[Author's Note: The interviewee, T., wished to stay anonymous as some of the comments made in the interview could put his security at risk of being prosecuted by the Turkish government. This interview was translated and edited for clarity.]
As Turkey is preparing for municipal elections in March this year, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is the second largest opposition force to contend against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Having passed the parliamentary threshold in the last two elections, thus challenging the parliamentary majority of the authoritarian president Erdogan’s AKP, the HDP will act as an umbrella for eight Kurdish parties in this election. The alliance will aim to reclaim Kurdish majority municipalities that have been administered by unelected appointees (kayyum) of the central Turkish government since 2016.
While the HDP has become an internationally recognized name among the followers of politics in Turkey, little has been written on the social movement behind it. The party emerged out of the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK), a country-wide coalition platform of left-wing forces in Turkey that contains around thirty organizations, including political parties and trade unions. It prioritizes as its primary field of action the social domain, as opposed to the political domain of electoral politics, and aims to mobilize people for civic engagement beyond casting a vote. Emphasizing the principle of direct democracy—as opposed to representative democracy—the HDK advocates “the development of mechanisms that would ensure people’s self-management, defying the hegemony of civilian and military bureaucracy” (the HDK program). It proposes “[local] assemblies as the main means of gaining democracy and becoming the subject of politics by the oppressed.” Through these assemblies, it “aims at providing the widest participation of local people in the processes of making and implementing decisions locally and aims at political and administrative models where all differences can express themselves freely.” In their vision, local decision-making mechanisms will ensure equal representation of various ethnic, religious, and gender identities.
We talked to T., a member of the HDK Istanbul council and the HDK’s General Council, about the HDK’s vision and organizing principles, its relationship with the HDP, and the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria.
Anya Briy & Mahir Kurtay: How would you describe the HDK and its relationship with the HDP?
T: The HDK is a social organization. While it has been active since 2011, it is a new structure that is still searching for its own framework. It is a dynamic social struggle initiative. The HDK represents, or rather contains, much broader sectors, organizations and structures, ensuring their right to represent themselves. We call the HDK’s structure a “congress.” It came to life in May 2011 out of the “Labor Democracy and Freedom Block” that brought together Turkey’s dissident, left, socialist, women’s, and LGBT-I organizations and groups. A lot of independent individuals joined this structure as well, as they had discovered the need for a platform like this.
In August 2011 we started discussing how to find a perspective for a common struggle. We use the phrase “common struggle” rather than “unity” because unity would be something more than what we are. We do not think there is a ground for unity between the HDK components (we prefer not to use the word “member”) at this moment. For this reason, we use a congress model where everyone carries out struggles separately while interacting with each other on a common struggle ground.
There is also an electoral aspect to our work. The HDP was initially established as a structure “on paper,” primarily to enter the elections. It was going to be used only as an electoral tool. However, since the elections are regarded as the most important part of Turkey’s politics, perhaps the most capable HDK activists and organizers have decided to adapt their activities to the HDP’s needs in order to carry out successful election campaigns.
The decision to establish the HDP was made by the HDK although not all of the HDK components supported this idea. Since the majority were in favor of this decision, there was not much objection by other delegates and representatives who did not support it. Thus, there were those who preferred to participate in the HDP and those who did not join the party but continued to carry out their activities within the HDK. An HDK person does not have to take part in electoral campaigns by the HDP in the parliament. However, all of our HDP comrades have to join all of HDK activities. Our job is to popularize [toplumsallaşma] the political sphere and to politicize the social sphere.
As to the differences between the two, the HDK directly engages with the problems in Turkish cities—this is what the HDK’s ecology council, for example, deals with. Through its labor council, the HDK engages in Turkey’s labor struggle. The HDK thus deals with social questions—from subcontracting to the rights of disabled people. The HDP’s function, on the other hand, is to administer politics. Yes, we are political people in the HDK, but we put before politics the expansion of the social base for our activities and developing the ability to meet society’s needs.
What the HDK needs to do today is things like this: If onions are expensive, for example, because the prices have been raised, we might want to establish an organization that delivers groceries directly from producers to consumers, without pursuing profit. This is the kind of activity that we should focus on.
A & M: As stated in its program, the HDK advocates direct democracy as a way of democratization of Turkey. What are the mechanisms established by the HDK that advance this goal?
