Thus, the Kurdish movement can also be considered to include the third largest opposition party in Turkey, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is a coalition between Kurdish activists, some Turkish leftist groups and certain prominent Turkish liberals.
The Kurdish movement’s specific organizational model—composed of autonomous, semi-autonomous and directly linked groups—allows for the particular amalgam of connected but distinct objectives found in the Kurdish movement in Turkey. While the three main objectives are meant to be complementary and cover a wide range of issues that range in scale from particular to universal, they also have the capacity to undermine one another—perhaps best demonstrated by the ill-fated peace talks between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state that took place between 2013 and 2015.
The Kurdish Movement’s Objectives
The first objective, of resolving the Kurdish issue, requires that both Turkey and the Kurds move beyond tactics of violence and militarism. It may also involve a settlement to transform the organization of the Turkish state, subject to negotiation. Some of the specific demands by the Kurdish movement that must be met before it ends the armed campaign are the right to education in the Kurdish language, increased self-governance through administrative changes and finally amnesty for PKK members and possibly for Öcalan, thereby ending the criminalization of Kurdish politics more broadly. The second objective, of democratization in Turkey, is to render nationwide politics more inclusive through the drafting of a new and comprehensive constitution that would represent a new social contract. In the lead up to the 2015 election, however, when the peace talks between the PKK and the state were still ongoing, the goal of democratization came to be narrowly defined as preventing then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from becoming president, as well as removing him from power through elections. Finally, the objective of decentralization, formulated as Democratic Confederalism, aims to set up an administrative system of directly elected civic councils to eventually govern alongside a weak confederal state, not only in the Kurdish regions but also throughout Turkey and beyond.
The Kurdish movement’s main objectives differ in the depth of their proposed political transformation, as well as in their political and temporal frameworks. They also involve different sets of actors and interlocutors. For example, the resolution of the Kurdish issue is a sub-state nationalist goal, as it demands equality between Turks and Kurds, whereas the objective of democratizing Turkey encompasses all of Turkey’s multiple ethnic and national groups. While there are a significant number of Kurds living in non-Kurdish areas of Turkey, the primary focus of the first objective—resolving the Kurdish issue—is on the Kurdish region of Turkey. During the peace process, the PKK emphasized strengthening local governmental institutions, as well as making it easier for the Kurds to return home since many had been forcibly displaced since the early 1980s. The primary Kurdish agent for resolving the issue is the PKK, which leads the insurgency against the Turkish military. The main interlocutors on the other side are Turkish state security organs and the government. It is therefore a top-down process that can be resolved through negotiations behind closed doors, which might culminate in a proposal of legal and administrative changes that could be forwarded to the Turkish parliament. If such a proposal was eventually agreed to by the Kurdish movement, the Kurdish issue could be resolved through administrative arrangements without changing the borders of Turkey. A settlement would also need to include enhanced local authority as broadly defined by the European Charter of Local Self-Government—now possible because over the past 20 years the Kurdish movement dropped its goal of creating a separate Kurdish state. The resolution framework is thereby located within the nation-state paradigm.
Fulfilling the objective of resolving the Kurdish issue would not necessarily generate a massive rupture from the existing configuration of political power in Turkey. In other words, it can be resolved without removing the ruling party from power. Furthermore, settling the Kurdish issue is also a reformist demand that can be achieved in the short term and which need not require the full democratization of Turkey. It is possible to imagine a country where the Kurds are restrained as citizens of an authoritarian country but not repressed or discriminated against due to their ethnic identity.
The objective of democratizing Turkey, on the other hand, is an internationalist project that also encompasses the Turkish nation. Accomplishing this goal would mean retaining the Turkish nation-state but transforming it in a way that accommodates its multi-ethnic nature. The central focus of democratization is therefore not regional but nationwide. The primary and most visible agent of this project has been the HDP, while the interlocutors and potential allies are any political party opposing Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although the objective of resolving the Kurdish issue could be achieved through agreements between the PKK and the Turkish state, democratization can only be achieved if the Kurdish movement secures cooperation between a much broader section of the Turkish opposition, as well as rival elite groups within the state.
