Tremors in Turkey


How the Resistance of Wan Defeated Erdoğan Twice


In the following report, a longtime participant in the Kurdistan liberation movement explains how the political dynamics in Turkey are shifting in the wake of the municipal elections of March 31 and the historic popular resistance in the Kurdish province of Wan.

For more than two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have ruled Turkey, blending neoliberalism with an increasingly authoritarian mix of nationalism and political Islam. Some scholars have described the Turkish political system as a form of “competitive authoritarianism” that combines democratic institutions with autocratic rule. Over the past decade, this model of governance has been gaining traction around the world, including in supposed bastions of democracy.

Many people hoped that the 2023 elections might bring change to Turkey. As one of our correspondents wrote in 2022, reflecting on the years since the Gezi Park uprising of 2013,

For the past ten years, there has always been an election on the horizon that people hope will deal a death blow to Erdoğan. Since Gezi, there have been no less than six of these elections, ranging from a referendum to presidential, parliamentary, and mayoral elections. Some of them were repeated until the “correct” result was delivered. Perhaps this is the counter-revolutionary maneuver that is the most painful. The spirit of direct action and prefigurative politics has been crushed through Erdoğan’s shrewd consolidation of power and brutal repression—leaving us to put all our hope into electoral politics.

The Turkish state’s disastrous response to the earthquake of February 2023 only complicated Erdoğan’s prospects. Yet the elections of 2023 returned Erdoğan to power by a narrow margin, once again dashing hopes for change.

The situation is especially difficult for Kurdish people in land occupied by Turkey. While Turkish people chafe under Erdoğan’s rule, Kurdish communities have been oppressed by various Turkish regimes for centuries. In the city of Wan, in the part of Kurdistan ruled by Turkey, the Turkish state has repeatedly invalidated election results outright, installing its own representatives in positions of authority without any pretense of democracy.

They tried to do this once again in response to the municipal elections of March 31. This time, however, protesters took the streets throughout Wan and many other cities and towns, bravely defending themselves from police. On April 2, businesses throughout Wan remained closed in protest, while demonstrators flooded the streets once more. On April 3, the Turkish government was forced to capitulate, ceding a victory to the protesters—the first of its kind in many years.

Fundamentally, representative democracy functions as a means of legitimizing the authority of the state. This explains the continuity of repressive institutions and colonial violence between democratic and dictatorial regimes. The solution to the plight of Kurdish people and other targeted populations in Turkey is neither more adherence to the rule of law nor stricter implementation of majority rule: laws can serve to impose oppression, just as majorities can democratically vote to oppress minorities. The solution is real self-determination for everyone—from Wan to Rojava, Artsakh, Gaza, and Black Mesa.

Nonetheless, the resistance in Wan shows how people can exert power together outside of state institutions, pointing the way to grassroots solutions to the authoritarianism of our time. Their example should be of interest to people everywhere around the world. The following text explores these events in more detail.

Demonstrators in Êlih‎ [the city known as Batman in Turkish] use fireworks and projectiles to defend themselves from police attacking them with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. After the Turkish state attempted to suppress the results of the election in Wan, young people blocked Diyarbakır Street, chanting “Jin jiyan azadî” and other slogans.

How the People of Wan Defeated Erdoğan Twice

Resistance is the language of the oppressed—not because they choose it, but because it is the only means of continuing to exist. When people persist in resisting domination, it can yield previously unimaginable political results. A significant example of this recently occurred in the province of Wan, during Turkey’s municipal elections, where the colonial and ultranationalist coalition led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan experienced two defeats: first in the actual elections and then as a consequence of resistance against the colonial suppression of the popular will.

Turkey held municipal elections on March 31. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), came in second for the first time since it came to power in 2002, losing in the municipalities of major cities. The CHP (Republican People’s Party) received the greatest number of votes. As part of its colonial rule of North Kurdistan, the AKP had appointed government trustees in the Kurdish cities in Turkey instead of democratically elected mayors for two terms, a total of eight years. Their justification was that the elected Kurdish mayors were serving the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) rather than the people, but they did not present any evidence of this to the courts—they only cited political statements from the elected mayors that did not align with the AKP’s agenda.

For eight years, the rights of Kurdish people were arbitrarily suppressed so that Kurdish municipalities would be governed by Erdoğan’s bureaucrats, who squandered city budgets on corruption and luxury while effectively erasing the Kurdish language from municipal services in majority-Kurdish cities. In response, in the elections of March 31, Kurds elected DEM Party (Democracy and Equality Party) candidates, achieving significant victories despite electoral fraud before, during, and after the elections.

The electoral process fell far short of democratic standards even in a liberal sense. The elections occurred in a context in which the AKP exercised total control over the mass media. Kurdish politicians from the DEM Party and tens of thousands of activists who might otherwise have engaged in electoral campaigning were imprisoned. Supposedly independent bodies such as the judiciary were firmly under the control of the AKP; there was no semblance of free and fair debate during the electoral campaigns. Before the elections, the DEM Party objected to various forms of electoral fraud, such as registering police and soldiers as electors in order to manipulate results in cities like Kars, Sirnak, and Bitlis as well as in smaller towns; yet most Turkish political parties, including the CHP, remained largely silent. Numerous violations were reported, such as open voting in which the voters were not able to use secret ballots, barring journalists from voting stations, and the presence of police and soldiers in voting stations during the casting of votes, mostly in Kurdish cities. After the elections, it became evident that the AKP had prepared to illegally suppress the results of the elections in Kurdish cities, notably in the city of Wan.

