The Democratization of Cities in North Kurdistan

Written by Ercan Ayboga

The History of Cities in North Kurdistan

After the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, the cities in North (Turkish-occupied) Kurdistan became progressively poorer relative to those in the Turkish state. This led to comparatively weak municipalities ruled by so-called system parties, which were hierarchical, corrupt, and extremely alienated from the population. They also formed part of the repression mechanism. There were no big investments by the colonialist state in North Kurdistan (also known as Bakur), except in the three provinces in the western part of Bakur with a high non-Kurdish population: Meletî (Malatya), Xarput (Elazığ) and Dîlok (Gaziantep). While the biggest city in Bakur, Diyarbakir (Amed) was, in the 1920s, the third most important economic city within the Turkish state after Istanbul and Izmir, 70–80 years later it became one of the poorest. However, in terms of Kurdistan, Turkey, and the Middle East we have to consider that municipalities were historically weaker than those in Europe. While the smaller cities often had no municipal administrations, the mid-sized and large cities were administered directly by an appointed governor. Communities organized themselves in large part outside of municipalities—it was different, but not necessarily better.

In the 1950s a steadily increasing migration wave started from the Kurdish cities and some regions of Anatolia to the larger cities in the West and South of the Turkish state, particularly Istanbul. Thus Turkish cities grew at a faster rate compared with Kurdish cities. Nevertheless, many people also moved to the cities of North Kurdistan. Due to limited financial capacity, most new housing buildings were built by the migrating people, leading to poor neighbourhoods and slums. In the 1970s strong leftist Turkish and Kurdish movements became stronger and won local elections in some cities in Turkey and Bakur. Together with social movements some of these cities could be even governed with elements of direct democracy. However, the cities ruled by leftist socialists/communists led to better social services, more democratic rights and more cultural opportunities for the people. While not used as a term, the right to the city could be realized better this way than through the party systems. In these years the Kurdish Freedom Movement (KFM), with the PKK in its centre, evolved among other political Kurdish and revolutionary movements and gained, within a short time, serious support by the proletarian and student youth. PKK candidates could also win elections—for example, in Elîh (Batman).

But the military coup in 1980 eliminated all achieved rights in these cities and the whole state of Turkey established a fascist regime, laying the basis for neoliberalism, which spread, although more slowly than in other countries. In Turkish cities life quality fell. For example, almost all social and cultural centres, cinemas and theatres were shut down, and the first steps of privatization were initiated—bus lines were the first areas dominated by privatization. While in the 1970s villages were more at the heart of the society, in the 1980s migration away from rural areas increased.

In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) started an armed rebellion against the colonialist Turkish state. In the beginning of the 1990s it developed as a mass movement in several Kurdish provinces. In 1991 and 1992, when repression was still not absolutely dominating everything, a short but strong civil dynamic evolved in a number of cities in Bakur. The KFM also gained support in cities. In parallel, in some Turkish cities leftist organizations became a bit stronger, but could not achieve the level prior to the military coup of 1980. But in the second half of the 1980s the social democrats won local elections in most big cities, but with absolutely no democratic impulse, ending up in corruption and mismanagement. From 1993 onwards the revolutionary dynamic in Bakur’s cities was oppressed completely, ushering in difficult times. In rural areas the Turkish Army destroyed up to 4,000 Kurdish villages and forcibly displaced more than 2 million people. While some fled to Europe, the majority moved to Turkish cities. Still, a significant number moved to the cities of Bakur. Several cities doubled the number of residents—Amed, Elîh, Nisêbîn (Nusaybin) and Cizre. Those cities were totally unprepared and could not cope with the sudden mass migration, resulting in serious problems with water supply, sewage water, housing, waste and health. The central government did not help with anything. An increasing proletarianization of the cities was the result with a high poverty, street children, prostitution and perceivable crime. In cities, civil society was either politically and democratically disorganized, or had no capacity. Yet, they were under political pressure to show solidarity with refugees, who arrived with almost nothing. It took several years to overcome the worst impacts. However in these years, although the State implemented broad state terrorism, the KFM could not be defeated; rather an equilibrium was maintained between 1994 and 1999.

