Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Nicole F WATTS


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Pro-Kurdish Mayors in As-If Democracy: Symbolic Politics in Diyarbakir

By Nicole F. WATTS (*)

In 1999, 38 candidates from a political party closely identified with Kurdish rights swept into office in Turkey’s southeastern provinces (Kurdistan-Turkey), capturing nearly all the region’s big cities and towns.  In the next consecutive round of municipal elections in 2004, pro-Kurdish candidates again won dozens of mayoral seats, eventually counting 56 as theirs. Although openly pro-Kurdish candidates had occasionally been elected to local office in the past, this was the first time that so many had been elected on such a large scale, and it signaled one of the most dramatic shifts in the nature of Kurdish activism in Turkey since the emergence of the PKK in the early 1980s.

My talk today is about some of the opportunities and constraints these mayors have encountered as they seek to use their control over local office to challenge Turkish state policies towards Kurds, and to promote a Kurdish national agenda.

Attending to Kurdish activists’ tenure in office has been important for me as part of a broader project on the form and function of different types of pro-Kurdish contentious politics (Tilly 2003: 26-30; Tarrow 1998: 3-4) in Turkey. In particular, I’m interested in what Kurdish activists have to gain and lose by working within governmentally legitimated electoral and human rights frameworks, as opposed to using extrasystemic tactics of protest and rebellion. I don’t view these different types of challenge in normative or absolute terms, but I do believe it is important to take them all into serious analytical consideration, and to evaluate the potentially different functions that different types of activism may play in determining a movement’s impact.


Activists in Office: Some general remarks


The group of mayors I’m discussing was elected to office from the People’s Democracy Party, or HADEP, in 1999 and, in 2004, from the Democratic People’s Party, also known as DEHAP. DEHAP was disbanded and replaced by the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, in 2005. Although party leaders claim these parties represent all communities in Turkey, they have been identified as the ‘Kurdish activist party’ and a kind of stand-in for the PKK by the Turkish and Kurdish electorate, by the Turkish state, and by other pro-Kurdish and non-governmental actors. The parties’ publicly articulated goal can be generally summarized as an effort to secure freedom for public and collective expressions of Kurdish cultural and political identities in Turkey, primarily but not exclusively within the framework of a decentralized, possibly federal, Turkish state.

I want to say at the outset that simply moving into so-called conventional politics did not – at least for these sets of mayors -- guarantee conventional behavior or treatment. This is a point that runs counter to much of the general theorizing on social movements and ethnic conflict, where many analysts tend to dismiss electoral politics as low-risk (see e.g. Schock 2003; Tarrow 1998) and assume that, once elected, activists will “adhere to a common script” (Meyer and Tarrow 1998: 21).

This case, though, highlights the un-conventionality of some electoral politics in some types of regimes. Pro-Kurdish political ascension in local government came at a time when the Turkish Parliament passed a series of democratic legal reforms aimed at harmonizing Turkish laws in preparation for EU candidacy. These reforms, along with the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire in the wake of Abdullah Öcalan’s arrest, allowed newly elected pro-Kurdish mayors more room to engage in Kurdish identity politics than before. Nonetheless, the new laws were not fully institutionalized, were complicated by renewed fighting between the Turkish Army and the PKK after 2005, and then further undercut earlier this summer by the passage of a new anti-terror bill.

Throughout this period the relationship between pro-Kurdish officeholders and most parts of the Turkish state has continued to be a publicly adversarial one characterized by threats on the status or even person of the officeholder, and by officeholders’ public challenges to the basic ‘rules of the game’ (Migdal 1988: 14-15). Pro-Kurdish mayors across the region were subject to continuous forms of harassment, especially police investigations and court cases. I therefore treat pro-Kurdish mayoral politics not as an accommodation or cooptation of the Kurdish national movement, but as a mode of struggle that takes place within the arenas of the state itself.