Demonstrators in Wan.

Despite this, the AKP and its coalition party, the racist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), lost the majority of municipal elections to various political parties, chiefly to the CHP. The DEM Party, primarily representing Kurdish, leftist, feminist, and ecologist segments of society, won the majority of Kurdish cities and towns, despite the ongoing suppression practically all forms of Kurdish opposition of the Kurds and all organizing related to the issue of Kurdish self-governance.

One city, Wan, holds particular significance. The DEM Party candidate, Abdullah Zeydan, was elected as mayor of the metropolitan municipality with 55% of the vote, twice the number of votes for the AKP candidate; the DEM Party also won a total of 14 municipalities in the province of Wan. However, there was controversy over the certificate of election. At first, the provincial electoral board gave the victory to the AKP candidate, alleging that Zeydan had been deprived of his electoral rights due to a previous “criminal charge of terrorism,” despite the fact that the same board had cleared Zeydan to run for elections. Later, it came out that the provincial electoral board had made this decision after the AKP objected on the Friday before the election, just five minutes before the official end of the business day. The AKP candidate demanded the certificate of election on Sunday while the voting was still ongoing. It was clear that the AKP had decided in advance to seize control of the metropolitan municipality of Wan.

For three days, the people of Wan, members of the DEM Party, and several other political representatives, including a small CHP delegation, protested in Wan against the AKP’s attempt to suppress the results of the election. More significantly, the people of Wan and many people from several other cities took to the streets and protested, despite severe police violence, hundreds of arrests, and dozens of imprisonments.

On April 3, in the city of Wan, tens of thousands of people marched towards the courthouse where the Provincial Election Board is located. The police attacked the crowd with tear gas and water cannons near Maraş Street; in response, protesters erected barricades and set fires throughout the city.

Suppressing the outcome of a municipal election in this way would not be possible in Western Turkey; such things only occur in Kurdish cities due to an undeclared colonial rule, which goes beyond the usual understanding of “competitive authoritarianism.” This term is often used to describe Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey, referring to the authoritarian regime’s justification of its rule via electoral victories that take place under conditions that strongly favor the regime. While the framework of competitive authoritarianism might apply in the Western provinces of Turkey, it falls short in explaining the situation in Kurdish cities, where democratic elections have been suspended altogether.

However, for the first time since peace talks with the PKK ended in 2015, the AKP was forced to retract its initial decision. The Supreme Electoral Board annulled the decision on April 3, three days after the elections, restoring the mandate to the winner, DEM Party candidate Abdullah Zeydan. The Supreme Electoral Board, which has been guilty of legitimizing a tremendous number of electoral violations that favored the AKP and Erdoğan, is ultimately under Erdoğan’s absolute control. It is unimaginable to think that this decision occurred independently of the AKP and Erdoğan.

The fact that the Board reversed its decision is the consequence of the resistance of the people of Wan, which involved several layers of activity. First, the people of Wan themselves created a crisis by protesting and taking to the streets for three days. Second, the DEM Party showed a strong determination to defend its candidate, both within the corridors of power in Ankara and internationally, and this attracted attention from mass and social media. Finally, all the political parties outside the ruling coalition, including the CHP, were compelled to issue statements and intervene due to the resistance in Wan, so as not to contradict their own recent discourse about democratization.

Why did the ruling coalition of AKP and MHP allow this outcome? The answer is straightforward: they are not as strong as they used to be. This fundamental shift in the power dynamics in Turkey, with the AKP not leading elections for the first time since 2002 and the CHP emerging as the winning party, has destabilized the ruling coalition. While a deeper analysis is needed to account for the broader results of the elections, it suffices to say that this destabilization will benefit various segments of society, including radical democratic forces like the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, the ecological movement, and the feminist movement.

It is important to emphasize that the main purpose of the resistance is not solely about “fighting for Turkey’s democracy.” That is a secondary concern. The primary focus is on resisting the eight-year-running colonial takeover of Kurdish municipalities. Fundamentally, this is about defending people’s right to autonomy and self-governance.

Secondly, and closely related to that point, these municipalities play a crucial role in advancing the radical political project of the Kurdistan liberation movement, known as democratic confederalism. This involves organizing people, neighborhood communes, and town councils. Municipalities play an essential role in carrying out the democratic confederalist project because they allow for local governance by the direct democratic control of the people through the communes and councils. The eight-year-long seizure of the municipalities by the state represented a significant obstacle to this process.

Thirdly, the resistance has broken the grip of ultranationalist and colonial rule. We cannot predict what will happen next, but one thing is certain: the AKP’s electoral defeat destabilized the established power relations in the heart of the Turkish state, and along with the AKP, the state itself took a step back in the face of Kurdish resistance for the first time in many years. The AKP might try to appoint government trustees by removing democratically elected mayors in Kurdish cities once again, but that will not change the fact that people have dealt a public defeat to the AKP. Now that this has happened for the first time in ten years, it can happen again any time. The resistance of the people of Wan has opened that door.

Demonstrators celebrate their victory in Wan on April 3, 2024.