Colonial Envy and the Success of the Kurdish Political Struggle

By Deniz Yonucu

In response to Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which replaces the parliamentary system with an executive presidency,  PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars and activists working on democracy and human rights in the region. In this installment, Oguz Alyanak and Funda Ustek-SpildaDeniz Yonucu, and William Garriott reflect on the ramifications of the referendum.

Embed from Getty Images

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images. Supporters of the pro-Kurdish party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a campaign rally for the ‘NO’ (Hayir) vote in the upcoming constitutional referendum in Ankara on April 9, 2017. On April 16, 2017, Turkey will vote on whether to change the current parliamentary system into an executive presidency.

It has been three weeks since Turkey’s controversial referendum and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding party of Turkey and the second biggest party in Parliament, has already started discussing potential candidates for a heterogeneous “no” block for the 2019 elections. Although the CHP, which represents itself as the main opposition party, objected to the election results on the basis of fraud and submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the party’s leader also stated his disapproval of the protests taking place in the streets and called on the crowds denouncing the election results to go back home. The party’s representatives now claim that their primary aim is to get ready for the 2019 elections so they can take Erdoğan down and replace him with another president who—like Erdoğan under the new presidential system—would have the power to override parliament and issue decrees.

In a country where prisons are filled with dissenting voices (including MPs and elected mayors), where emergency decrees have increasingly deprived hundreds of thousands of people of their jobs, and 83 elected mayors have been replaced with government-appointed trustees, it would be naïve to think that CHP representatives really believe that the 2019 elections will be free of fraud and that Erdoğan would accept a defeat. Why, then, did the so-called opposition party, which launched a “no” campaign against Erdoğan, object so meekly to the controversial election results and call its supporters off the streets?

Embed from Getty Images

Photo by Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. DENIZLI, TURKEY – MARCH 16: Leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C) gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally that organized within the party’s ‘no’ campaign prior to the constitutional referendum which comes into prominence with the changes on presidential system, at Bozkurt district of Denizli, Turkey on March 16, 2017. Turkish citizens will first vote on April 16, 2017 in a referendum on constitutional changes.

Today, as the authoritarian tendencies and aims of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have started to target larger swathes of the population, including that segment which enjoys the privilege of being Turkish in a nationalist and profoundly anti-Kurdish and anti-Armenian society, the AKP’s polices have garnered broader international attention. Noting the policies enacted under the current state of emergency and the enormous powers that will be given to the president after the 2019 elections, commentators have claimed that Turkey is undergoing a historical transformation. While it is true that Turkey is going through a historical process of change, this shift has not come about just as the result of state-of-emergency policies, which for decades have targeted Kurds and working-class Alevis living in the urban margins. For the first time in its history, in the elections of June 2015 Turkey witnessed the electoral success of a political party (the People’s Democracy Party, the HDP) that emerged from the long criminalized Kurdish liberation movement that includes the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Fanonian party [1] which adopts an anti-colonial resistance strategy against the Turkish State.

Embed from Getty Images

ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images. Turkish army soldiers stand guard as Kurdish people wait in a hope to enter Cizre, a town subject to a curfew as part of a controversial operation against Kurdish rebels, on March 22, 2016 in Mardin, for Newroz celebration. Nowruz, the Farsi-language word for ‘New Year’, is an ancient Persian festival, celebrated on the first day of spring, March 21, in Central Asian republics, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran.

As a result of the election campaign carried out by HDP co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ, the former chair of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), and Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish politician and human rights activist, the HDP passed the 10 percent threshold in Parliament by receiving 13.12 percent of votes (six million in total). The party was successful in bringing together anti-AKP Kurds, socialists, feminists, LGBT activists, and critical Muslims from Turkey’s Kurdistan and other parts of Turkey, thereby creating a peace and democracy bloc that has intervened effectively in politics. Given the fact that Turkish ruling elites have been waging a systematic war against Kurdish civil politics for decades, a situation which Derya Bayır (2014) refers to as “politicide,[2] borrowing a term from Baruch Kimmerling (2003),[3] the HDP’s electoral success was tremendously significant in ways that basic statistics cannot measure.

This success not only proved the Kurdish liberation movement’s adamant insistence on civil politics in spite of the decades long lawfare and warfare against Kurdish activists: it also demonstrated the possibility of the de-criminalization of the stigmatized Kurdish political voices in the eyes of the Turkish public. Indeed, aware of the challenges posed by the HDP’s peace and democracy bloc and seeing the party as a threat, the AKP administration did not hesitate to re-initiate the war in Turkey’s Kurdistan. Shortly after the elections in 2015, Turkish military forces occupied Kurdish towns, declared curfews, took lives and left hundreds of thousands of Kurds homeless and dispossessed. Through this process, Parliament granted immunity to military personnel who were “serving” in Kurdistan, while members of Parliament were stripped of their immunity with the goal of putting HDP parliamentarians behind bars—a move backed by MPs from the AKP, CHP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). As of today, thirteen HDP parliamentarians, including its co-chairs, have been imprisoned on the grounds of encouraging or supporting terrorism, and others expect to be arrested as well.

