The AKP and the Peace Process

Nazan Üstündağ, Dec 1 2013

[An earlier version of this article was first published on 21 October 2013 in Özgür Gündem. This article was translated from Turkish by Anna Vakali and Nazan Üstündağ.]

In the month of November, there have been several important developments regarding the peace process in Turkey. First, Prime Minister Erdoğan announced a democratic package, which was supposed to be a step towards democratization and peace. Second, in its formal declarations at least, the Turkish state has actively started to dissociate itself from groups such as al-Nusra and the ISIS, both of which have been targeting Kurds in Rojava and in other parts of Syria. Finally, a meeting in Amed—where a Prime Minister in Turkey for the first time used the word “Kurdistan” to refer to the Kurdistan Federal Region in Iraq—brought together Erdoğan, Masoud Barzani, and the Kurdish musicians İbrahim Tatlıses and Şivan Perwer. Tatlıses is a Kurdish singer representing assimilation and enjoying great privilege and popularity in Turkey, while Şivan Perwer is one whose music has breathed life into Kurdish resistance and Kurds’ national identity, because of which he and his music remained banned from Turkey for over twenty years.

While national and international observers alike claim that such moves contribute to the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Liberation Movement, I read them differently. I claim that all these are indications of the degree of uneasiness the AKP has been experiencing in relation to some of the leaps forward that the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) have made lately. I suggest that these developments initiated by the AKP need to be seen as tactics that aim at pushing the BDP and the PKK to a marginal position in society, and hence preventing them from becoming the main legitimate actors in the peace process, as they have managed to do.

The peace process has enabled the Kurdish Liberation Movement to overcome the social and political boundaries enforced on it by the thirty-year-long war. Towards that end, the Movement has initiated the organization of three conferences in Ankara, Diyarbakır, and Brussels in the last year, which brought together Kurdish and Turkish oppositional activists. The guerrillas, on the other hand, have invited journalists from Turkey to visit Qandil to observe several press conferences regarding their retreat, which attracted considerable attention from the public. Also, both Abdullah Öcalan and those in Qandil have shown their support for the Gezi resistance, and as such have established unexpected alliances between Kurdish and Turkish women and youth. All these have contributed to the formation of the a new party in Turkey (the HDK/HDP) which aims to represent these newly-forming alliances in the social and political spheres.[1] The strength of such alliances is the fact that they open spaces of civil negotiation, which are neither state- nor government-centered. They also bring forward the possibility of a political and social sphere alternative to the one the AKP has been building in Turkey.

For a long time, the AKP has been claiming to be the only rational actor in the political field and has presented itself as the sole negotiator between Turkish and Kurdish people. Such a position on the part of the AKP can only be sustained if the social and political spaces of Turkey are imagined to be dichotomized: between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, for example, or between Islamists and seculars. On the other hand, civil negotiations and formations initiated by the BDP and the PKK by means of conferences, press statements, and through the formation of the HDK and HDP hint at the possibility of a third way, which has the potential of changing the political scene in Turkey radically towards one that overcomes conventional binaries and gives birth to something new. Hence my argument: the AKP, which owes its being to binaries and dichotomies, is trying to turn the situation back to a prior state through its recent maneuvers. That is how the so-called democratic package, or the Barzani-Erdoğan meeting, should be read: as attempts of the AKP to reinstate itself as the sole force of democracy and peace in the face of alliances being formed on the ground between Kurdish and Turkish oppositional social and political forces, which the AKP cannot control. By reducing the Kurdish Liberation Movement to a national identity and subjectivity, the AKP seeks to regain control over Turkey’s and Kurdistan’s political and social life, which are radically changing as a result of the peace process, the Gezi protests, the forming of the HDK/HDP, and the sensibilities underlying them: the willingness of two people to know each other and struggle together without taking the state as their sole reference.

I believe that creative politics entail multiplying and pluralizing such spaces. In this article, I aim at describing the political and sociological space that the AKP has built in Turkey during its ten-year-long political reign. I argue that the AKP has put forth a politics that turned Turkey’s multiple spaces (some violent, some democratic, some individual, some communal) into spaces of nation, property, and family. However, I also claim that the multiple histories of differently oppressed people challenge such spaces and create other forms and intimacies. Turkey is going through a historical moment where such forms and intimacies become the basis of collective action and politics that can bring about a radical peace and democracy.