An international plot led to the kidnapping of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK and central to the KFM, to Turkey in February 1999 in which the Greek state was also involved. This led to the cessation of armed struggle in the ensuing months. The KFM commenced fresh discussions about a new strategy on a theoretical and practical basis. The political struggle in the cities moved into the centre of the whole struggle. Within this approach the municipalities played an important role. Just at the time of the international plot local elections were held in Turkey.

Cities Under the Governance of the Kurdish Freedom Movement

The Kurdish Freedom Movement (KFM) has achieved increasing successes in local elections since 1999. In a surprise win in 1999, the legal party of the KFM—HADEP (People’s Democracy Party)—won several big cities like Amed, Wan, Elîh and Agirî (Ağrı). The KFM was challenged with governing several big cities and needed to prove it had better social-democratic concepts than other parties for the local level. The end of the war in Bakur led to less oppression by the Turkish state and some space to act politically at a legal level. While the KFM ruled, some infrastructure and basic services experienced significant improvements, but concerning democracy and people’s political participation, development was slower and characterized by structural difficulties. Considering centuries of authoritarianism, oppression, assimilation, corruption and a lack of open democratic relations, this was not surprising. A positive aspect in these years was that civil society and social movements became stronger in Bakur, becoming important actors in the cities. They joined the discussions to develop more social and ecological cities, and made multiple proposals and requests to the municipalities for which they voted too. So the right to the city began to be discussed the first time in a broad way in Bakur.

The KFM discussed generally in these years the new political concept until in 2005 democratic confederalism was declared by Öcalan. It was the first main step of systematizing the new approach, which developed over the years. Between 2005 and 2008 the PKK Guerrilla and Turkish Army clashed briefly because the Turkish AKP government did not take essential steps for the solution of the Kurdish question—it just ignored it and reduced the question to individual rights. In 2006 a big uprising occurred in Amed and several other cities, leading to the collapse of the State for some days. Proletarian youth were at the forefront of this revolt. The State was shocked and commenced measures to quell the uprisings.

In 2007, when the framework was discussed for two years, the Democratic Society Congress (KCD; also named DTK) was founded and many KFM members started to reorganize society based on the “paradigm of a democratic, ecological and gender liberated society” as democratic confederalism proclaimed. The KCD is an umbrella of all organizations close to the KFM, with a leftist democratic stand, and is considered a platform with a new approach for doing politics. At the same time the KCD is an alternative to parliamentarian democracy, which is in a structural crisis in both Turkey and the rest of the world. It propagates radical democracy and has many structures expressed in its councils and assemblies at different levels. There are today 14 sectors, also called political spheres, covering a wide range of focus areas (e.g. politics, women, youth, economy, health, ecology, justice, beliefs, education and diplomacy). In other words the KCD is the “council of councils”. The model it is developing in practice is called “democratic autonomy”.

With democratic confederalism the theoretical base of “free municipalism” has been laid in principal. In this sense the first steps have been taken to set up people’s assemblies at the neighbourhood level, as well as women and youth councils wherever the KFM had substantial support in Bakur, and even in those cities in Turkey where there are significant Kurdish populations. At higher levels the delegates of these people’s assemblies meet social movements, NGO’s, parties, municipalities, unions and other organizations and sectors in city/district and provincial councils. At the top is the general assembly of the KCD with 501 members. The inclusion of all willing organizations and players at these higher levels in society is a crucial element of the new political project.

In 2010 the “First Conference on Ecology and Local Authorities” was realized. Its framework stated that municipalities organize society based on four pillars: organized society and participative approach; ecological life; gender-liberated approach; and participative social economy. Crucially, its focus was on cities, considering that the majority of the population of Bakur was living in cities—migration never ceased due to economic reasons. At the conference, the search for radical democracy and self-organization far away from the (nation) State and representative democracy was discussed in depth with strong emotions. Strengthening the women’s movement was considered elementary for successful progress, as the gender question is believed to be the main contradiction in society. Without the strong involvement of women and a raised consciousness regarding gender relations, emancipative processes can lack substance.

