The Principles of Democratic Confederalism

Fighters from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) hold up a painting of Abdullah Öcalan, their political leader - Attrib Kurdishstruggle flickrFighters from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) hold up a painting of Abdullah Öcalan, their political leader - Attrib Kurdishstruggle flickr

The Autonomous Regions of Rojava have obtained a new significance now the United States has buttressed their struggle against Da’ish (Islamic State) with supplies, air support, and soon, special operations forces. The US plans to use Rojava’s military as the spearhead of a coalition aimed at the Da’ish capital of Al-Raqqah. If successful, it could change the course of the civil war. Consequently, understanding the structure of Rojava’s society, Democratic Confederalism, is more important than ever. There are two principal documents to be examined if one is to map its contours: first is the Social Contract, released January 2014, and second is The Project of a Democratic Syria, released in February 2015. The latter was released by Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk (Movement for a Democratic Society), or TEV-DEM, a highly significant political coalition which has been involved in constructing Rojava from the beginning. According to one observer, TEV-DEM was the driving force behind the eventual emergence of Rojava in the midst of civil war. The Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎ (Democratic Union Party, or PYD) is an integral part of this movement, but it also includes other political elements such as youth organizations and academies. From the two documents we gain a clear picture of Rojava’s political constitution and goals, and also note a disturbing absence. For all the talk of people’s self-management and administration, there is no formal recognition of the mechanism to bring it about: the commune.

First, the highest level of Rojava’s government will be detailed. The Social Contract (hereafter known as the Charter) formalizes the structure and organization of Rojava’s society. There are three Cantons: Jazira (Cizîrê), Afrin (Efrînê), and Kobane (Kobaniyê) which constitute the Autonomous Regions of Rojava. The Cantons are organized through a separation of powers arrangement (Article 13): the Legislative Assembly, the Executive Council, and the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Legislative Assembly is directly elected, but the Co-Presidents are internally elected at its inaugural meeting. Each Canton has a Governor elected by majority vote in its Legislative Assembly; their Deputies are similarly appointed by them and approved by the Legislative Assembly. The Governor holds executive authority, implements laws passed by the Legislative Assembly, and governs according to them. The Governor also appoints the President/Chairman/Head of the Executive Council (all titles are listed without clear distinction). The Executive Council implements laws, resolutions, and decrees issued by the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Executive Council is formed by the party or coalition which won a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly, and is comprised of representatives and committees. It must be approved by a simple majority of the Legislative Assembly (51%). The Executive Council must also issue a ‘Programme for Government’ and implement it upon approval by the Legislative Assembly during the current term (4 years). Finally, the Supreme Constitutional Court is comprised of professional judges with 15 years of experience or more, who are nominated by the Legislative Assembly. The Court ensures the constitutionality of laws, reviews legislative acts and executive decisions, and its judgements are reached through simple majority vote. It may also pass judgement those brought before it on allegations of breaching the Charter. This separation of powers arrangement would be quite familiar in the West.

The second layer of government is as follows. There is a High Commission of Elections, Judicial Council, Legislative Council, and Municipal Councils. Like the Supreme Constitutional Court, the High Commission of Elections is appointed by the Legislative Assembly, and is drawn from all Cantons. Its functioning is monitored by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and, together with the Judicial Council, meets with all candidates seeking election to the Legislative Assembly, before announcing those eligible. The Judicial Council is comprised of members of the judiciary and ensures the courts and other governmental functions are run according to law. The Legislative Council is comprised of one member per 15,000 registered voters. The Executive Council nominates advisers from the Legislative Council to be responsible for each Body within it, and those advisers are appointed upon its approval. There are 22 bodies ranging from Foreign Affairs to Food Security (Article 95). The Municipal Councils are organized on a provincial basis; they are administrative councils which are managed by the Executive Council, and are directly elected by the public. The Canton Governor supervises their finances and budget, public services, and mayoral elections, and this is regulated by law. There is a third layer of government, down to the local level, but it is not detailed by the Charter.

Now The Project of a Democratic Syria document will be examined. TEV-DEM states that the civil war’s “scenarios surpass the potential of people to understand, let alone challenge.” The solution was the imposition of a Democratic Nation and Democratic Self-Administration, stated to be “a comprehensive democratic solution, one that democratized both state and society and thereby solved the issues of the constituent peoples.” Rather than a homogeneous nation state, formed by ethnic majority, TEV-DEM describes the Democratic Nation as “a nation of formative pluralism…one that builds an appropriate ground for the emergence of the individual and the free citizen.” Like Abdullah Ocalan’s paper on Democratic Confederalism (p.32), it states that “Democracy and the state can play their roles under the same political roof”. It explicitly states that “the freedom of women is the guarantee of all other freedoms.” Syrian society, for TEV-DEM, is one that “must respect the multiplicity of identities and social affirmations of all constituent peoples, as well as their social identity.” The document stresses the need for compromise between local self-administration and the power of central authority, with the overlapping of decentralized and centralized structures. TEV-DEM believes that local self-defense does not compromise “the unity of the homeland and its centrality”, and argues it “will defend the nation as a whole, represented by the state and the relevant public institutions.” It characterizes democracy as a “cultural issue”, and states that central authority will remain and “shift from controlling to coordinating and unifying the parts that make up the whole”. Finally, the success of Rojava is considered the first step towards “the construction of democratic confederal relationships that will spread in the Middle East”. It discusses local self-management and self-administration in little detail, despite one of its ‘Basic Principles’ being the transition “to a decentralized democratic system in which everyone shares in self-management.” In terms of actual implementation, it is more concerned with high-level political goals than articulating details of a functioning democracy.

