In its 1978 manifesto, the PKK declared the establishment of an independent state the only correct political goal. Following a critique of the character of national liberation struggles and real existing socialism, the party started to question whether independence should be conceptualized and practised as
state/nation-state construction. This eventuated in a redenition of the party’s political strategy according to which the PKK disconnected the idea of self-determination from that of state establishment. Arguing that the ideas of the state and government are not the same, the PKK developed a political strategy based on the self-governing capacities of people. The key-concepts in the PKK discourse on self-government that developed were “democratic confederalism”and “democratic autonomy.”
From the mid-2000s onwards, the Kurdish liberation movement started organising assemblies for self-government throughout Kurdistan.This article will engage with the development of self-government in Rojava, a region in the north of Syria that became known internationally after fierce battles against forces of the so called islamic state attacking the border town of Kobanê. While the pictures of armed women as antithesis to the patriarchal,however, misogynous posture of IS were broadcast around the world, the political dimensions of the struggle in Rojava remained somewhat obscure.
A foundational document, the Social Contract, declared the ideas of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism a cornerstone of the region’s political architecture. Though the region is mainly inhabited by Kurds, other populations are living in the area and involved in the development of this new political archi-tecture, including Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens. In this article, we argue that this social contract disconnects the idea of the state from that of government, and frees citizenship from state capture to redene it in terms of relations among and the self-administrative capacities of people (citizens).
The development of this new political architecture is of particular impor-tance against the background of what was referred to as a crisis among Kurdish political parties on the eve of the uprising in Syria. Some of the reasons why the popularity of political parties in general had fallen at that time were factional-ism, weaknesses in ideology and practise, the domination of personality issues and an inability to achieve concessions from the state (Allsop 2014, 176–177). Atthe same time the levels of Kurdish national consciousness and youth activism were high. It was from out of this contradiction between a crisis in traditional party politics and high political consciousness that the Democratic Union Party(Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) developed its political alternative of bottom-upself-administration.
When traditional political parties established the Kurdish National Council KNC in 2011 under the political guidance of the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (in Northern Iraq), Massoud Barzani, this was not only to unite these parties against the Syrian regime but also a response against the PYD and the rapidly spreading popularity of its conception of a post-party politics.
In this article, we will not discuss the strained relations between the PYD and KNC, whose leadership resides in Erbil and associated political par-ties have a limited presence in Rojava (Gunes and Lowe 2015, 5), but focus on the emerging practice of self-administration.The structure of this article is as follows. First we present an overview of the historical development of the concept of democratic autonomy, focussing on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, and then we look at its application in Rojava following the revolution there, concentrating on the institutions and practice of democratic autonomy and self-administration.
A main conclusion we draw isthat the decentralization of power, economy and administration in Rojava—inshort, a transformation of the idea of democracy—leads to a new kind of socialcontract, one that is not based on a necessary connection to the national state,but on connections between people within and among local communities, rep-resenting a social contract which reclaims citizenship from the state.Data for this article has been collected by means of study of primary sources,observation and interviews. Interviews were conducted with the PKK in Qandil and the authors made various visits to Rojava. Michael Knapp visits Rojava regularly, where he is doing his PhD research on the concept of citizenship in democratic autonomy. He stayed there one month in May, 2014 and, most recently at the time of writing, two weeks in October 2015, undertaking interviews with a wide variety of interlocutors. Joost Jongerden stayed there also for one week in October 2015 (separately) making observations and doing interviews…