The many faces of Kurdish political representation in Turkey

By Sabri Çiftçi, Michael W. Suleiman Chair in Arab and Arab-American Studies, Kansas State University

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

Empirical scholarship on representative democracy does not fully explain the role of political representation in the presence of enduring ethnic conflict. Ethnic politics involves complicated choices ranging from the use of violence to inclusion in governance. Leaders of an ethnic movement may form political parties, participate in elections and representative institutions, use violence, or utilize a combination of these means toward the achievement of ethnic interests. Turkey has had an oscillating record of democratization and an irregular civil war in the last thirty years. One of the longest ethnic insurgencies, recently escalating in the midst of Syrian war, between Partiya Karkerân Kurdistan (PKK) and the Turkish state provides unique opportunities for understanding the synergies between ethnic conflict and politics of representation. In this essay, I discuss the challenges and consequences of Kurdish political representation in Turkey.

The political wing of Kurdish ethno-political movement has remained highly active in the Turkish political scene since the 1990s, forming political parties, participating in elections, and voicing their demands in parliament. However, while this participation is significant, descriptive representation of the Kurdish minority operates under dual constraints. The first arises from the strict representational style of Turkish nationalist elite privileging majoritarianism over participatory and deliberative interpretations of democracy. According to this view, representative democracy is a procedural game that aggregates individual preferences into a “general will,” the embodiment of national interest. This abstract notion of “general will” dismisses the idea of minority representation. As a result, any representative initiatives aiming to legitimize the expression of Kurdish identity and advance substantive representation of minority interests have been blocked by the state elites through constitutional restrictions, legal procedures, and non-political means.

The second constraint is the use of violent insurgent strategy and its capacity to undermine diversified minority representation. The insurgent organization, PKK, has been keen to protect its political hegemony over Kurdish people for future recruitment and for increased bargaining power with the state. To that end, PKK has strategically used violence by provoking state repression against the civilians. This strategy paid off to the extent that “victimization” led to increased support for the violent insurgency in Kurdish dominated districts. At the same time, PKK has exploited Kurdish descriptive representation as leverage to expand the boundaries of “acceptable demands” toward Kurdish cultural and political autonomy. While this strategy has been generally successful, it comes at the expense of independent and diversified representation of ethnic interests. Under these constraints, the Kurdish members of parliament have utilized parliamentary means and deliberative channels in civil society to represent minority interests in a way that allowed them to make limited contributions to the Turkish democracy. I explain these arguments below by drawing from the recent advances in representational theory and by introducing preliminary data from a larger research project.

Why does ethnic descriptive representation matter?

Representation is defined as the act of “making present again” by standing for and acting for the represented (Pitkin, 1967). The standard account of representation focuses on procedural formalities including authorization of a representative and the resulting responsiveness (i.e. accountability) of this agent to her constituency. Proponents of contemporary representational theory, in contrast, argue that representation cannot be reduced to predefined authorization rules insofar as its meaning and scope remains contingent on political realities (Plotke 1997). Such contingency most readily concerns the representation of historically disadvantaged groups (Williams, 2000) and emergence of deliberative democratic practices (Habermas 1996). Representing is no longer the aristocratic business of a select few nor can it be limited to the equalizing power of territorial representation. Representation is best defined as “politics of presence” (Phillips 1998) and “inclusion” of all (Plotke 1997; Williams 2000).

In contemporary views of democracy, representation of women and historically marginalized groups becomes a contingent reality within an informal and deliberative public sphere (Urbinati and Warren 2008). In this conceptualization, descriptive representation of ethnic groups is particularly relevant and can serve multiple functions beyond political inclusion. Descriptive representation is defined as the level of resemblance between the represented and the agent (Pitkin 1967). It allows minority representatives to gain legitimacy for the marginalized groups, attend to constituency interests, use formal political spaces to inform policy, and contribute to a culture of consensus by forming new political alliances (Griffin, 2014; Mansbridge 1999). In summary, descriptive representation leads to substantive representation, allowing an agent to pursue the interest of the represented (Pitkin 1967).