T: The HDK is based on horizontal organizing. Its structure prevents the usual way of top-down organizing. Thus, our most broad decision-making body is the General Assembly [Genel Kurul]. One hundred twenty-one members from this assembly form our General Council [Genel Meclis]. This number is determined according to the conditions at any given moment: if the HDK attracts a broader network of organizations, this number and representation rates will also increase. The General Council is the decision-making body with the most powers. General Steering Committee [Genel Yürütme Kurulu] of twenty-five people is elected from it. In order to speed up the process, the committee sometimes takes decisions in small meetings, but these decisions cannot become definitive without consulting the General Council. The committee has the responsibility to proactively approve such decisions with the delegates of the General Council. Because each time we need to consult the broadest possible number of people, we are one step closer to direct democracy.
A & M: The HDK envisions establishing of local councils as decentralized decision-making mechanisms. How has that vision been implemented in practice so far?
T: Every city where the HDK is organized has its own council [meclis]—for example, I am in the Istanbul council. This council is organized in such a way as to ensure the representation of every individual from every component within the HDK (magazines, political parties, associations, etc.). There are quotas for women, independent individuals, and young people. These city councils have autonomy in that they themselves take and implement decisions in regards to the solutions of their own local problems. They are only bound by the HDK’s charter and program. Both city and city district councils are autonomous within the framework of our charter and program. The state always uses dishonest tactics against us. They try to present our councils as underground or illegal organizations, but these are independent bodies that carry out legal social work.
For example, there are three district councils in Istanbul, just like there are three electoral districts. These councils take their own decisions in regards to the activities that they carry out in their own districts. When the HDK wants to set up a council, it aims at the widest possible network of organizations to include everyone, regardless of color, language, religion, and belief. We want to have the broadest possible cooperation in every locality. If a neighborhood needs to deal, for example, with problems of garbage collection, there is no need to go to the HDK city or district council. Decisions should be made and implemented locally.
M: That is, they have the right of initiative.
T: Yes, definitely. Each individual, each committee, each field specific council [alan meclisi] has the right to take and implement an initiative. As I have said, the only condition that they have to abide by is the HDK’s program and charter.
A & M: Besides local councils, you also mentioned field specific councils. What is their role?
T: There is a labor council, health council, ecology council, a commission of peoples and faith communities. When it is not big enough to call it a council, we call it a commission. We know our limits in regards to the size. A council should be the larger body and councils in specific fields themselves determine whether their size is large enough to be called “councils.” But let us say, for example, there are not enough people to establish a labor council—the labor council would not be active then. This could not be the case with women’s councils—they are fundamental, we cannot not have them. There are also youth councils. Each of these is responsible for carrying out their unique activities. Each of them is part of both the General Assembly and their district council.
For example, the Istanbul commission of peoples and faith communities attempts to develop a relationship with various faith groups in the city and deals with their problems. The commission is also responsible for providing space where various ethnic groups—Circassians, Alevi, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, and Assyrians—can express themselves, for example, dealing with language problems. At the same time, the commission attempts to break out of the framework of separate struggles and ensure various groups’ cooperation for a common social struggle [toplumsal mücadele ortaklığı] in their own activities. This is also the basic goal of the labor commission and health council. They ensure such cooperation whenever possible. But let us say, there are groups or individuals who do not want to operate under the name of an HDK council. They can carry out activities without using the HDK’s name because what is important it is not the “flag” under which we operate, but the work we carry out and the ideas that we implement. Actually, the idea is to organize.
M: So, roughly saying, the difference between a commission and council is the number of people?
T: Yes, but there is no fixed number; it depends on the field. For example, we are still not in a position to say that we have a labor council because we have not yet been able to ensure representation from many trade unions and labor organizations. So we call it a labor commission. However, we can say that the HDP has a labor council. It has relationships with more labor organizations because the latter prefer to deal with political parties. To some degree, it is exactly for this reason that the HDK project is still unknown after all these years of organizing.
A & M: What do HDK and HDP activists do outside elections?
T: For example, in the last elections [June 2018] the HDK consulted its councils and made the decision to support the HDP and Selahattin Demirtas. We had friends who preferred not to take part in those elections, but there was no one who saw the HDK’s support of the HDP and Demirtas as problematic. Thus, the HDK was able to carry out its activities in the name of the HDP and participate in the latter’s campaign to its full capacity. We took responsibility at all levels—from the most local to the most central.
At the same time, the HDK tries to find a unique way to conduct such activities. For example, the TAMAM campaign was spread on the media without being formally backed by any organization. This is what the HDK should do. Its task is to reach the widest masses possible and to show the real target of struggle without forcefully putting a flag on an idea. The HDK continues to carry out its own social activities concerning every aspect of everyday life. For example, during the recent electoral campaign, we held meetings with cultural and art circles. We organized a labor convention not connected to the elections, examining the problem of unemployment in Turkey. Therefore, even during the election process, there are activities that the HDK does not neglect.