The AKP: Privatization, Nationalization, Family-ization

The democratic package and the Barzani-Erdoğan meeting, both of which have been occupying the public in Turkey immensely during the past weeks, have revealed once more the AKP’s approach to the solution process, and to peace and democracy more generally. Various authors have already analyzed the content of the so-called democratic package in terms of its failure to meet the demands of Kurds, Alevis, and women alike. In his brilliant article, Bülent Küçük revealed another dimension of the package and has shown that the AKP’s democratization attempts are limited by the neoliberal logic that underlines all its activities. In the package, rights are transformed into commodities that can be bought and sold, watched and enjoyed in the market, and people are reduced to clients. The histories that, for example, produced the Kurdish language as a value are erased, while the package as a commodity is fetishized and replaces such values and histories. In relation to the Barzani-Erdoğan meeting, on the other hand, critics have underlined the irony that the meeting occurred at a point when both sides are increasingly united in their opposition against the Rojava Revolution. They have questioned the timing of the event further, by emphasizing the AKP’s unwillingness to meet any of the demands that the Kurdish Freedom Movement is making for legalizing the peace process. However, here I would like to discuss other points.

Neoliberal capitalism, which has been endorsed with great sincerity and loyalty by the AKP, entails the forced separation of collectives from their users, the subjection of these collectives to market logic and their becoming private properties. As far as nature and soil are concerned, this occurs through hydroelectric centrals, barrages, mines, and the destruction of forests. Meanwhile, urban and rural environments are privatized and redistributed by means of renovation, gentrification, and the distribution of title deeds; common life spaces are confiscated through huge urban projects, which are legitimized by aesthetic sensibilities, attraction of international capital, and the prioritization of tourists’ needs. While these are undertakings not unique to the AKP, what makes them so interesting and so little questioned in Turkey until recently is the fact that the AKP also narrates them as a form of nationalization. Taking as a point of departure the fact that until lately, Kemalist elites had been the state’s exclusive owners, the AKP has created a narrative whereby the selling of public spaces to the newly-grown rich segments of the AKP entails a reunion of these spaces with their actual and national owners.

In a similar vein, the AKP presents every kind of change in social policy, from the reforms undertaken in the health sector to the changes being experienced in education, as a seizure of the state’s benefits from the Kemalist elites and their bestowal upon the nation. Unfortunately, given the fact that many people have suffered greatly from the wrath of the Kemalist elites, the AKP’s discourse still enjoys popularity. Indeed, the AKP’s rhetorical skill has been in its ability to re-write the history of Turkey’s multiple oppressions by putting itself at the center and by narrating the suffering of the prime minister and his friends as the suffering of the whole nation. In such an equation, defending public space, secular education, or a guaranteed job—that is, objecting in any way to the AKP’s policies—is seen as an act of coup d’état against the nation’s will. As such, it is no accident that the prime minister called the meetings he held in Ankara and in Istanbul during the Gezi protests as meetings of the national will, and opposed “the nation” to “the people,” as the Gezi protesters called themselves. “Nation” in the AKP’s discourse consists of those who hold Islamic values and who were wrongfully excluded from power by Kemalist elites, who in turn claimed to educate and represent “the people.” The Gezi protests, insofar as they targeted the AKP, are framed as a call for a former order.

In other words, in Turkey, privatization (turning collectives into property) and nationalization go hand in hand. However, so does family-ization. Previous Jadaliyya articles have already described how the trope of the family in Turkey is an effective means for power and opposition alike. What I would like to underline here is that the family is not only a trope, but also the material on which such an order is based and through which the private and the public are single-handedly regulated.

A number of policies of the AKP can be given as examples of its obsession with family and its will to create a society based on nuclear families directly linked to the state without any mediation of kin, tribe, party, or community, let alone social struggles based on gender and sexuality. The anti-abortion laws that have been recently passed; the changing of the name of the Women’s Status Ministry to the Family Ministry; the Women’s Employment package, which encourages women to pursue part-time jobs so that they can have children and take care of them without depending on their kin; and conditional cash transfers that also encourage marital bond and childbirth are only a few among many. Most recently—and, I suspect, as a response to the youth’s involvement in the Gezi protests—the prime minister has announced that legal and executive regulations should be taken to prevent female and male students from cohabiting in the same houses if they lack a marital bond. This announcement followed another decree, which declared that state loans taken by students would not be reclaimed in cases where these students got married.

Meanwhile, through credit and banking systems and government subsidies, married couples all over Turkey are being called upon to buy apartments in buildings, which are rising in lands confiscated through urban reconstruction projects. This is the dream world of the AKP: newly-wed pious couples with three kids each, occupying apartments built by private and state companies, forever indebted and forever on the edge, cheering for the stability of credit systems, for a developing economy, and for political stability. In such a dream, whether those couples are Kurdish or Turkish does not matter in the final analysis; as long as their kids are sent to private schools, they can choose the language in which they will be educated.

The three catchwords for the AKP that give meaning to this system are hizmet, hayırseverlik, and kalkınma: service, philanthropy, and development. The nation, consisting of nuclear families, is served by the state as long as development is achieved, which can in turn only occur through a liberal and privatized economy. Those who lack the means and the capacity to be included in the system—that is, those who become property-less—will be taken care of by the charity of the state and the pious.