Finally, the goal of autonomy in the form of Democratic Confederalism is a universalist project that exceeds the national liberation paradigm. As a goal that necessitates decentralization, it requires stripping away nation-state power in favor of local councils—a localized system of governance that is envisioned to expand transnationally to areas well beyond the Kurdish region. This objective does not require unseating the existing government in the short term since it proposes to go beyond the mere rotation of elites within the current configuration of power. It requires the cadres of the PKK to engage in grassroots politics and to set up local self-governance organizations instead of focusing on nationwide electoral party politics.
While the objectives of resolving the Kurdish issue and democratizing Turkey are reformist, decentralization—formulated as Democratic Confederalism by Öcalan—is a revolutionary project that is the culmination of the movement’s ideology. As such, this framework requires a profound transformation of social, economic and political structures. But since the project is a gradual, flexible and long-term process that needs to be established from the bottom up, the ruling bloc may not perceive it as an immediate threat. Democratic Confederalism in its full form is also not attainable by the Kurdish movement unless there are significant shifts in national, regional and possibly global power balances. In that sense, democratic autonomy is an even longer-term project than the resolution of the Kurdish issue or the democratization of Turkey.
Peace Talks Gone Awry
The failed peace process of 2013 to 2015 exposed the problems that arise when pursuing these related but distinct objectives all at once. The multitude of the Kurdish movements’ strategies, actors, interlocutors and priorities were not the primary cause for the failure of the peace process. But the potential for these projects to undercut each other is a pivotal factor that helps explain the conundrums of the Kurdish movement during this period.
What is referred to as the resolution or peace process was a series of direct talks between Öcalan, who remained imprisoned on Imralı island in the Marmara Sea, and Turkish state security officials operating with a mandate from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Following the talks, Öcalan usually held meetings with three HDP members of parliament who took notes and combined them afterwards. The MPs also took handwritten letters from Öcalan to PKK officials in Europe and occasionally to Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK’s armed units are based. They also brought back the responses of PKK officials to Imralı, to be viewed by both state officials and Öcalan. Although the HDP was not an official party to the process, the HDP leaders frequently declared that the peace process would come to an end if the government failed to take certain actions, such as abandoning specific security laws.
As the talks progressed, the PKK declared a ceasefire in March 2013 and withdrew its fighters from Turkey. This action was not reciprocated by any concrete reforms on the part of the Turkish government, apart from a law extending legal protection to the state officials who were conducting the talks with the PKK. The process eventually came to an end a couple of months after the general election in June 2015 when the ruling party lost a qualified majority in the parliament to form a single party government. The AKP then utilized the period of political uncertainty to promote a nationalist discourse that polarized the country around the securitization of the Kurdish issue and garnered support from more nationalist constituents.
The government’s diminishing electoral success following the peace process, however, was not the sole reason why the talks broke down. The process collapsed due to a combination of factors including mistrust between the two sides, their conflicting understandings of each other’s military and political strengths, the discrepancy between the discourse and practice of the parties, deficiencies of the negotiation mechanism and the spoiler role of factions within the Turkish state, as well as the role of regional developments.
The breakdown of the talks had a catastrophic effect on the Kurdish population starting with a disproportionate government response to the Kurdish movement’s challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence.
How Disparate Goals Undermined the Kurdish Movement
There are three broad reasons why the nationalist, internationalist and universalist objectives of the Kurdish movement undermined each other within the context of the 2013–2015 peace process. The first reason is that each objective alienates different sectors of elites and thereby unites them in their opposition to the Kurdish movement. The second reason is the discordance between the various actors over their roles and strategies, and the third is the lack of effective prioritization of objectives and tactics within the Kurdish movement.
Between 2013 and 2015 fratricidal rivalry and factionalism were rife within the Turkish state. The nationalist Ergenekon faction within the military, Gülenists, ultranationalists and supporters of the Erdoğan government were all competing to expand their reach from within the state while undermining one another. Negotiating peace with a state riddled with such factionalism required sensitivity to intrastate conflict and at times the taking of sides between different elite factions. During and after the talks, rivalries within the state apparatus came out into the open in the form of court cases, including the Ergenekon trial where active and retired members of the security agencies were accused of plotting a coup against the democratically elected government. A botched military coup led by members of the Gülen movement on July 15, 2016 signaled the ultimate breaking point of this rivalry.