Even with the considerable restrictions on their activities, pro-Kurdish mayors’ tenure in local office has served a number of important functions.

First, holding local office gave the movement’s leading representatives new material resources such as control over budgets, infrastructure, and hiring. In the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality alone, a small cadre of committed pro-Kurdish and human rights activists gained control of a $37 million budget and access to infrastructure, especially buildings, that could be used to consolidate the movement and further its goals.

Second, election to local office has “officialized” the Kurdish movement elite, providing its elected representatives with opportunities to develop extensive personal and institutional relationships at the domestic and international levels. These in turn provide greater access to funds, technical expertise, and more opportunities for information politics and the normalization of a pro-Kurdish platform. As mayor of Diyarbakır, Osman Baydemir became a member of the World Federation of United Cities, whose meetings took him to Paris, China, and Washington DC. Contacts established in those meetings produced an invitation for Baydemir to give his first, official English-language speech at the Council of Europe.

Third, holding local office has allowed the Kurdish movement to produce a new ‘governmentality’ (Foucault 1991) as it begins to use the tools of local government to systematically map, survey, educate, and regulate local Kurdish populations.

Fourth, election to local office facilitated movement use of symbolic politics. It is on the details of such symbolic politics that I want to spend most of the rest of my time today.


Pro-Kurdish Symbolic Politics


Symbolic politics can be loosely defined as the use of representation -- narratives, symbols, and spectacle -- to maintain or transform a power relationship (Brysk 1995: 561; Tarrow 1998: 106-108; Wedeen 1999). While examples of symbolic politics may, taken individually, seem relatively trivial, cumulatively they can play an important part in creating new norms, new ideas about self-representation, and in challenging official or dominant discourse. While Kurdish activists within and outside Turkey have always used symbolic politics, election to local office gave the movement access to new organizational platforms, new funding sources, and authority over decision-making processes that facilitated use of symbolic politics on a much larger scale than ever before.

Especially after the 2004 elections, pro-Kurdish mayors and party representatives promoted a local and officialized project of Kurdish cultural reconstruction directed at multiple audiences. Internally, pro-Kurdish mayors and many of their staff members saw themselves as leading a serious effort to “rebuild” Kurdish culture. This effort can be read as a kind of official nationalism with an emphasis on secular “high” culture, “modernization,” and a tendency towards a standardization of language and experience.  As an externally directed activity, symbolic politics directly challenged Turkish official narratives that rejected collective Kurdish identities; symbolic politics reinforced (for local, national, and international audiences) the notion of a cultural space (Kurdistan) separate from the rest of Turkey; and, additionally, offered a parallel but nonetheless distinct Kurdish national narrative to that across the border here in Iraqi Kurdistan.



One of the most important instances of symbolic politics has been municipal use of Kurdish, signaling both its everyday nature and its official potential. Given longstanding official Turkish efforts to deny the existence of Kurdish as a distinct language, as well as the government’s extensive prohibitions on its use, municipal use of Kurdish in spoken and written contexts has constituted an immense normative shift and symbolic challenge.

Soon after he was elected to office, Diyarbakır mayor Osman Baydemir began using Kurdish (specifically, Kurmanji written in Latin script) in the municipality’s promotional posters and in many of his talks. Such direct and public use of Kurdish was important for him, Baydemir asserted, as a way of signaling the failure of the state’s effort to destroy Kurdish culture and offering a way to “re-establish links with the people” (Baydemir 2005). From 2004 onwards, municipal posters advertising film festivals, cultural festivals, and Kurdish Newroz celebrations were headlined in Kurmanji, Turkish, and English. In 2005 and 2006, Armenian and Arabic were added for good measure. In 2005-2006 the Sur municipality, a subdistrict of Diyarbakır, published two children’s books in Kurmanji, and developed a Kurmanji version of the web browser Opera (Demirbaş 2006). The municipality also began offering Kurdish and English-language classes for municipal personnel, proudly announcing the first class of 20 graduates in August of 2006 (e.g. see

