16 November 2009
Although it was the remnant of a multinational, multi-religious and multi-sectarian empire, the Turkish Republic had inherent biases against local administrations and minorities. Since the Ottoman Empire had disintegrated mainly due to the local uprisings and the local minorities the new state developed intense biases accordingly. Differences of any kind, ethnic, religious and political, were perceived as potential motives for separation and thus, the young Turkish state was built upon a centrist understanding. Due to the shock resulting from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the idea to create a homogenous society and to centralize powers turned into an obsession for the new state. The new state saw ‘enemies’ everywhere and adopted measures against them. Understandably, one of the victims of that obsession has been the Southeastern Anatolian region, where Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin constitute the majority. The fear of Kurdish separatism did not allow local administrations to develop as it had also prevented other democratic developments in the region. Besides, the economic and cultural underdevelopment also hindered the development of a fertile ground for strong local politics. Consequently, local administrations as well as politics in the region in general were controlled by powerful landowners, clans, and sheikhs. In spite of the election, parliamentarians and mayors were mainly chosen de facto by certain powerful clans, and the region, as a result, did not receive its share from the overall democratization of the country even as much as other regions.
Turkey held its first multiparty elections in 1950, and normalization took place almost on every realm henceforth. The Southeastern Anatolian region was a beneficiary of that normalization as well. Yet, coup d’états committed in almost every decade in the country did not allow full normalization. The governments formed right after coup d’états altered laws and appointed like-minded people to the heart of the state, which enabled them to entrench their mentality in the periods between coup d’états. This enabled their mentality to maintain power without actually committing coup d’états again. The state bureaucracy and judiciary were dominated by the mentality of statist even militarist people, afraid of their own society, variety and local politics. Perceiving itself as the owner of a virtual state, with society as its primary enemy, this mentality has transformed itself into what is called a ‘deep state’ in Turkey. The Turkish state, shaped repeatedly through coup d’états, instituted its own media and business circle. Thus, a world of industry, trade and media that was tied to the state by an umbilical cord was created. Undoubtedly, the Southeastern Anatolian Region has been one of the victims of that unfortunate fact.
With the former President Turgut Özal in power, things began to change. Özal followed policy devolution of central powers in particular. Yet, Özal’s drastic reforms met serious resistance, as he survived even an assassination attempt. Özal tried to devolve powers to local regions and civilize Turkish politics. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1993 before he was able to realize most of the reforms he had had in mind, though it is beyond a doubt by now that what Özal realized was a wholesale mentality revolution in every realm in Turkey. The new era he had opened triggered irreversible processes in Turkey, of which the Southeastern problem, local administrations and major governance come first.
Terrorism undisputedly became another impediment to the development of local administrations in Southeastern Anatolia. Beginning in 1983 the PKK targeted the Kurdish people first and killed more Kurdish people than Turks. The terrorist organization that is culpable of killing more than 5.000 civilians over the last 25 years in Turkey has set construction equipment on fire, destroyed schools, and damaged communication and transportation lines, thus rendering impossible the proper implementation of public services in the region. Local administrations were one of the important targets of the terrorist organization. Mayors and their relatives were abducted and even killed. Even participating in elections became a security concern for the lives of local people, let alone improving local administrations, and the terrorist organization has been the chief reason for that fact. In addition to 5.000 civilians killed, more than 10.000 security persons, of whom a majority were citizens of Kurdish origin, have been killed. More importantly, similar to the state, the PKK has blocked alternative ways of involvement in political processes. As a result of PKK attacks, socialist, conservative, liberal, religious or other Kurdish political movements were totally destroyed, and relatively weak rivals were eliminated or forced to leave the country. Hence, the state that tried to achieve ends through military means only and the PKK were the only remaining players on the field. This created a bipolar situation under the shadow of weapons. Local administrations were also affected in the process. Centrally appointed governors and other local administrators stayed away from society and municipalities were shared between political parties, acting as shadow cabinets of the PKK, and national parties owed their success to local feudal structures. As the number of national parties decreased over time, the municipalities in the southeast were mainly left in the hands of PKK-linked persons or groups. The PKK-related parties were not political structures with which we were familiar. As an illustration, Sinn Fein in Ireland should not be put into the same category as the PKK’s HDP (Society’s Democracy Party) or DTP (Democratic Society Party). Political parties like the DTP are not ideological leaders of an armed movement, but rather are established under the direct command of the armed groups, and it is almost impossible for the DTP to be freely involved in politics. Armed terrorists rule in such parties and they are the ones who decide who will run for candidacy and attend the elections. Even the slightest deviation of the DTP members from the commands of the terrorist organization is severely punished. Unfortunately, the shadow of the weapons of the PKK and embedded terrorists inside local politics reflected not only on parties and municipalities but also on elections. The PKK threatened local administrators and constituencies before and during elections. For example, it was a regular occurrence for a PKK militant to be on duty on a voting ballot box in a small village, and male constituents was threatened by death if a political party that the PKK did not approve was victorious in that box. When the approved party won the elections, the elected was forced to act in line with the orders of the PKK. A reverse hierarchy was established as armed militants were disguised as cleaning stuff and civil servants in municipalities. Elected mayors were being forced to receive orders from the cleaning stuff and so-called accountants, who were supposed to be under their authority. Therefore, it was hard, nearly impossible, to be freely involved in politics in Southeastern Anatolia, and those who did not rely on the state or the PKK faced fatal dangers, including threats to their lives, during the 1980s and 1990s.
When Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, was captured in 1999, the intensity of the terrorist attacks dramatically decreased. Moreover, Turkey also started to take some steps towards liberalization. This had positive results for the state’s Kurdish policy. The restrictions put in place after the 12 September 1980 coup d’état were lightened and Kurdish language courses were allowed to open. Reforms accelerated with the European Union (EU) accession process, and a ‘purification campaign’ was initiated by the Turkish state. Legal changes and regulations were made and the EU framework was taken as the benchmark for many issues. Yet it was also understood that changing laws would not suffice for sustainable solutions because the normalization efforts met hard resistance from the civilian and military bureaucracy, judiciary, as well as people and institutions in the private sector who support the ‘deep state’ (or ‘illegal state’). Finally, it is now known that plots for coup d’états failed in that period. The commencement of accession negotiations with the EU in 2005 accelerated and gave a new impetus to Turkey’s democratization efforts. More importantly, perhaps for the first time in its history, Turkey has been going through an intense transformation effort inside the country. One could even say that the Turkish state has been casting out its own ‘evil’ structure and fears. What we have been witnessing is not a mere law amendment effort, but a wholesale mentality revolution. The current Ergenekon case contains the most conspicuous examples of that, and the process continues. This has had effects on Kurdish politics and localization. The reforms, even the simplest of which could not have been realized before, are now being realized very quickly under the Kurdish Opening or Democratic Opening Campaign. For example, the barriers to the Kurdish language are being lifted one by one. Although even speaking the Kurdish language was banned until very recently, today a state-owned channel (TRT-Ses, or TRT-6) broadcasting in Kurdish for 24 hours a day has been founded. Other state-owned channels broadcast in Kurdish on important days (religious days). The opening that began with mere 15-minute broadcasts expanded to 24-hour broadcasts, and today even this is not seen as sufficient as legal arrangements are being made to allow privately owned channels to broadcast in Kurdish. In addition, steps to open Kurdology departments in Turkish universities have been continuing. Governorships and the police have been working on new regulations to serve citizens in Kurdish as well. Police call centers serving for 24 hours can be shown among those regulations. The works regarding police officers to speak the Kurdish language are also under way.
The names of villages and other places whose names were changed during coup d’état periods might also be replaced with their former names. The Interior Minister himself promised that if particular demands were made to replace those names, the former names would be given back, and the Prime Minister and the President have used the former names of such places and proclaimed their support for the plan. Special efforts to improve the perception of the Kurdish language as a language of culture and education are also under way. For example, changes such as the first Kurdish theatre and opera have changed the fundamental relationship between the state and its Kurdish citizens. The government began another initiative under the name of the Democratic Initiative in summer 2009, and it promised to take larger and bolder steps to improve the standing of Kurdish identity, cultural rights and Kurdish language as they requested the Democratic Society Party, in spite of its links to the PKK, and the main opposition parties in Turkey to support the process. What has been rather surprising in the process is the reaction shown by the PKK and DTP. For instance, when the Kurdish TV channel, TRT Ses, was opened, the PKK called people to protest the channel, those watching it were threatened and those preparing programs for the channels were given death threats by the PKK. Another positive development in the process of democratization is the fact that the DTP has not been closed down since 2005, although some of its members have made efforts to provoke the judges to close down the party. In Turkey, where closure of political parties is a frequent occurrence, the state has resisted the judiciary’s pursuit to close down the DTP, as a part of its revolutionary mentality change. This has enabled the DTP to be involved in politics for the last two terms. This in turn should be seen as the Turkish state’s search for a legitimate counterpart in Kurdish politics. Another important development that has relatively escaped attention so far is the financial strengthening of local administrations. Municipalities among local administrations have been prioritized for the last 7 years. First of all, the percentage allocated to the municipalities from the central budget has increased to unprecedented levels and such large budgets have allowed municipalities to undertake more ambitious projects these days. Considering the fact that the size of the Turkish economy increased four-fold in that period, the financial opportunities for local administrations can be better understood. The support given to local administrations through legal and new financial means still continues. Yet, it is mostly the municipalities in the Western regions that benefit most from such reforms and transfer of resources from the center to the local regions. This is mainly because municipalities in the Southeastern Anatolian region have been