A & M: According to its program, the HDK supports the project of democratic autonomy advocated by the Kurdish movement, as an important step towards the solution of the Kurdish question, as well as for the democratization of Turkey in general. Could you elaborate on that?
T: To understand democratic autonomy you should talk to our colleagues from the DTK, because everyone within the HDK does not have to support this project. Our components can subscribe to other ideological perspectives as well. We have debates on this issue. In fact, what is important is to create a ground for such discussions. Groups who belong to the HDK must be able to debate this within themselves and within the HDK. Yet, our components also have the right to advocate this project. So we cannot say that the HDK supports democratic autonomy unconditionally. In fact, there is no one in the HDK who has authority to proclaim such support because we are an umbrella organization. The DBP, for example, can see the struggle for and defense of democratic autonomy as their right. Yet, as a component of the HDK, it must take the HDK’s position on this issue into consideration.
A & M: Is the HDK active in predominantly Kurdish regions in Turkey’s southwest where the attempts have been made to implement democratic autonomy?
T: The HDK is not organized in North Kurdistan. It conducts its activities in western Turkey—from the Black Sea to Central Anatolia, from Marmara to the Aegean Sea. There is no structure exactly equivalent to the HDK in Northern Kurdistan. There is the DTK, but they are not the same. While the HDK works towards common social struggle, the DTK aims for national unity in their region. The situation in North Kurdistan is more a matter of national unity rather than social struggle. The field of action and borders are clear there. Yet, the DTK is a component of the HDK.
A & M: What are the differences and similarities between the HDK and the DTK, in their ideology and practice?
T: Both the HDK and DTK are congresses rather than political parties. That means they do not function according to the political party mentality. They are no party decision-makers or structures of rank. Both are based on the principle of horizontal organizing. Every decision must be taken with the largest possible assembly. Yet, we do not resemble each other ideologically. As I have said, the issue that has been on the DTK’s agenda for the longest time, its main perspective, is peace. Because of the war conditions in the region, the DTK prioritizes the creation of social peace.
Both are the structures that reserve the right to oppose the government, that see and object to shortcomings in the functioning of the social order. Even if the DTK does not have as much power as the state does; even if it cannot cooperate with the state, it prioritizes working towards cooperation with local people by watching out for public interests and takes decisions legitimated by them.
For example, the destruction of Sur in Diyarbakir has been on the DTK’s agenda as a major social issue. They have formed commissions in this regard that can meet with representatives of foreign municipalities or governments, thus establishing international relations. As an organization in western Turkey, we have to support the DTK and to be part of this type of organization. That is what we did in the case of Sur. We went there as part of joint delegations and sent our comrades there. We came out against the process in Sur, the destruction of the city, as an act of disrespect against cultural heritage and as a direct attack on the right to housing. I do not know how successful we were. That is a separate issue.
A & M: Democratic autonomy is also the project pursued by the Kurdish movement in Rojava, the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Syria. Could you talk about similarities and differences between developments in Rojava and in Turkey/Northern Kurdistan in terms of organizing?
T: We are separate movements. They are operating under war conditions. They have been trying to create a new order out of the dynamics that emerged during the war. As the HDK, we do not have a direct relationship with Rojava. We cannot know what kind of system they need. At the same time, because we define the HDK as an internationalist organization and since we have been establishing international relationships, we have supported Rojava people’s demands during and after the fight for Kobane. Yet, we are having a lot of discussions about Rojava within the HDK, and all of us do not have the same opinion in this regard.
For example, our comrades living in Rojava consider this process a revolution, but HDK components do not have to regard it in such terms. There can be such a disagreement between us. Are we moving in the same direction as Rojava? In fact, it may not be right for me to talk about it. You should talk to our comrades who know the region better. However, what I can say is that there are similarities between our regions. During certain periods, because of war, people who live there had to protect their people's assemblies and living spaces with weapons. We too are just one step away from a war situation. We are trying to establish people’s assemblies and resistance mechanisms, but they have already been implemented in Rojava. That is, they have been able to take decisions and implement them under war conditions. However, we cannot establish an organic bond between us and them.
 Democratic autonomy was conceptualized by the leader of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, as a political model of self-governance that would allow the Kurds and other minorities to exercise autonomy within Turkey without challenging the country’s territorial integrity. The model involves building decentralized local structures through which people would engage in solving their particular local problems.