Turkey’s political party law still requires all party business (campaigns, congresses, official correspondence, for instance) to be conducted in Turkish. The law applicable to municipalities is somewhat more flexible, requiring Turkish for “official business” but permitting use of other languages for interpersonal communication where necessary. Pro-Kurdish officials began pushing this unspecified boundary, using Kurdish as well as Turkish in an increasing number of contexts. Fırat Anlı, mayor of Yenişehir (a district of Diyarbakır), recounted:


Turkish is the language that is spoken in official institutions. But in order to make it easier to conduct business with people you can speak English; you can speak Kurmanji; you can even speak Zaza. We gradually increased our application of this. We put it into writing. Sometimes we have used it in our official documents and in our official meetings or ceremonies, for example, in weddings. Through activities such as this we have begun, de facto, to increase [its usage] (Anlı 2006).




            Pro-Kurdish mayors and their staffs also attempted to re-appropriate geographic spaces. From the 1920s through the 1970s, Turkish officials had used ‘toponymical strategies’ of changing village names and installing Turkish nationalist symbols to try and ‘Turkify’ the mostly non-Turkish southeast (Öktem 2004: 568-569). Between 1999 and 2006, pro-Kurdish mayors countered with their own efforts to re-claim local geographies and inscribe them as Kurdish or in reference to pro-Kurdish struggles.

After his election in 2004, pro-Kurdish mayor Osman Baydemir quietly removed one of the ubiquitous statues of Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from one of Diyarbakır’s main squares, along with one of the signs to the city proclaiming ‘Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene’ (How Happy is the One Who Can Say he is a Turk). Such ‘de-Turkification,’ if we may call it that, was followed by ‘Kurdification.’ In late 2005 the Yenişehir municipality erected a statue of a plane tree in honor of Musa Anter, one of the country’s most prominent Kurdish authors and activists. Anter was killed as part of a wave of ‘unknown assailant murders’ when visiting Diyarbakır in 1992. About 300 people including many of the region’s most prominent mayors attended the commemoration ceremony to unveil the statue, designed by Iranian Kurdish sculptor Babek Sophi (see e.g. Yenişehir Belediye Bülteni 2006: 5).

Naming and re-naming streets and parks has been another common mechanism to Kurdify public spaces. In June of 2000 the mayor of Batman, Abdullah Akın, changed a reported 200 street names in the city, christening some of them after prominent Kurdish events, leaders, and leftists, and others with such choices as ‘Human Rights Boulevard’ and ‘Democracy Avenue.’ Not all his names were permitted; the mayor’s choices made headlines in Turkey and in Europe when a Turkish court rejected some of them, including the names Gandhi and Zilan streets (Zilan is a prominent Kurdish tribe that took part in 1930s Kurdish uprisings, and also a well-known codename for a female PKK suicide bomber). Similarly, the regional governor rejected the Diyarbakır municipality’s efforts to name one road ‘Vedat Aydin’ street after a pro-Kurdish party leader murdered in 1991 (Çelik 2003). More successfully, in 2003 the Bağlar municipality succeeded in naming a new neighborhood Barış Mahalesi, or Peace District (Legara 2003) although only after two years of debate with the regional governor; the name was considered troublesome in the context of southeastern politics because those who called for ‘peace’ in the region were seen as supporting a negotiated solution to the PKK-state conflict. Today, in the rapidly expanding Diyarbakır neighborhood of Kayapınar, visitors and locals driving west along Musa Anter Boulevard can turn left on Yılmaz Güney Avenue (named after the rebellious, left-wing film director), right on Selahaddini Eyyubi Boulevard, and left again Ahmet Arif Boulevard (named for the famous Kurdish poet).



Perhaps the most dramatic type of symbolic politics, and certainly the type that has actively engaged the largest number of people, has been fairs and festivals, which serve as a vehicle for Kurdish cultural reconstruction and alternative imagining.