After the intensive war period of 2011 and 2012, democratic autonomy and its related self-organizing structures like the people’s assemblies became stronger. In 2013 and 2014 the women’s movement spread to all parts of society, leading economics and ecology activists to create real social movements and implement the first projects and campaigns. This was the result of raising critical consciousness in the society of Bakur. Crucially, the first urban struggles came up against some large housing projects, the cutting of green areas and forests, the construction of shopping malls, the transformation of state areas in city centres into commercial areas, and intervention by the State into city planning. The struggles were a reply to increased pressure by the AKP government for gentrification, commercialization and control of cities with a so-called “security” motivation. The AKP wanted to increase profits in all areas and cities of the country where what the DBP (Party of Democratic Regions, the KFM party within the People’s Democratic Party—HDP) considered were an obstacle. The HDP/DBP municipalities and several social movements resisted against gentrification and the displacement of residents of poor neighbourhoods. Some struggles succeeded; some did not.

But some social movements protested against the HDP/DBP municipalities, where they had (perhaps deliberately) failed to grasp the implications of development or the logic of capitalism and simply followed the marketbased approach of the State. A serious number of projects like housing estates and parks, as well as some elements of city planning were oriented towards neoliberal capitalist policies. It took years for social movements and civil society organizations to have a strong impact against these neoliberal projects of the HDP/DBP municipalities. This was made possible through public critique, political actions, face-to-face meetings, as well as the KCD umbrella structure. As a whole the KCD took the critique of municipalities seriously and started a broad discussion with all member organizations. In the years 2012–2013 the municipalities redirected their policies towards a more ecological and socially-oriented direction.

The KCD has to be understood as a structure where it sometimes requires a long time to make decisions as discussions are requested by many organizations and members. When a decision is taken, it is binding on all member organizations, although there is no basis for enforcement within the Turkish legal system. The people’s council at city level of the KCD system stands over the official city council. If the city council has a majority from the KCD, then they must take decisions in line with the decisions of the KCD. Furthermore, the municipalities have to work closely with the people’s assemblies at the neighbourhood level.

The neighbourhood people’s assemblies are key to developing democratic and participative cities. People’s assemblies have to be considered the main driver, especially considering the existing representative political structures, which are not able to develop political solutions to local needs.

This mechanism allows civil organizations and groups in the city to influence decisions about the city and is crucial for limiting corruption and reducing alienation of the population. If there is a critical, social, ecological and gender-free awareness in society, decisions will improve and the right to the city will be better realized. In the early years the municipalities and city councils ruled by the people and parties of the KFM often failed to follow the principles and decisions of the KCD, but in the last 4–5 years it has changed for the better. Nevertheless the contradictions within the system remain.

When the terrorist Islamic State (IS) besieged Kobanî in Rojava in fall 2014, millions of people in Bakur and also Turkey revolted in dozens of cities. The Turkish state lost control of many cities and could not hold its position without terrorizing the population; many people were systematically shot. In three days over 40 civilians were murdered. This strong uprising, led by broad masses and joined by many leftist people and other movements in Bakur and Turkey, was a bigger shock for the Turkish state than the uprising of 2006. It showed how weak the base of the Turkish state in Bakur actually was in reality.

Between 2013 and 2015 people’s assemblies emerged in most urban neighbourhoods of Bakur, partially overcoming the weaknesses of the first years (2007–2011). The internal democratic processes, women’s participation and a communal ecological awareness became significantly stronger. The people’s assemblies acted more confidently in their cities and society. This was an important contribution to democratic culture and decision-making. In 2015 the foundation of hundreds of communes spread to the politically wellorganized cities of Bakur (e.g. Cizre, Gever, and Nisêbîn). This development followed the practice in Rojava, the Syrian part of Kurdistan liberated in 2012 in the midst of the intensifying war, where a social revolution progressed quickly towards implementing radical democracy. The reason is obvious: people’s assemblies at the neighbourhood level were not enough for a strong selforganized society and large-scale participation. In the neighbourhoods many people remained outside of the political structures.

In many cities the declarations of self-governance in summer 2015 were a result of this strengthening of the people’s assemblies and the setting up of communes—i.e. the deepening and enlarging of radical democracy. But they were subsequently made instrumental by the Turkish state in its new war against the Kurds.


