‘Turkey’s largest-ever civil uprising’, I read a few days ago referring to the Gezi protests of last year. I agree that Gezi was big, both in the number of people participating and in the way it was spread over many parts of the country, but no, it was not the largest-ever uprising in Turkey’s history. That is the Kurdish movement. The Kurds also reached more than the Gezi movement will probably ever reach.
Some might argue that the Kurdish movement, carrying on a struggle that was started by the PKK, is not a civil uprising, but an uprising started by a group of armed men and women. But does an uprising have to be spontaneous and does it have to start with protests on the streets to be a civil uprising? I don’t think so. The Kurdish movement may have started small, but soon grew and managed to gain a lot of support from the people, after which it grew into a mass civil movement maintaining a decades-long and persistent uprising.
And then I read something else: an article in a Dutch weekly about The Dictator’s Learning Curve, a book by the American journalist William J. Dobson. It is about the difference between the dictators of the old days, like in Argentina or the USSR, who openly suppressed their people, and nowadays authoritarian leaders: the ones we deal with now cover themselves with a layer of democracy and law and try to stifle opposition from that seemingly democratic position.
Exactly what is happening in Turkey. The authoritarianism of Erdogan is increasing, but there is no widespread arrest of opponents or torture and murder in prisons, the press is not totally silenced by the large-scale closure of papers and TVstations and some (small) media get the chance to write whatever they like, NGO’s and political parties other than the AKP are not forbidden, and elections are being held.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the population doesn’t complain about decreasing democracy because the new authoritarian leaders make sure their constituency and also many others enjoy a growing economic welfare. Exactly the case in Turkey, and exactly why the AKP gives so much importance to economic growth and makes it part of the political divide in the country: those who oppose the government are portrayed by the pro-government mass media as the ones endangering prosperity, thus making sure they don’t get too much support.
Those who resist need to find new approaches to the new authoritarian leaders , Dobson claims. These new leaders will not be challenged by spontaneous uprisings and strikes. What is needed is a well thought-out tactic, and months, maybe even years of preparation, in which one of the most important issues is to formulate an alternative.
Strong and stable
And that is exactly how the Kurdish movement started. The PKK started its armed resistance in 1984, but was founded in the late seventies and its roots go back to the Turkish revolutionary leftist movement of the late sixties. Öcalan and his group learned from the mistakes of other leftist groups, who started fighting the system before they were strong and stable enough themselves, and thus spent years and years of just discussing the alternative and creating a group of not hundreds or thousands but a few dozen dedicated loyals. Without it, the ‘Kurdistan revolutionaries’, as they were called initially, would probably not have survived the 1980 coup. Only when they were strong and stable did the uprising start.
Turkey has always been an authoritarian state in the way Dobson now describes the ‘new dictatorships’ that are in power in, for example, Russia, China and Iran. Coups, so the story goes, have stifled Turkey’s democracy. There has never been democracy, but the largest part of society was made to believe there was: the media were under the control of the state and the army, there were elections, and there was poverty but the layer of society that had power was doing well economically.
Hardly anybody in Turkey knew that in the meantime the southeast of the country was under suppression: by using the tactics of ‘new authoritarianism’ avant la lettre. But those who started the PKK did. They saw how the system functioned. Making a change through politics was absolutely impossible in those days: not only because of the coups that kept haunting Turkey, but also because the system didn’t allow real leftist politics and strongly denied the existence of Kurds.
I have to mention that, in Dobson’s book, resorting to violence is strongly advised against. It gives the authoritarian leader the chance to frame you as a terrorist organization. The PKK did take up arms, but not before it was clear that there was no democratic, peaceful way to enforce change. And what happened? The movement was soon depicted as a terrorist organization, and Turkey even got the EU and the USA to go along with the terrorism rhetoric.
Road to peace
Gezi was spontaneous, and it seems to me that that is just why it didn’t achieve much: Erdogan’s authoritarianism has increased, along with polarization. What if Gezi were to take a step back, let Erdogan have his way for now, and retreat to think about formulating an alternative and a strategy? How about really analyzing the structures that make Erdogan’s AKP so powerful? It’s not Erdogan that is the real problem – he is only a new authoritarian leader, fitting right into the Turkish republican tradition, using state mechanisms that have worked in Turkey for decades.
Maybe they would conclude that there has been a civil uprising going on for three decades already. That there is a movement that saw through the structures of ‘new authoritarianism’ way, way earlier. That they formulated an alternative, that they got the people behind them and have achieved a lot in thirty years, and are now on the road to peace. The Kurdish movement has been appealing to Turks for years to join their struggle for everybody’s freedom. What if those in Turkey who want real change were to listen and act upon that call? That would make the largest-ever civil uprising in Turkey even stronger. It could not only lead to the end of the authoritarian ways of Erdogan, but to the end of the system too. There would be real democracy for the first time in Turkey’s history. No new authoritarian leader would emerge.