These functions are especially likely to gain salience in conflict settings where substantive representation of ethnic minorities may help end violence. Furthermore, descriptive representation of historically disadvantaged groups, such as those that have been subject to constant repression, may increase their civic participation if representatives of these groups use informal venues to mobilize their constituency in the presence of continual conflict. While several challenges prevented the Kurdish political movement from reaping the full benefits of participation in representative institutions, members of parliament were, nonetheless, instrumental in the implementation of policies on Kurdish language in education and public spaces, cultural expressions of Kurdish identity, and human rights protection.

Challenges facing Kurdish political representation in Turkey

Several factors prevent descriptive representation of Kurdish minority to serve its full potential. Turkey has a parliamentary system with some unusual characteristics including a 10 percent electoral threshold and a popularly elected president with extensive powers over legislative and executive domain in the context of a parliamentary system. In the same vein, the 1982 Turkish Constitution privileges a wholesale defense of national interest against individual rights. For example, the so-called “spirit of constitution” implies that once a “general will” is formed in elections the representatives will strive to act in accordance with the interests of the whole. As a result, tensions between the representation of the whole and the parts are not uncommon in the Turkish political scene.

The constitution bans the formation of ethnic political parties, yet Kurdish elite have formed several parties since the early 1990s, fueling tensions between the proponents of “national interest” and those representing ethnic demands. As Hanna Pitkin (1967, p.217) argues, “one of the most important features of representative government is in its capacity for resolving the conflicting claims of the parts, on the basis of their common interest in the common welfare of the state.” The inability of state elites to resolve such dilemmas has resulted in a number of political exclusion strategies, including closure of several ethnic political parties, extrajudicial killings, removal of legislative immunity, prosecution of Kurdish parliamentarians, and more recently the exclusion of Kurdish political representatives from institutional deliberation since the resurgence of conflict in 2015. Facing such obstacles, Kurdish representatives have pursued an ambitious agenda toward the expressions of Kurdish political identity and the expansion of their demands beyond the limits predefined by the constitution. Under such pressures, descriptive representation of the Kurdish minority has evolved into symbolic representation of an ethnic identity with instances of “inverse representation” (Barker, 1942). Inverse representation is characterized by shifting the sides of principal-agent dichotomy in the act of re-presenting and, as described below, it makes the constituency (i.e. the Kurdish people) represent what the principal (i.e. the PKK) wants.

Inverse representation is as much the result of non-compromising elites who sacredly protect “national interest” as it is the result of additional constraints placed on Kurdish representatives by the insurgent organization. The PKK has built its political hegemony on the Kurdish ethnic constituency through the strategic use of violence during instances of political openings. Such strategy is quite unexpected given existing political science research on ethnic conflict resolution. Common wisdom holds that democratization induces pluralized decision-making to serve the interests of historically disadvantaged groups and to bring about peaceful resolution of ethnic conflict (Alonso and Ruiz-Rufino, 2007). However, this rationale falls short of explaining both “inverse representation” and continuation of violent ethnic conflict in Turkey to the extent that “democratization process does not necessarily facilitate the end of violent conflict as long as it introduces competition that challenges the political hegemony of the insurgent organization over its ethnic constituency” (Tezcür 2010, 776). The implications of this logic can be applied to the representative behavior of the Kurdish members of parliament in Turkey. Following a relative peace period in 1999-2004, the PKK reverted to a violent campaign as Justice and Development Party (AKP) made significant electoral gains in Kurdish districts to threaten the electoral base of insurgent organization. The organization used a similar strategy during negotiations between Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish state (2011-2015) when a period of ceasefire was followed by the intensification of conflict. This violence brought about repressive state policies against the civilian population, which in turn increased the acceptability of such discourses as “victimhood” and “repression of Kurdish identity” in the eye of the Kurdish people. By provoking state led violence and repression against the civilians, PKK emerged as the defender of grievances and managed to justify its role as the liberator of Kurdish people. This strategy, while helping the organization’s survival, nonetheless, had negative consequences for substantive representation of Kurdish citizens. When an insurgent organization institutes monopoly over its ethnic constituency, it will gain the upper hand in using the formal spaces of representation to open new political avenues for advancing its own goals.

