Hüseyin Aygün, the PKK and democratic autonomy

The kidnapping of opposition MP Hüseyin Aygün by the PKK in Dersim province made me wonder about the future of Southeast Turkey, and the role of the PKK in it. Since I am focusing on solutions to the Kurdish issue in the book I am working on, and since regional autonomy must one day be part of that solution, I wonder what this kidnapping tells us about the level of democracy this future Kurdish autonomous region will have.

CHP MP Hüseyin Aygün

The kidnapping of Aygün is of course not an isolated event. Over the last two years, kidnappings by the PKK have increased significantly according to statistics from IHD, the Human Rights Foundation: since July 2011, 145 people have been kidnapped by the PKK, compared to 154 abductions between 1990 and 2010. In the past, the kidnappings were aimed at, for example, teachers arrriving in the region, as they were seen as part of the assimilation policies of the state. Now, it’s more often soldiers, but also people who work for companies that cooperate with the state, such as, (also this week), eleven truck drivers working on a site in Hakkari province where an airport is to be built. And now, for the first time a member of parliament has been abducted.

Human rights

The PKK has stated that Hüseyin Aygün was kidnapped (they use the word ‘detained’) because of his attitude, which was supposedly anti-Kurdish, and because there were ‘complaints’ against him from ‘Kurdish society’. Let me add here that Aygün is an MP for Kemalist opposition party CHP, but he is not a hardcore, anti-democratic Kemalist but is actually known for his pro-human rights activism. He has for example defended the rights of Alevi Kurds in Dersim (officially called Tunceli), the province he represents and which he was visiting when he was abducted. He has been heavily criticized inside the CHP, among other reasons because of his statements about the involvement of the CHP and its then leader Atatürk in the Dersim massacres in 1938 (read more about that here).

The PKK doesn’t like Hüseyin Aygün because he is a dissident voice in Kurdish society. He has spoken out against the PKK’s violence, and during the elections last year he complained about PKK pressure in Dersim to vote for the ‘right’ party, the BDP. Nevertheless, he was elected in Dersim, the predominantly Alevi province where the CHP has always had a base.

With the abductions in general and with the kidnapping of Aygün in particular, the PKK also wants to show that they have real power in the Southeast. Opposition parties now even accept that, because it is a way to attack the ruling AKP. Nearly everybody admits that the PKK may not officially hold territory, but that the state’s army is not powerful enough to control the region either.


Today, 15 August, is a significant day for the PKK. On this day in 1984 they staged their first violent attack, in Semdinli in the most distant South-eastern corner of the country. In the following 28 years the PKK has grown from a small group of men who wanted to make a revolution to the one organisation that effectively holds power in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. They have immense support, they have no trouble recruiting new members, they have a grip on Kurdish media and Kurdish local and national politics, and, in short, they have made it into the smallest corners of Kurdish society.

Now imagine that one day, as part of a solution to the Kurdish issue, autonomy is granted to the provinces in the Southeast. I have often heard the prediction that there will be no democracy in such an autonomous region, since the PKK will control everything and allow no opposition. Everybody who has read about the PKK knows that indeed opposition against the official PKK line, and especially against the leadership of Öcalan, is not allowed: not only people outside the PKK have been killed because of it, but also members and even high-ranking members have been assassinated for disagreeing with the leadership. The power the PKK holds is the reason why, for example, the BDP doesn’t wholeheartedly condemn the violence of the PKK and ask it to lay down its arms. The PKK call the shots, and nobody else.

Turkish army

One of the people I talked to while researching my book, Kurdish poet Bejan Matur, believes that incorporating the PKK into civil society is one of the keys to solving the Kurdish issue. The PKK will eventually have to lay down its arms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end of its power. The leaders of the organization will somehow have to find a place in a Turkey in which the Kurds are granted their full rights. Will they be in parliament, in local government bodies, will they be leading NGO’s openly? And if so, will they be allowing opposition, one of the keys of a democratic society? Will Kurds have, for example, political parties to choose from, or will an autonomous Kurdish region be a one-party ‘democracy’?

The PKK has been more eager to show its power in the region since Kurdish groups last year declared ‘democratic autonomy’ for the Southeast. That’s why they abduct more people, that’s why they close roads for identity checks, that’s why they sabotage state construction sites in the region. It shows the region is no longer 100% under state control. But if they strive for ”democratic“ autonomy, not much of this wished-for democracy is visible right now. Wouldn’t it show PKK’s strength more if they just allowed dissident voices?

I raise this issue with almost everybody I talk to in connection with my book. I often get lengthy answers. People tell me about the changes that can be expected once Kurds have the rights they are entitled to, or they come up with how several Kurdish cities run by the BDP do good work for a pluralist society. But the answer that stuck most strongly in my memory is a short one. One person said: ‘It’s only natural for the group that contributed the most to liberation to have a grip on society after the goals have been reached. That’s exactly what the Turkish army and its highest-ranking general did after the Republic of Turkey was established, isn’t it? The Turkish army only gave up its power over Turkish society recently, after almost a century. I hope the PKK will allow democracy faster than that.’

Please, do share your thoughts and predictions about this subject. The comment field underneath is open!

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