Beginning in 2001 the Diyarbakır municipality revived the Cultural and Arts festival, and has held it every year in late spring. Despite its innocuous name, the festival serves as a platform for Kurdish singers, panels on Kurdish politics and culture, art exhibits, and other activities. (Before the lifting of emergency rule law in 2003, the festival was a favorite target of police and security forces, who would regularly round up visiting musicians and artists for questioning.) In 2004 the Diyarbakır municipality also began organizing annual film festivals and book fairs devoted primarily to screening and discussing Kurdish films and celebrating Kurdish literature and fine arts.

Several points are worth noting about these cultural festivals. First, paradoxically, they combine a high level of politicization with an almost total lack of reference to the 15 years of war in the region. A notable exception was a short-lived testimonial exhibit last year featuring families’ written memories of guerrillas and soldiers killed in the fighting, Festival slogans do offer the occasional oblique reference – in 2003 the culture and art festival’s motto was “art despite everything” and in 2005, “the colors and sounds of peace” – and this year, for instance, I attended a panel on the “Kurdish problem” and possible solutions, organized as part of the spring culture and arts festival. For the most part, though, the festivals constitute both a vocal assault on a once-hegemonic Turkish national discourse and a space of silence with regard to the trauma of the past two decades.

A second point to note about these festivals is that especially since 2004, they have provided a platform for pro-Kurdish mayors to cultivate closer relationships with Kurdish artists, musicians, and scholars from different parts of Kurdistan. This new cultural linkage of a greater Kurdistan stands in contrast to lesser developed political networks (When I talked to former Diyarbakır mayor Feridun Çelik in 2003, for instance, he told me that the only time he saw anyone from Iraqi Kurdistan was when he attended official functions in Ankara). 

A third point is that, especially after 2005, both some Diyarbakır residents and those involved with organizing the festivals began to question the wisdom of spending scarce resources on such luxuries as headline singers and films, and to consider new ways of engaging their populations. Cevahir Sadak, cultural director for the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, said in March of this year:


In the first years even to be able to have a festival and to use Kurdish was the most amazing thing. But then after a couple years, in 2002, 2003, 2004, we started looking around and saying, ‘What are we doing? What are we doing with these festivals?’ … The current type of festivals are fictional—we can’t explain to people why we are holding them.


Instead, she said, fair-organizers are beginning to try and work with pre-existing, more indigenous traditions such as sheep-shearing festivals and, as she put it, “to involve people in creating this platform, but not just for representation but to bring the different parts of Kurdistan together” (Sadak 2006). 

By far the largest of the region’s festivals are the re-invigorated celebrations of Newroz. Since the 1980s, Newroz has served as the ‘corner-stone of the Kurdish myth of resistance’ (Hirschler 2001: 154) and is perceived by both Kurdish activists and the Turkish state as a potent symbol of Kurdish nationalism. Throughout the 1990s, attempts to hold Newroz celebrations produced fierce clashes between Turkish state forces and local Kurdish populations; in 1992, Turkish security forces killed at least 70 people during one new year event (see e.g. Newroz Olayları 1992). As conditions in the southeast relaxed after 1999, pro-Kurdish mayors and party members began organizing enormous Newroz events that attracted hundreds of thousands of locals, nationwide press coverage, and dozens of international observers (see e.g. Radikal 2004; Diyarbakır Gün 2004).

