Excerpted from an interview with Ercan Ayboga conducted by Janet Biehl in 2011:
(see also the #mustwatch video below)
” —Does assembly democracy have roots in Kurdish history?
—Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. As I’ve said, the society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes of a certain participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
—How did communalist ideas become known among Kurds? How important are the writings of Murray Bookchin? Does communalism have other intellectual sources?
—The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic.
During this process of strategic change, the freedom movement activists read and discussed a new literature that supported and could make contributions to it. It analyzed books and articles by philosophers, feminists, (neo-)anarchists, libertarian communists, communalists, and social ecologists. That is how writers like Murray Bookchin, Michel Foucault, and Immanuel Wallerstein came into their focus.
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” (the Kurdish version of communalism) not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population.
—Have those factors and the Declaration of Kurdish Confederalism, published in March 2005, led to the creation of democratic, decision-making assemblies?
—This declaration was the first step in developing communalism in Kurdistan. Since then, Abdullah Öcalan wrote three comprehensive Defenses, the first in 2001 in two volumes, the second in 2004, and the last and most comprehensive in 2009 in five volumes, all of which has further developed the content of the communalism idea.
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy—the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people.
In Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan, there are assemblies almost everywhere. They are stronger in the city than in the rural areas. There are even some assemblies in faraway Istanbul.
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population—the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in the practice.
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party). For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
—What are the peace villages?
—One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viran?ehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
—How widespread are the assemblies in Turkish Kurdistan?
—In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies.
Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase. Seven days ago [c. September 20] they arrested seventy people from a city assembly in a province near the Iraqi border. The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them.
—Do these ideas have support in the Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria?
—In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains.
In Iranian Kurdistan, the PJAK (Party for Free Life in Kurdistan), which is part of KCK, promotes democratic confederalism. Especially young Kurds have started to discuss this idea, as it is different from the past perspectives of an independent state or a federation. Iran, with its very rich cultural diversity (here there were no massacres or displacements of Kurds, as in Turkey), is a state where a confederal structure would make much sense. More than the other states, Iranian society is ready for such a political structure.
In Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is also part of the KCK, promotes democratic confederalism. Many Syrian Kurds have supported the freedom movement since the 1980s and now promote the idea of confederalism. The PYD became active politically in the last five to six years. Since the start of the broad protests in Syria in March 2011, this perspective has become very powerful. The Kurds join the protests and have become a crucial factor in the whole struggle. They demand not only autonomy but democracy for all of Syria and democratic autonomy for the Kurdish regions, and the right to organize and defend themselves against attacks.
Iraqi Kurdistan also has a party that is part of the KCK: the Party for a Democratic Solution in Kurdistan (PCDK). But this party cannot work legally, as some years ago the regional Kurdish government forbade it. So democratic confederalism is discussed very only in a very limited way by intellectuals, the media, or the population and is not (yet) a big subject. Only in the regions close to the borders, which are under the control of the PKK guerrillas, is democratic confederalism discussed openly and deeply.
But Iraqi Kurdistan has its own constitution and parliament—a more or less autonomous state in its own right!
Iraqi Kurdistan has no elements of communalism because the regional government is conservative, authoritarian, and non-ecological, and does not support women’s rights. It superficially has a representative democracy, but in reality the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (YNK) share the power fifty-fifty and are very corrupt. Since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, all the small progressive elements of these two parties have been lost.
But in the mountainous areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KCK/PKK guerrillas—which control those areas–have brought a very different understanding. Today in the 60 to 70 villages where the guerrillas are dominant, the population has started to establish democratic assemblies that include women. The people have started to learn to organize by their own means and to make decisions based on specific democratic procedures.
As a result we have a very contradictory situation. The region governed by the PDK and the YNK does not have even the basic elements of a normal Western representative democracy, and in the region controlled by PKK there are growing elements of democratic confederalism.
The political development in Iraqi Kurdistan shows that even in an oppressed culture, a broad, base-democratic organization is necessary. It would not help much the Kurds to have their own state or even autonomy if democracy, participation, tolerance, and ecological orientation are missing from the political structures and decision-making processes.”
Video presentation of the self-governance experience in Syria, by Sinam Mohamad and Rima Tüzün: