The Long March Beyond the Institutions

By Matt Broomfield

The Kurdish movement, along with its friends, supporters and fellow travelers, is experiencing a strange and novel sensation – the uncanny sense that a Presidential election might bring about political change worth the name. Albeit that Turkey’s torn socio-economic fabric will not be remade overnight, and the opportunism of opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu’s appeals to the Kurds and promises to restore the rule of law notwithstanding, the potential deposition of incumbent autocrat Erdoğan would be a significant political rupture.

Transformative political movements have always struggled to find an accommodation with institutional politics. It is to the Kurdish movement’s credit that it has always operated across diverse political fronts, from the armed conflict with the Turkish Armed Forces through the dual-power structures of communes and cooperatives, to the halls of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly.

As Turkey approaches a once-in-a-generation crisis, it is worth examining the relationship between this most radical of movements and the state institutions which have so long served to repress, vitiate, and criminalize the free expression of the Kurdish political agenda. If there is a sense of change among the Kurdish movement, this is not on the basis of hope in these institutions per se, but because of an unshakeable faith in their own ability to continue operating in, through, and beyond these institutions, in full knowledge of their shortcomings.

When I asked Hişyar Özsoy, an MP for the progressive, pro-Kurdish, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), what the mood was on the campaign trail, his response expressed this ambiguity:

“People are excited, angry, frustrated, anxious. But at the same time people are brave and optimistic. You see fear, then you see courage, and then you see hope. Despite the horrible economy and political circumstances, people are very resilient, very willing to resist. This is amazing to see in such repressive political circumstances. It’s very exciting, and very inspiring.”

Apparently, hard-learned cynicism and rightful fear of state institutions do not preclude a willful optimism that this time, something may change. The HDP will likely soon become no less than the ninth successive pro-Kurdish party to be banned outright in Turkey. In fact, Kurdish movement candidates are already forced to run in the latest 14th elections under the Green Left Party (YSP). Because of ongoing legal assaults by the Turkish state, hundreds of leading HDP organizers will also likely soon be banned outright from politics, perhaps joining the 11 HDP MPs currently in jail, or the 59 of 65 democratically-elected HDP mayors summarily removed from office and replaced by state-appointed ‘trustees’.

This is part of the artful politics by which Turkey deliberately aligns all Kurdish political activity and expression, no matter how innocuous or institutionalized, as terrorism – thus actually prolonging the Turkish-Kurdish conflict by perpetuating the armed struggle as the only available form of political expression, in a cycle which suits Turkey perfectly. As a member of a UK delegation, currently in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) to monitor the election, observes: “The process of explaining to the villagers the painful bureaucracy of the electoral system shows how far removed national politics are from villagers’ daily lives.”

But there is also a contrasting sense in which the Kurds are particularly well-equipped for the ‘long march through the institutions’. Old Kurdish women in the villages will sometimes disavow any knowledge of ‘politics’, particularly when confronted with a camera, only to spend the next two hours iterating a stern series of geopolitical and security demands aimed at specific international institutions. This is not politics, to them: it is life. Similarly, I know internationalist volunteers in the Kurdish political movement who started their political life as street-fighting anarchist punks, only to travel via the complex institutionalized, broad-church politics of Rojava’s Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to a working knowledge of, say, who’s who in the quadrilateral diplomatic meetings between deputy foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey.

Given the hostile political conditions outlined above it must be recognized that the Left, often accused of naïve idealism, are necessarily political realists. Not a few Western leftists began their political lives full of misplaced hope in liberal-democratic politics, only to shift further left as the scales fell from their eyes and they recognized the disjuncture between the vague, second-order ‘hope for hope’ put forward by Obama-era liberals and the harsh realities of their lives in the global financial crisis: but those militants who undergo a reverse journey arrive at the morass of Parliamentary politics already disillusioned.

The Kurdish grandmothers angrily invoking norms of international law know all too well what the Turkish state and relevant international powers will and won’t do to ameliorate their condition or protect them from state violence, having learned this lesson first hand, perhaps through the deaths of their sons and daughters. If they do speak this language, they learned it from the bombs and burned fields which attest to its limitations.

Those Kurdish lawmakers who stand up in Parliament, speak their mother tongue, or display Kurdish colors (red, green, and yellow), or simply going door-to-door in rural Bakur sharing a message of democratization and plurality, know full well the hazardous risks they invite. Hundreds more Kurdish politicians, candidates, journalists, and artists have been detained in the past week alone. It is precisely because of these hostile conditions that the Kurdish movement cannot afford to relinquish a single step of terrain.