By 2002 Newroz gatherings were organized primarily by the party, not the municipalities themselves, but city representatives sat on the Newroz organizing committees and played an important part in funding, hosting, publicizing, and officiating them. Newroz festivals, more than any other event in the region, constituted a clear assertion to multiple levels of audience that the pro-Kurdish movement had not died with Abdullah Öcalan’s capture but, to the contrary, was growing ever more capable of writing its own narrative in defiance of that of the state’s. This narrative reiterated two standard tropes of Kurdish activism: that Kurds were culturally distinct, as represented in clothing, song, and bonfire ceremonies at Newroz, and that they had an alternative, anti-official conception of legitimate representation, as evidenced by photos of Öcalan brandished by some attendees, pro-Öcalan slogans chanted periodically by portions of the crowd, and the ubiquitous red, green, and yellow Kurdish flags. Perhaps just as important than the content of the festivals was that these messages were being broadcast as a public and legal event with little or no police intervention (at least until this year, when festival attendees were videotaped, and some people arrested following the festival).


Risks: Continuing Contention

Pro-Kurdish symbolic politics were carried out in a context of near-continual struggle between pro-Kurdish representatives and many parts of the Turkish state, although official responses did vary somewhat according to time, place, and institution. Prior to the lifting of emergency rule law in 2002, festival organizers routinely faced restrictions on their organization, and visiting Kurdish artists and singers were regularly detained by security forces for questioning. In high-profile cities such as Diyarbakır, relations between the governor’s office and pro-Kurdish mayors relaxed somewhat after 2004, when a young and relatively liberal-minded new governor was appointed, and some mayors there reported regular and productive relations with the governor’s office. However, this localized improvement in inter-governmental relations ended in late March of this year, when protests and riots took place in Diyarbakır and other towns, resulting in the deaths of 13 civilians and the arrest of more than 500 people. The March protests, along with renewed fighting this year between the PKK and the Turkish Army, have re-drawn clearer boundaries of what constitutes loyal and disloyal behavior, reducing the already-narrow space for dialogue and mutual recognition, and making it much more difficult for centrally appointed or elected Turkish officials to interact amicably in public with pro-Kurdish mayors.

More problematically, relations between pro-Kurdish mayors and other branches of the state such as the public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary have continued to be highly adversarial throughout this period. In February of 2000 three pro-Kurdish mayors including Diyarbakır’s Feridun Çelik were arrested, charged with aiding the PKK, and then released 10 days later under intense international pressure. In March 2003 the Constitutional Court closed HADEP on the grounds that it was aiding the PKK and that it violated the constitution. Nearly 50 pro-Kurdish party leaders were banned for life from participating in politics (İnsan Haklari Vakfı 2003). Between 2004 and 2006 about 60 investigations were opened against Diyarbakir Metropolitan mayor Osman Baydemir, and although most were dismissed, some serious cases are now making their way into the courts. Hundreds of investigations and dozens of court cases have been opened and filed against other pro-Kurdish mayors for charges ranging from use of Kurdish to alleged improper use of municipal property (supplying ambulances to carry dead PKK guerrillas, for instance). In June of this year the pro-Kurdish mayor of Cizre was sentenced to 15 months in jail for remarks deemed in praise of Öcalan.


Impacts? Some observations as a conclusion

Given these circumstances, what might we say about pro-Kurdish mayors’ time in local politics thus far? By way of a conclusion, I would like to offer several thoughts.

First, it is clear that ‘officialization’ has facilitated the self- and external legitimization of a new generation of Kurdish activist elites. This elite maintains a multi-faceted and dynamic relationship with the PKK, and its public positioning of itself vis-à-vis this relationship has, of course, greatly complicated the work of legally elected mayors. Nonetheless, this new elected leadership has managed to impose itself on local, national, and international community as a viable set of Kurdish national leaders.

Second, pro-Kurdish mayors have suffered from what Michel Foucault (1977) calls the disciplinary power of the system: Kurdish activists working through so-called conventional means have been bodily targeted and, more, have been subject to a coercive ‘government of conduct’ (Hansen and Stepputat 2001: 4) that regulates their behavior and discourse. Entry to the ‘legitimate’ game requires use of a certain sets of code words (‘democracy,’ ‘multi-culturalism,’ ‘nonviolence’) and the silencing of another set (‘independence’ and ‘revolution,’ for instance). Working within these constraints, some pro-Kurdish politicians ceased to promote the movement, instead taking advantage of the personal opportunities provided by loyalty to the system. Others have struggled uneasily at the boundaries, in some cases (like that of Osman Baydemir) transgressing them. 