Nevertheless, the reality of the violence of capital and the state, and the histories of those who struggle continuously for equality—in a country with 10,000 political prisoners, 50,000 killed in war, 17,000 among them civilians executed by the deep state, 3,000 disappeared, three million displaced, and with no prosecution of government officials for any crime, no security reform, no truth commission, and no measures to prevent hate crimes against women, Alevis, or LGBT individuals—leave many people without nation, property, and family. Kurds, Alevis, women, villagers, and LGBT individuals have messy life experiences that do not fit the spaces of the nation, the property, or the family that the AKP orders people to live in.

Yet the AKP is slowly losing its skill. The language that it used when rendering everything in the economic and social domain a marketable commodity and when usurping values produced through political struggles, the language that gave meaning to its practice, is going bankrupt. The social groups, which do not fit within the commodified, familized, and nationalized spaces, are revealing the truth by lifting the cover from the AKP’s language. The Gezi protests, the formation of the HDP, women’s protests, and the low attendance of the Barzani-Erdoğan meeting by Kurds, along with the melancholia it gave rise to, are only a few indications. The insurgencies of the ODTÜ[2], Tuzluçayır[3], Gülsuyu[4], Antakya[5], and Dilovası[6] are other examples.

Under these historic conditions, there is no doubt that a third way will be opened in Turkey. In fact, it is highly probable that a new formation will come up from inside the AKP, and there have been ongoing speculations pertaining to this for quite some time. These kinds of speculations, on which Turkey’s liberal segments and capital are relying, are not going to be the third way in the way we understand it. This third way is going to be opened by a political alliance that will be composed of the social movements that do not fit into the commodified, nationalized, and family-centered spaces in Turkey. It is going to include women and LGBT individuals, who are not able to be fitted into the “family norm” through social policies; farmers and city-dwellers who cannot be made property owners through development; and Alevis, Kurds, and those of other identities who have been alienated from the nation. Indeed, they are already becoming active, talking, documenting, and associating. Nevertheless, the question of how all these different movements and oppositional groups are going to coalesce into a common policy is not easy to answer.

At the same time, this is a necessary condition for providing peace. Even if we are keeping alive our hope that the negotiations will continue, transforming these negotiations from being an interval for the elites’ war preparation, or an accounting of their risks and profits, into a deep social restructuring will only be materialized on a basis in which various oppositional groups will be able to truly express themselves. It is obvious that this will not take place on the basis provided by the AKP, and therefore by the state. The Kurdish Freedom Movement, on the other hand, with its emphasis on women’s equality, radical democracy, and an ecologically sustainable economy, is increasingly becoming an ideological alternative. Hence the AKP’s recent peace strategies, which exclude the Movement in its package, and the Barzani meeting, in which Barzani was made to take the place of those with whom the state actually needs to negotiate, namely the PKK, the KCK, the BDP, and Öcalan himself.

The Kurdish Liberation Movement has never been only about Kurdish nationalism. Surely the Kurdish nation is the soil on which the Movement grows. However, as far as its ideology is concerned, the Kurdish Liberation Movement promotes not only ethnic rights but also radical democracy, gender equality, and a new ecological and economic vision. The peace process has given the Movement the opportunity to vocalize these principles, and as I suggested above, to establish new alliances based on them. This is the greater challenge that the AKP is trying to counter when it announces the democratic package or when Erdoğan meets with Barzani in Amed. We should remember that Erdoğan and Barzani’s meeting ended with a wedding ceremony where three hundred couples got married, probably following trade and other agreements between the two states concerning security, oil, and gas. However, it was Medeni Yıldırım’s mother—whose son was killed by a bullet shot at him from a military post in Lice when he was participating in protests there—who, devoid of nation, property, and family, challenged the prime minister in Amed. Disregarding the carefully plotted stage of the meeting, she asked: “Where is my son? You are his murderer.”


[1] HDK (Halkların Demokrat Kongresi): Peoples’ Democratic Congress. HDP (Halkların Demokrat Partisi): Peoples’ Democratic Party. While HDK refers to the coalition between the BDP, ecologists, feminists, LGBT individuals, independent activists, and some socialist parties and movements in the social sphere, HDP refers to the political party they have founded.

[2] ODTÜ (Orta Doğu Teknik Üniversitesi) stands for Middle East Technical University in Ankara. A dispute has been evolving during the last months over the government’s intent to cut down a forest belonging to the university in order to build a highway.

[3] A district in Ankara, in which Alevi people protested the joined building of a mosque and a Cemevi in September 2013.

[4] A district in Istanbul, which is the stronghold of radical-socialist groups. In the last two to three months there have been ongoing clashes between leftist groups and drug-selling gangs.

[5] Antakya is a city bordering Syria that has a large Alevi Arab population and has become the scene of regular protests against Turkey’s military support to FSA, al-Nusra, and the ISIS.

[6] A city facing ecological disaster where people have been organizing to stop the building of further stone pits.



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