New initiatives are budding in the Kurdish camp of Turkey’s political arena, long dominated by the duo of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The emergence of the new groups has coincided with tensions on the scene, leading to suggestions that they are projects to break the BDP’s clout. Yet the widening space for Kurds to engage in politics in Turkey is making the diversification of politics in Kurdistan inevitable.
It is interesting, though, that while the BDP is making efforts to recast itself as a nationwide “party of Turkey” of various shades, its alternatives identify themselves as “Kurdistani” and have a regional focus. Standing out among the new groups are the Kurdish Democratic Platform, the Azadi (Freedom) Initiative and Diyaloga Nu (New Dialogue). They aspire to use the words “Kurdistan” or “Kurdish” — or at least a Kurdish word — in the names of their prospective parties.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched his election campaign in Diyarbakir with Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani at his side. The move was seen as an attempt by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lure pro-Barzani Kurds.
The debate on AKP gains from the Diyarbakir rally was still going on when the bombshell report was released that Barzani was considering setting up a party in Turkey which would be joined by BDP Deputy Leyla Zana, currently at odds with her party, and former PKK Cmdr. Nizamettin Tas.
But what is actually happening is this: The North Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-Bakur), a group modeled on Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is seeking to become a legal party in Turkey. The effort is not new. Writer Fehim Isik, who closely follows the Kurdish movements, told Al-Monitor that for two years now, the KDP-Bakur had been considering legally registering itself with a name including either the word “Kurdish” or “Kurdistan.” Meetings on the issue were reportedly held in Erbil and Diyarbakir. In contacts made with him in Erbil, Tas reportedly said, “If I join you at the outset, it [the party] will be seen as a challenge to the PKK. I’d rather join in later stages if I’m able to return to Turkey.”
"On Barzani’s path"
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Kurdish Democratic Platform Chairman Sertac Bucak explained that KDP-Bakur was formed in 1965 as the “Turkish Kurdistan Democratic Party” and adopted its current name in later years. At its 10th convention, held in Turkey in April 2013, it made a decision to become a legally registered party, he said.
At present, the group is formally active as the “Kurdish Democratic Platform." Taking inspiration from Barzani’s “non-ideological, conservative and secular” stand, it aspires to become a secular political party open to leftists, liberals and conservatives alike. Its slogan is “Rebaz a Barzani,” meaning “On Barzani’s path” — a reference to Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The KDP-Bakur will be formally set up if legal amendments make it possible to use the words “Kurdish” or “Kurdistan” in its name.
Bucak said they aimed to formally establish the party by the general elections in 2015, rather than the municipal polls next March. “In his message at the 10th convention, Barzani put an emphasis on the need to focus on peaceful struggle, described the new formation as a 'sister party' and wished it success,” Bucak said. “We are special for Barzani. I was among the people who attended his meetings at the Diyarbakir municipality. But we are independent; our decision-making organs are based here. We receive no financial support from him. The sympathy for Barzani was obvious in Diyarbakir. We want to enlist the support of those people.”
Why Barzani’s support is unlikely
Whether Barzani is willing to get involved in Turkish politics is a disputed question. Isik made the following assessment: “I know very well that Barzani never openly told them to establish a party. He has shown them sympathy as much as he shows to others. Barzani’s support is mere hearsay. Barzani has never openly backed any party in Turkey and cannot do so. What if they get 0.01% in the elections? That would play negatively on Barzani’s clout.”
Fine. But could the AKP view a pro-Barzani party as an antidote to the BDP? Various Kurdish sources agree that if the government is looking for an alternative to the PKK-BDP duo, it would rather opt for Kemal Burkay’s Rights and Freedom Party (HAKPAR) or the Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP) led by Lutfu Baksi since Serafettin Elci’s demise. Yet these parties are not likely to garner even 1% of the Kurdish vote, as their popularity cannot even compare to that of the BDP. HAKPAR, for instance, got only 35,000 votes in the previous polls. Kurdish movements unrelated to the PKK are led mostly by people who have lived in Europe and lost touch with the masses; they can hardly pose a challenge to the pro-PKK quarters.
The Free Cause Party (Huda-Par), the party of Islamist Kurds that draws on the Turkish Hezbollah’s support base, could be another option the government may try against the BDP. But given that Hezbollah was used against the PKK in the past, using Huda-Par politically today would be a very risky business for the state, as it may result in clashes between the Kurds. Moreover, Huda-Par wields no influence over the BDP support base.
Bucak denied involvement in any plan to undermine the BDP. “The Turkish Kurdistan Democratic Party was set up in 1965. It was illegal. But it was the first party of the Kurdish movement. Hence, we existed before the PKK,” he said. “No Kurdish party seeks to splinter another Kurdish party. We differ from the PKK, but yet they are our brothers. We are diversifying Kurdish politics. It is only natural if some people in the BDP feel close to us.”
Bucak played down as an “urban legend” the reports that Zana and Tas would join them. “We would like to win over everybody, but we’ve never discussed that with Zana. We’ve met twice with Tas, but just to get acquainted and not to extend him an invitation,” he said. Bucak said they distinguished the AKP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), because the AKP did what the social democrats failed to do on the Kurdish question. He dismissed Huda-Par as “un-Kurdistani” and said they felt “closer” to the Azadi Initiative, whose members include descendants of Sheikh Said, “because it has a strong Kurdish streak.”
Sheikh Said’s "Kurdistani" legacy
The Azadi Initiative represents the Islamist Kurdish front, formed in June 2012 in Diyarbakir and inspired by Sheikh Said’s Azadi Movement. In response to Al-Monitor’s questions, Azadi coordinator Adem Ozcaner highlighted the terms “Kurdistani” and “Islamic” to explain how their group differed from the others. “We are a political organization seeking to defend the Kurdistan cause with an Islamic sensibility. We’ve borrowed our name from Said’s movement. Yet we have no claim of representing it. We just take it as a perspective,” Ozcaner said. “The Islamic quarters in Kurdistan have little experience in legal politics. We want to be the pioneers.” The Azadi Initiative, he added, aspires to become a party whose name will include the terms “Kurdistan” and “Islamic.” Yet, if they fail to get an approval, they will acquiesce to a name that includes a Kurdish word like “Azadi.”
And this is how Ozcaner explained their difference from Huda-Par: “They have their roots in an [armed] organization, while we are a movement of cadres. We are a Kurdistani formation. We reject violence and Sharia. We aspire for freedom in Kurdistan. Naturally, new formations in Kurdistan are good for diversity. In the future, we will be both in cooperation and competition with the others. We are able to cooperate with the BDP despite our ideological differences.”
Asked whether their objective was to weaken the BDP, Ozcaner said: “Azadi is not a special-purpose project but a natural formation. We are not an anti-BDP movement. Our political objective is to redeem the rights usurped by the Republic of Turkey. In this context, we see ourselves in tandem with all Kurdistan parties, meaning that we are natural allies with both the BDP and Huda-Par. Our differences come forth in the context of Kurdistan. AKP dominance is a bigger issue than the BDP. We have to drive the AKP out of Kurdistan together.”
The socialist Kurdish camp is not sitting with folded arms, either. The Freedom and Socialism Party (OSP), set up last year by members of the now-defunct Kurdistan Communist Party and led by Sinan Ciftyurek, is advancing at a steady pace.
So, the peace process in Turkey – though currently at a stalemate – is creating a by-product: the diversification of Kurdish politics. This trend is raising the prospect of breaking the PKK monopoly, albeit not immediately but in the peaceful environment aspired to in the long run.
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