occupied by ideological considerations. A considerable number of municipalities have been won by the DTP, which founded its policies solely on Kurdism. The party never expresses opinions on environmental issues, women rights, agriculture, unemployment and national and regional issues of vital importance. The Party tries to view all issues from the perspective of the issue of Kurdish identity and acts as if Turkey only has a Kurdish problem. The party has applied the same judgment to the local administrations arena. This has caused the municipalities held by the DTP to remain inadequate in coming up with projects towards local issues, fail to use their share from the central budget or use it to hire like-minded people rather than serving people. In municipalities held by the DTP, a unique ‘policy of employment,’ which includes the PKK militants as well, has been observed. The Party allocates funds for the relatives of slain PKK terrorists and does not allow persons other than those on the PKK-approved list to undertake projects and sign contracts for the municipality. The PKK’s threats are still important in elections. In short, while the state manifests a genuine change and political will to change, the PKK and its appendages demonstrate neither the change nor the will to change. The municipalities held by the DTP are able to utilize and enjoy the European Union and other European funds in addition to their share from the central state budget and taxes collected. As a part of the EU’s sympathetic look towards minority groups, such privileged funds can amount to millions of euros, and those municipalities of the DTP are given more privilege in accessing those funds in practice. However, it is worrying to observe that those funds are spent for ideological gains under the name of cultural needs instead of on basic services such as infrastructure and transportation.
The campaign Turkey embarked upon by radically changing laws and regulations is still underway. Both regarding local administrations and Kurdish politics, drastic changes have been taking places on paper. Authority is being devolved from the center to regional and local administrations. The process of change that started as the EU process has transformed into the Ankara process and now has domestic wind behind it. The process faces stiff resistance on two fronts today: the first is an impediment from inside the state, the pockets of illegal structures entrenched within the state. Defining themselves as nationalist-right and nationalist-leftists (ulusalci) while being the products of the same illegal groupings, these pockets present localization in politics as a process leading to separation. They allegedly claim that the strengthening of municipalities and holding local administrators like governors subject to elections will eventually lead to Turkey’s partitioning. The same persons and groups present democratization as a path that will lead to separation in the end.
Surprisingly, the second pocket of stiff resistance to the swirl of democratization is the PKK. The terrorist organization has been trying to undermine the Democratization Initiative (or ‘Kurdish Opening’). As it tried to block democratization efforts before during the days of the EU membership negotiations via bomb attacks and suicide attempts, the PKK today has been trying to ‘invade’ local administrations on the one hand and has been trying hard to empower the hawks inside the Turkish state at the expense of civilian wing on the other. The PKK that was fed by the state’s mistakes prefers one to make new mistakes. In order for the new democratic state to maintain its reforms in Southeastern Anatolia it needs counterparts and partners in the process. The DTP has been chosen as the counterpart and partner. Nonetheless, the DTP has not been able to leave its arms and been unable to break its link once and for all with the terrorist organization to do politics through legitimate means. It seems hard to unseat the PKK’s commissars inside the party and the municipalities. No member of the DTP has had the courage to do so. Although Turkish security officers have penetrated the PKK and removed many of them from the DTP in what is called the KCK (Union of Kurdish Communities) operations, the DTP still needs courageous politicians in order to be a real and reliable partner to the more democratic Turkish state. It will undoubtedly be harder to focus on local administrations and other civilian needs under the constant shadow of the weapons in the region. Both Turkey and the region need pluralism and democratization in national and Kurdish politics. Unless we have many DTPs and the PKK-state polarization is not broken in the Southeastern Anatolian region a real localization cannot be possibly achieved. To conclude, even though there is still more to be done in terms of legal changes, changing laws on paper seems to be the simplest part of the whole project. What is more important and harder to realize is the mentality change, but this takes longer to assimilate. It would be unrealistic to expect both the state and the people in regional politics, as well as their fears, perceptions and ways of behaviors, to change in a short period of time. No one has the ability to suddenly pull a rabbit out of a hat, and there seems to be no panacea. What is needed is for the processes to be constructed in cooperation. This is why these actors, rivals to each other today, should enter into constructive cooperation to solve those problems instead of undermining and exploiting them.
* This paper was first presented at “The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities” organised by Council of Europe