International supporters are apt to exceptionalize the Kurdish experience and struggle through an orientalist lens, and the question of Parliamentary politics is no exception. We must also ask ourselves why it is we, as Western observers, find it easier to believe in political or institutional change? To the communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, we must witness an idealized ‘other’ reality to experience the distancing alienation he calls Verfremdungseffekt, preventing direct, sentimental identification with the subject matter and instead forcing the observer to reflect on their own material circumstances.

A similar relation must animate a productive internationalist politics. If we recognize something surreal in switching between scenes of existential militant struggle backed by the fiery rhetoric of Kurdish Gerîla TV, to talk-shows and video spots which more closely resemble Western liberal Parliamentary politics, we must use this sense to recognize the particularities and limitations of each form of political action – as well as asking how the bullet came to be so separated from the ballot-box in our Western understanding of politics. The dynamic political situation in Turkey should enable us to identify and critique the severe lack of political dynamism in our various domestic contexts.

The Kurdish question lies at the heart of this political dynamism, serving as the motor of progressive political change in Turkey while also provoking – or being cited as excuse for – the authoritarian excesses which have characterized Erdoğan’s latter-day rule. Opposition candidate Kiliçdaroğlu has recently, and somewhat unprecedentedly, accused Erdoğan of invoking Kurdish separatism as a ploy to delegitimize the social-democratic opposition by associating them with Kurdish terrorism. But his Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents the Kemalist tradition dating back to the Turkish Republic’s foundation, also stands for a more or less authoritarian, centrally-controlled Turkish nationalism on the basis of a unitary national identity. It may be only now, as Kiliçdaroğlu makes his bid to unseat Erdoğan for the first time in over two decades, that he comes to regret his party’s recent support for Erdoğan’s ethnic cleansing and occupation of Kurdish territories abroad and liquidation of the domestic Kurdish opposition – the same Kurds he now needs for electoral victory.

Marx describes the gradual eroding of parliamentary norms in 19th century France as the dictator Louis Napoleon prepared to seize power: “Every demand for the most simple bourgeois financial reform, for the most ordinary liberalism… is punished as an assault on society and is branded as ‘Socialism’, and this enables the forces of reaction to arise.” One need only replace ‘Socialism’ with ‘Kurdish’ to see the similarities with Erdoğan’s own invocation of his own bête noire. For Marx goes on to explain how the bourgeois, liberal parliament gladly signed away its own “citizens’ rights and progressive organs” on the basis of the supposed socialist threat, only to realize all too late that “its own parliamentary regime is also bound to fall under the general ban of socialistic”, and be “relieved… wholly of the care of ruling itself.”

In present-day Turkey, once again, the party of bourgeois-liberal norms has found itself allied with an increasingly dictatorial, militarized regime on the basis of that regime’s appeals to ‘national unity’. Erdoğan is now darkly suggesting he will refuse to relinquish power to the CHP should he lose the election, absurdly claiming that the CHP has ties to the Kurdish freedom movement and “Qandil” (the PKK mountain headquarters), as though the CHP has not stood by silently for years in the face of his attacks on Kurdish civil-society and any parliamentary expression of granting the Kurds even their basic democratic rights.

Perhaps Kiliçdaroğlu may yet find himself regretting his inability to challenge Erdoğan where it mattered most, finding his voice only in a viral Twitter video released in the weeks prior to the election. But even if Erdoğan is able to deploy the full media, judicial, and repressive apparatus at his disposal to cling to power, and further entrench his dictatorial grasp on Turkish society, or even leave Kiliçdaroğlu permanently deposed from political life, the Kurdish-led progressive left is unlikely to be dismayed for long.

Marx tempers his analysis with the assertion that the downfall of the Second Republic, and concomitant repression, “carries with it the germ of the triumph of the proletarian revolution,” as political polarization gradually aligns the workers as the only class capable of finally breaking the repressive machine. This unshakeable, dialectic faith, in which history ‘advances by its bad side’ and each defeat therefore opens the way for a new victory, is certainly present in the Kurdish movement’s own post-Marxist analysis.

This extraordinary, self-justified certainty is absent from the hesitant politics of reform or retreat typically adopted by the progressive left in the post-Soviet West. This is one reason many international activists have turned to the Kurdish movement, with its bold program of social transformation from Parliament down to the village commune, and even bolder self-understanding as the inheritors of the global leftist tradition and key fulcrum of contemporary geopolitics.

As HDP MP Özsoy told me, Kurdish politicians and community alike are quite used to being banned from political life, and prepared for the arduous struggle that will come with rebuilding their parliamentary movement for the ninth time in succession. The Kurdish movement may look forward to the coming elections not because they expect an easy victory, or indeed any type of success: but because they recognize that history is the history of conflict, of defeats opening the way for new victories, and crises which may either kill or cure, but certainly result in change.


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