When the KCD was founded, neoliberalism within the Turkish state was becoming very strong. The economy policies of the KFM in the first years were too weak to counter the State or capitalism. Neoliberalism created a strong pressure on KFM municipalities where decision-makers were often politically and ideologically too weak to understand or challenge capitalist mechanisms. Neoliberalism also affected many political activists from the KFM. Yet in spite of these forces, the KFM pushed forward and achieved some results, including setting up dozens of cooperatives in 2014.

However, the constituent actors have a problem in that they are unable to balance theory and practice. One of the main problems in practice is the hierarchy within the KFM member organizations, particularly the municipalities. While on the one hand a participative democracy and a horizontal and decentralized social life is aimed for and developed, on the other hand hierarchical and centrist relations between constituent actors continue to exist in a hidden way. Within the new organizational structures hierarchies continue to exist and even, under certain circumstances, grow from time to time.

The interventions of the Turkish nation-state against the constituent actors has led to instability. In 2009 massive arrests started against activists and continued until 2012 as the so-called “KCK operations”, which interrupted the development of participative structures, bringing numerous organizations to existential problems. After the new war commenced in 2015 arrests and repressions far exceeded those of prior years, and some organizations could no longer function. Since then, municipalities have been usurped by the Turkish government and the war has affected many cities in a number of ways.

Urban Warfare and the New Wave of Gentrification

When the Turkish government unilaterally recommenced war in July 2015 against the PKK and Kurds, it was a matter of a few weeks until the war reached the cities of Bakur. State forces met the strong resistance of the organized population with such heavy and brutal military means that hundreds of civilians were murdered. However, the massive physical destruction of cities occurred after the cessation of armed conflict. The State blockaded the contested cities, systematically erasing parts of the cities of Cizre and Gever, most of Şirnex and Nisebîn, and half of the old city of Amed, called Sur. The houses of more than 200,000 people were destroyed, leaving refugees to disperse to other cities of Bakur. The war has been used by the Turkish state as an opportunity to destroy cities or neighbourhoods where the population was very oppositional and politically well organized. It continues to punish the population and implement longstanding gentrification policies. Since 2017 the State has been building new houses in the ruined neighbourhoods according to a new plan for wide roads. Through a permanent change to the demography it wants to destroy forever the social and cultural structures in these cities so that the displaced people will be unable to organize themselves again in a political way. What the Turkish government calls “urban transformation” can just as easily be implemented in neighbourhoods where no armed clashes took place—no neighbourhood is safe!

The war in the mountains of Bakur between the Turkish Army and the PKK guerrilla continues at an intensive level. Political pressure on the whole population in Bakur is increasing, particularly through the state of emergency declared in July 2016. More than 10,000 public employees have lost their jobs, and 10,000 politically active Kurds have been arrested, almost all HDP-ruled municipalities have been seized by the State through the appointment of state commissioners. Hundreds of associations in Bakur have been closed and the oppression on the Kurdish media is so strong that all free media has been shut down.

The State has banned de facto the Kurdish language in cities —signs are no longer bilingual, municipal-operated Kurdish kindergartens and theatres have been shut down, and Kurdish books have been destroyed. In the streets fly tens of thousands of Turkish flags. All youth, cultural, social, and women’s centres have been shut down or seized, with new personnel and materials replaced with totally contrary content. More than two dozen cooperatives linked to the municipalities have been shut down. Most social, ecological and women-focused developments implemented since 1999 by the KFM have been destroyed or reversed. What is being experienced in Bakur is an open dictatorship—fascism is not far away.

The larger aim of the State is to create contradictions among the Kurds and marginalize the KFM in Bakur. But it has not worked. Although people do not demonstrate much and seldom join protest actions, they are yet to support the State. Any suggestion they do is merely Turkish propaganda. People still feel close to the KFM, recalling its long struggle for freedom and democratic organization since 2000. Kurds who support the AKP are still a minority.

Despite the repressions, the vast majority of the Bakur people remain in their homeland. The number of refugees in Europe or elsewhere from Bakur is still small—only people faced with arrest leave Bakur. This is a key difference compared with the 1990s. The majority of the population feels that the AKP government cannot maintain this level of oppression in the long term, and the day of its breakdown is close. It seems that an appropriate moment to revolt against the State awaits the cities and villages of Bakur.

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