A long line of ethnic political parties starting with the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and today continuing with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), mostly served as interlocutors between the insurgent organization and the Kurdish constituents. For example, the PKK managed to manipulate descriptive representation of Kurdish people to assume the role of the principal in the representational equation. By consolidating its electoral monopoly on the Kurdish constituency, the PKK has shifted the object of “re-election incentive” from the constituents’ interests to the “goals of PKK leadership,” creating a pattern of inverse representation. The PKK has also selectively fielded candidates to exert its control over the possible actions of to-be-representatives, a particularly effective strategy when defining the parameters of substantive representation. Descriptive representatives are “individuals who in their own backgrounds mirror some of the more frequent experiences and out-ward manifestations of belonging to the group” (Mansbridge 1999, p. 628). In this regard, being a Kurd is sufficient qualification to represent the Kurdish people. Rather, shared experiences and the ability to relate to constituents creates the “resemblance clause” essential for descriptive representation. The insurgent organization has supported candidates whose personal stories exemplify the effects of state repression. In other words, shared experiences of victimized by the state civilians and representatives created an overlap between descriptive and substantive representation of the Kurds.

In 1994, Kurdish businessman Savaş Buldan was abducted and killed. His wife, Pervin Buldan, founded the Association of Solidarity and Assistance for the Families of Missing Persons and became highly active against state repression. She was elected to the parliament to represent the eastern province of Iğdır in 2007 and was re-elected in 2011 and 2015. A prominent figure within the Kurdish political movement and a member of parliament since 2011, Idris Baluken, became active in Kurdish political scene following his brother’s death during a clash between the security forces and the PKK militants. And many other candidates and members of parliament – including Sırrı Sakık, Aysel Tuğluk, and Selahattin Demirtaş – share stories similar to the life experiences of those who have been subjected to state repression. These representatives became embodiments of suppressed Kurdish identity to substantively represent the Kurdish political cause. They are deemed fit to represent the Kurdish people because their stories allow the insurgent organization to create a sense of belonging among the Kurds. Rather than using violence and political representation as alternative strategies, insurgent organization has utilized both. The end product of this approach has been a shift toward “inverse representational style” in the name of PKK and Abdullah Öcalan.

The future of Kurdish representation 

Analysis of data drawn from parliamentary questions and speeches for a larger research project about Kurdish political representation (Çiftçi and Yıldırım, 2016) reveals that against all odds, members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish parties remained active on the floor, in parliamentary committees, and in the administrative bodies of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. They asked many oral and written questions about government policies, spent considerable time in legislative debates, and carried substantive discussions in committees during their tenure. While some of these activities mirrored the goals and ideology of insurgent organization, others concerned constituency service and policy goals. The most important policy areas appear to be about education in Kurdish language, human rights protection, economic and social development of Kurdish dominated regions, and European Union membership. By making their presence in the parliament known, these representatives expanded the boundaries of acceptable demands and created de facto legitimacy for the representation of ethnic interest against the strong challenge of nationalist elite and the agenda-setting power of the insurgent organization. When formal participation channels were closed for Kurdish members of parliament, as in the current legislative term, they turned to civil society and assumed the role of agency for Kurdish ethno-political mobilization. Such engagement is an example of extra-parliamentary representation. Thus, we can argue that Kurdish representatives have also contributed to various incarnations of deliberative democracy through civic activism in the midst of conflict.

In conclusion, the analysis of Kurdish representation in Turkey shows that ethnic movements can use descriptive representation in conjunction with violent means to advance their agenda. While serving the goals of insurgent groups, such strategy however, may undermine the substantive representation of ethnic minorities in the presence of recalcitrant nationalist elites. Although it introduces new opportunities for extra-parliamentary representation, opening formal representative channels to ethno-political movements may not necessarily be conducive to democratization in ethnically divided societies.



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