Back in 2012, Öcalan started the peace talks with senior members of the security bureaucracy at a time when Erdoğan’s governing AKP included many Kurds as senior members. Although there was no significant opposition to the negotiations from among the broader Turkish public at the time, Ergenekon and Gülenist factions who had considerable control over the military and some parts of the media were vocally against the talks. Some Turkish left-liberal figures also accused the Kurdish movement of being in cahoots with the government for negotiating with it at all.
Öcalan’s strategy was to weaken the AKP government enough to accept Kurdish demands, without necessarily unseating it. The HDP leadership, on the other hand, took a different line, gradually growing more hostile toward the government in the hope of uniting the Turkish opposition behind it.
From the ruling elite’s perspective, the Kurdish movement’s push to change the configuration of power in Turkey meant that the same elite negotiating the resolution with the PKK would be forced to give up more power than would be necessary to address an ethnic question. The HDP had hoped that such a call for a fundamental revision of the political sphere would unite the rest of the opposition behind them. That did not happen. The anti-Erdoğan opposition instead supported all of the significant anti-Kurdish policies of the government, including stripping the HDP MP’s of their parliamentary immunity and green-lighting Turkish incursions into the Kurdish regions of Syria. What is more, the premature instigation of self-defense within the democratic autonomy project led the youth to take up arms against the state by forming military units to protect designated urban areas from state security, alienating a more extensive section of the ruling bloc, as well as members of the Kurdish upper classes. Since the pursuit of Democratic Confederalism requires profound social, economic and political transformations, the ruling propertied classes will be at a disadvantage. As a result, instead of playing one faction off against the other, the strategy of the Kurdish movement pushed the nationalist elites of different schools, be they religious nationalists, ultra-nationalists, secularists or left-wing nationalists, to come together. At present, the ruling bloc is comprised almost entirely of a range of hardline nationalists.
As a national liberation struggle, the Kurdish movement is composed of different classes, which need to work together. While the PKK leadership is almost completely made up of working-class individuals, the HDP leadership—especially those who are visible and more influential—is dominated by the middle and upper classes. All of these organizations, such as the PKK, the HDP and semi-autonomous bodies that organize youth, women and workers, as well as the local institutions of democratic autonomy, were essentially devised by Öcalan. In that respect, Öcalan was the only figure who could actively mediate between these multiple actors—a role he could not perform after his imprisonment in 1999, especially in the period between 2011 and 2019 when he was denied access to his lawyers. His meetings with the HDP MPs came to an end in May 2015.
During the peace process, while Öcalan prioritized continuing the negotiations, the HDP MPs and PKK officials were more willing to risk the process to attain other objectives. While the HDP focused on their goal of removing the government from power, the PKK sought to entrench territorial control to challenge the state’s monopoly over violence. Although the PKK did not immediately resort to violence per se, its leadership declared an end to the ceasefire on July 11, before the peace process formally came to an end. In a similar vein, the HDP did not refrain from targeting Erdoğan while he was overseeing the negotiations with the PKK, which ended up severely straining the peace process. On February 28, 2015, an HDP member of parliament—in the presence of a group of ruling party politicians including the deputy prime minister—made the historic televised announcement of the themes of the peace negotiations between the PKK and the state. Barely half an hour later, the HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş gave an interview to the press stating his distrust of the government, thereby casting a shadow over the statement.
In order to properly prioritize different objectives, they must be evaluated on the basis of their urgency and time frame. While all three objectives of the Kurdish movement seek to address equally salient aspects of the Kurdish issue, armed conflict causes the death, imprisonment and displacement of Kurdish people on a daily basis. Following the collapse of the peace process in 2015, several thousand people died in the conflict in Turkey and in Turkey’s incursions into Syria, including Kurdish fighters and civilians as well as members of Turkish security forces. The temporal dimension of each objective determines the timeline for its realization. While the resolution of armed conflict could be achieved immediately through an agreement between the two main actors, the PKK and the state, the objectives of democratization and decentralization require longer term organization and planning. Contrary to the top-down nature of resolution, democratic autonomy can only be built from the bottom up. Democratization, on the other hand, necessitates both an elite pact and mass mobilization.
