for festival organizers—and the pro-Kurdish political parties more generally—are ubiquitous groups of PKK supporters, for whom DEHAP’s moderation may grow increasingly frustrating. At Newroz these activists periodically broke into chants of “Long Live Apo” (invoking the nickname of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan) and wave his picture in the air (helpfully published that day on the back page of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ülkede Özgür Gündem). While pro-Kurdish politicians are working within the Turkish political system, many Kurdish youth in the southeastern parts of the country are distrustful of “the state,” openly celebrate Öcalan as “our president” and make no secret of the fact that they would vote for the PKK (or its successor) given the chance. Given that more than 50 percent of Diyarbakir’s population is under 15, this sort of grassroots pressure on moderate party leadership cannot be ignored. It may become harder to ignore in the upcoming months: elements of the PKK based in northern Iraq pledged—just prior to Zana’s release—to resume their armed struggle against the Turkish state. The Ankara government has refused to grant those fighters full amnesty though the PKK stopped its attacks in 1999.

Appeal of the No Longer Forbidden

It is not certain how pro-Kurdish mayors like Baydemir will navigate these waters, or whether they can at all. Swept into office on what they themselves admit was a “vague” mandate of Kurdish identity politics, the 37 mayors elected in the 1999 municipal elections from DEHAP’s predecessor, the now banned People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), mostly set about trying to improve local budgets and services, confining open struggle for Kurdish rights to a series of symbolic acts. Along with their sponsorship of festivals like Newroz, these acts included efforts to name new streets after pro-Kurdish activists and the rewriting of local history textbooks along more Kurd-friendly lines. Such symbolic challenges chipped away at the official emphasis on the Turkish character of the nation, carved out new spaces for the public enunciation of Kurdishness and sent a vehement message to local, national and international audiences that the Kurdish rights movement had not collapsed when the PKK retreated in 1999.

But these measures may not have satisfied the mayors’ youngest and most active supporters. In the March 2004 elections, the pro-Kurdish DEHAP/SHP lost major cities to the governing Justice and Development Party in four southeastern provinces they expected to win, and their overall share of the municipal vote dropped even in strongholds like Diyarbakir. Some party members chalked the losses up to election fraud, but although there were reports of an overt military presence outside some rural polling stations and “open” voting in some locales, in the major cities of the southeast the elections appeared to be mostly free and fair. Upended desks turned into makeshift walls and small curtains in the schoolrooms-cum-polling stations afforded voters some privacy, and in most cases representatives from all the participating parties were present during the voting. It is more likely that some Kurdish voters shunned SHP/DEHAP and jumped to the ruling party because they knew it would be better able to deliver money and services to the southeast. However incomplete the Turkish state’s concessions to the movement for Kurdish rights, Kurdish identity politics may simply be less relevant to such voters today than five or ten years ago. No longer entirely forbidden, pro-Kurdish politics may be losing ground to the promise of political and economic reform from Ankara.

How to cite this article:

Nicole F. Watts "Turkey’s Tentative Opening to Kurdishness," Middle East Report Online, June 14, 2004.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This