Turkey’s long-suppressed Kurdish political struggle found an opening during the brief “peace process” carried out between 2013 and 2015, managing to become the second biggest opposition party in the country. It not only gained the support of Kurds but also of Turks who for a long time had turned a blind eye to the various forms of violence inflicted on Kurds. At the same time, the PKK and its affiliate, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), took major steps toward building multi-ethnic and multi-religious autonomous areas of governance in Syria, thereby becoming key actors in those regions. At this point it should be noted that the Turkish national(ist) ideology has crafted a narrative in which the Kurds, like other colonized peoples, are “uncivilized” and “ignorant,” and therefore incapable of ruling themselves. This ideology, of course, is not independent of Turkish ruling elites’ treatment of Kurdistan and former Armenian lands in Turkey’s South East as an internal colony[4] with Kurdish “subjects.”

Embed from Getty Images

ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images. A woman stands in front of a damaged mosque as she arrives in Sirnak city on November 14, 2016 after a 246-day curfew was partially lifted. The curfew in Sirnak, a city of 290,000, was imposed on March 14 as part of operations to eradicate the PKK from eastern Turkey.

The political success of the Kurds, hence the colonized, has intimidated not just the authoritarian AKP and ultranationalist MHP but also the nationalist, secularist, so-called social democratic CHP. When the AKP appointed trustees to 83 Kurdish provinces and jailed elected Kurdish mayors and MPs, the CHP drew upon such a colonial mindset in its refusal to see those moves as a breach of democracy. The CHP gave its tacit consent to the large-scale violence in Turkey’s Kurdistan by not objecting, adopting a stance of inaction, and choosing to be partners (in crime) with the AKP in silencing Kurdish political voices and putting the elected representatives of Kurds behind the bars. It was through just such a colonial mindset—so entrenched in the Turkish political imaginary—that a CHP deputy had the audacity to say, in an interview with a Kurdish journalist after the referendum, that “Kurds’ biggest expectation [in solving the so-called Kurdish issue] is from the CHP” — presenting CHP as the future benevolent savior of the Kurds.[5]

The AKP and the so-called opposition in parliament are united in their enmity towards Kurdish political voices and practices that have taken action so effectively in Turkey’s political scene. The political success of the Kurdish liberation movement both within and outside Turkey has prompted those parties to feel a sense of colonial envy, which not only drives them to “devalue” (cf. Memni 2013) [6] the colonized but also try to erase her from the scene. In spite of its supporters’ fear of a non-secular and religious society, the secularist CHP’s alignment with an Islamist party proves that the enmity against and fear of the Kurds, who do not need benevolence and have a say in the Turkish politics, is one of the key component of the Turkish politics and/or political imaginary.

Deniz Yonucu received her PhD degree in Social Anthropology from Cornell University in 2014 and is currently an Alexander von Humboldt post-doctoral fellow at Leibniz-ZMO and Forum Transregionale Studien and a visiting lecturer at Freie University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. She is currently completing a manuscript that builds on her dissertation project funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Middle East Research Competition of the Ford Foundation. The manuscript, entitled War Against Politics: Law, Sovereignty and Terror at the Margins of Turkey, focuses on marginalized Alevi populated working class neighborhoods in Istanbul and analyses the complex relationship between law, state violence, counter violence and sovereignty in Turkey. E-mail:


[1] Bozarslan, Hamit. “Between integration, autonomization and radicalization. Hamit Bozarslan on the Kurdish Movement and the Turkish Left. Interview by Marlies Casier and Olivier Grojean.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. Social Sciences on Contemporary Turkey 14 (2012).

[2] Bayır, Derya. “The role of the judicial system in the politicide of the Kurdish opposition.” The Kurdish question in Turkey: New perspectives on violence, representation and reconciliation (2014):21-46.

[3] Kimmerling, Baruch. Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s war against the Palestinians. Verso, 2003.

[4] Beşikçi, İsmail. International Colony Kurdistan. Taderon Press, 2004; Sidaway, James D. “Postcolonial geographies: an exploratory essay.” Progress in Human Geography 24.4 (2000): 591-612.

[5] Irfan Aktan, Interview with Eren Erdem. Available at:

[6] Memmi, Albert. The colonizer and the colonized. Routledge, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s