HDP’s formulation of the resolution of armed conflict as a subset of the wider democratization campaign, including the removal of Erdoğan from office, risked postponing the more urgent issue of resolution that could have been attained in the short term. HDP’s formulation of the resolution of armed conflict as a subset of the wider democratization campaign, including the removal of Erdoğan from office, risked postponing the more urgent issue of resolution that could have been attained in the short term. Meanwhile, the PKK prioritized instituting democratic autonomy by means of establishing armed control in several Kurdish towns across Turkey. Ultimately, this approach backfired.
Where to Go from Here?
Even though the universal and particular projects of the Kurdish movement ended up undercutting each other during the peace process, it would be wrong to assume that these projects are categorically incompatible in the context of a national liberation struggle. Two mitigating measures could have reduced the discrepancies between these projects: an effective political conductor to coordinate action by the multitude of actors within the Kurdish movement and a meta-strategy to ensure a consistent prioritization among all the political projects to make them feed into each other. Although he has been a figurehead of the movement, Abdullah Öcalan’s lack of direct access to the public or through his lawyers prevented him from playing the conductor role. The movement’s fragmentary structure that straddles semi-autonomous legal and illegal, armed and civilian organizations made the formulation and implementation of a coherent meta-strategy difficult.
As the case of the peace process revealed, these objectives can help each other in the current context in a more uni-directional rather than multi-directional way: While the resolution of the conflict would be an absolute step toward the democratization of Turkey, it is not guaranteed that any step toward democratization would then bring resolution closer, especially when democratization is defined primarily as an electoral contestation to remove Erdoğan from power.
It is perhaps easier to make the objectives of decentralization and resolution work together since neither of them necessarily poses an immediate challenge to the ruling elite. The main reason why pushing for decentralization blocked resolution of the armed conflict was not what decentralization signified per se. It was rather the premature instigation of mechanisms for self-defense that affected the peace process adversely. The priorities of democratization, on the other hand, generally appear to be contradictory to those of resolution and decentralization. Since democratization was primarily articulated as electoral competition, its logic prioritized taking control of governmental power or weakening the government, even if this may jeopardize the peace process and resolution of the Kurdish issue. Democratization formulated in this way may also have jeopardized the bottom up democratization efforts that are part of decentralization.
Although the mismatch in the objectives crystalized from 2013 to 2015, tensions stemming from the discordance of roles and competing priorities have not been addressed in the five years following the end of the peace process. The Kurdish movement has not openly acknowledged the challenges of managing different objectives at once, nor has it engaged in a public discussion of the roots of those challenges.
As a result of pursuing a multitude of objectives and due to state repression, the Kurdish movement was unable to resist marginalization by the Turkish government. Thousands of Kurdish political activists, MPs and mayors were arrested and most of the municipalities won by the HDP were taken over by the government and given to AKP appointees for two consecutive election cycles. Several Kurdish towns and neighborhoods populated by core supporters of the Kurdish movement were destroyed and some razed to the ground following the collapse of the peace process. Furthermore, the Kurdish movement could not mobilize masses to counter the state’s rolling back of all Kurdish gains. Starting with an acknowledgement and a public discussion of the problems that arise from different branches of the movement following aims at cross purposes, the Kurdish movement needs to be clear about the mechanisms of its decision making processes and decide on who or which organization will play the conductor role to synchronize the efforts of its different branches. Meanwhile, the current Turkish ruling bloc will make it as difficult as possible for the movement to recalibrate its modus operandi.
[Guney Yildiz is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Applied Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and a PhD student at Cambridge University.]
 Abdullah Öcalan, Democratic Nation (Mesopotamian Publishers, 2016)
 Cengiz Çandar, “‘Leaving the Mountain’: How May the PKK Lay Down Arms? Freeing the Kurdish Question from Violence,” Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), March 27, 2012.