Either way, incorporation into the system has tended over time to produce alienation from some sectors of the population, losing the movement some level of grassroots engagement and support. Pro-Kurdish mayoral candidates lost several major cities in the 2004 local elections, and even popular mayors such as Baydemir faced heckling crowds during the March protests when he instructed them to stop demonstrating and go home.

Third, and finally, the behavior and treatment of pro-Kurdish actors during this period suggests a political climate that, following Lisa Wedeen’s work on Syria (1999), might usefully be conceived of as ‘democracy as if:’ pro-Kurdish activists and politicians during this time acted ‘as if’ new rights and freedoms were in fact in place, pushing the boundaries of legal behavior and straining new legal reforms to their limits. In the process, they have brought about a significant shift in public culture, consolidated the cultural transformation sought by Kurdish activists in Turkey, and have helped create an environment in which Turkish officials could consider new policies towards Kurds that would have been politically unpalatable if not impossible in the recent past.

On the other hand, the risks of operating in an as-if democratic environment became increasingly clear this spring, when many party activists were imprisoned and pro-Kurdish mayors faced new and more serious investigations. The uneven nature of cultural tolerance versus actual political freedom or -- in Robert Dahl’s classic terminology (1971), the unevenness of inclusion versus contestation – has put increasing strain on movement elites as they struggle between legality and articulating the movement’s political goals.





Brysk, Alison (1995) ‘ “Winning Hearts and Minds”: Bringing Symbolic Politics Back In,’ Polity 27 (4), pp. 559-585.


Dahl, Robert A. (1971) Polyarchy:Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press).


Diyarbakır Gün (2004) 22 March 2004.


Foucault, Michel (1977) Discipline & Punish: the Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books). 


______________(1991) “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


Hansen, Thomas Blom and Finn Stepputat (2001) “Introduction: States of Imagination,” in States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State, ed. by Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (Durham and London: Duke University Press).


Hirschler, Konrad (2001) ‘Defining the Nation: Kurdish Historiography in Turkey in the 1990s,’ Middle Eastern Studies 37(3), pp. 145-166.


Meyer, David S. and Sidney Tarrow (Eds) (1998) The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).


Migdal, Joel S. (1988) Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press).


Newroz Olayları 1992: Gözlem-İnceleme-Makale-Rapor ve Basın Açıklamalarıyla (Ankara: Yorum Yayınları).


Öktem, Kerem (2004) ‘Incorporating the time and space of the ethnic ‘other’: nationalism and space in Southeast Turkey in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,’ Nations and Nationalism 10 (4), pp. 559-578.


Radikal (2004) 22 March 2004.


Schock, Kurt (2003) ‘Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists,’ Political Science & Politics XXXVI (4), pp. 705-712.


Tarrow, Sidney (1998) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


Tilly, Charles (2003) The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


Wedeen, Lisa (1999) Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


Yenişehir Belediye Bülteni, January 2006.



Anlı, Fırat (mayor of Yenişehir). May 2006, Diyarbakır, Turkey.

Baydemir, Osman (mayor of Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality). March 2004 and March 2005, Diyarbakır, Turkey.

Çelik, Feridun (former mayor of Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality). 26 May 2003. Diyarbakır, Turkey.

Demirbaş, Abdullah (mayor of Sur), 2 June 2006, Diyarbakır, Turkey.

Legara, Cabbar (former mayor of Bağlar). 25 May 2003, Diyarbakır, Turkey.

Sadak, Cevahir (Diyarbakır cultural director). 22 March 2006, Diyarbakır, Turkey.


*Thanks especially to Siyar and Serdar in Diyarbakir for their patience and assistance.


(*) (Dept. of Political Science ) Professor at San Francisco State University