What is most striking about both documents is the lack of discussion about communes. Only the TEV-DEM document makes a passing reference to “the commune economy as a reflection of democracy.” Yet, from many accounts, the commune is the fundamental organizational bloc of Rojava’s society. It is disconcerting that such an integral part of Rojava’s vaunted local self-administration seems to lack formal recognition in the Charter. There are only three references to decentralization: Articles 3, 12, and 62; references to principles, a system, and a policy thereof respectively. Article 8 also asserts that the Cantons “are founded upon the principle of local self-government.” But other than these threadbare references there is nothing concrete guaranteeing the commune under law, or protecting it from the authority of the formal institutions of Rojava’s parliamentary-style government. Perhaps this will be addressed in further amendments, but for now it is legally invisible. Municipal Councils, not communes, are the lowest level recognized, and are managed with a large degree of oversight by the Canton Governer and the Executive Council. The TEV-DEM document similarly provides little more than lip service towards principles of decentralization and self-management.

Another curious absence from the documents is any mention of how the three Cantons coordinate. According to one account, there is no federal structure such as with the Swiss Canton system. Each Canton has its own autonomous administrative structure as defined in the Charter. It mentions a Supreme Council, which may be a supra-canton council; however, its decisions may be over-ridden by individual Canton’s Legislative Assembly while it remains within the “confederation”. In an inversion of the federal structure, it is claimed all decisions of the higher parliament must be formally adopted by local councils before being implemented. As decisions must be accepted on a voluntary basis, and can be refused without fear of expulsion, this ensures decentralization is more than just a principle. It also notes that both internal and external security is organized through each Canton’s Legislative Assembly. One must also consider the role of TEV-DEM: it was formerly the Supreme Kurdish Council, comprised of hundreds of councils and over 15 political parties, and upon its evolution into TEV-DEM it branched out, integrating non-Kurdish parties and organizations. Despite this pluralism, the PYD are the main political and organizational force. It was TEV-DEM which created the governmental system of Rojava’s Autonomous Regions, and it likely remains the most coordinated organizational force across all three Cantons. Finally, Rojava intends to co-exist with whatever state rises from the ashes of the civil war; being neither a state or a pure anarchist society, it allows people to maintain their Syrian citizenship and participate in its state structures, so long as this does not contradict the Charter. TEV-DEM, perhaps through the Supreme Council, will be willing to make peace with anyone other than Da’ish.

It is possible formal documents simply do not encapsulate the reality on the ground. Unfortunately, first-hand accounts are the only way the commune really comes to the fore. According to another observer, communes are established by TEV-DEM administration. Each commune (Kumin) controls six committees which deal with social, youth, women’s, peace, self-defense, and economic issues. Communes are established at various levels from the village up to the city. Multiple communes can come together under the People’s House (Mara Gel), a structure for supervising the individual communes and making bigger decisions. A TEV-DEM official claimed:

“The value of the commune’s signature is greater than that the ministry’s signature, because the minister cannot do anything if the communes do not approve it”.

The commune manages small community projects while larger projects, like infrastructure needs, are handled through cooperation of the Canton and the communes. A member of the Judicial Council of the Jazira Canton, Qahraman Issa, stated the communes recommend and suggest rather than make legal decisions. The laws of the Cantons, however, are first discussed in the communes, ensuring the locals are not forced to suffer laws without consultation. Once these laws are in place, however, they are binding, which suggests they cannot be challenged once implemented. The most active committee in a commune is usually the Peace Committee, because it settles minor disputes outside of the courts. According to Jamil Haju, a member of the Legislative Assembly in the Halilia region, the direct talks and resolution for small problems is based more on ethics than the law. The same TEV-DEM official cited earlier argued that ethics, not law, prevented hierarchical domination in Rojava. Ocalan described the democratic confederal project as one of democratic modernity: “an ethics-based political society.” (p.25) Perhaps this is why the commune is absent from the Charter: it is an ethical rather than a legal concept.

A further account, also from TEV-DEM officials, provides a grass-roots level description of the communes. Each is comprised of 300 people, with co-presidents directly elected to manage it and its committees. The main purpose of the commune is to solve local problems quickly, rather than being caught in the bureaucracy of the formal institutions. co-presidents from multiple communes organize at the district level (likely via the Mara Gel), and multiple districts then elect their own co-presidents, who then form the city council with its elected co-presidents. In addition to the city co-presidents, individuals from all involved communes are directly elected to this council. To reach the Canton level, spots on the Municipal Council are allocated by population, so in addition to the city co-presidents automatically elected to the Canton level, the city council elects further individuals from those who were elected to the city level. For example, from the city of Al-Qamishli 200 people comprise the city council, and from it 18 are elected to the Canton level, plus the two co-presidents for a total of 20. The role of TEV-DEM in this process is described as mobilising and coordinating the communes, connecting them to the government of which it is a part.

Concerning self-defense, a relatively new development from an unconfirmed source is that of official local militias known as the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (Self Defense Forces, or HPC). Reportedly they were first organized back in March 2015 in Jazira Canton, which may explain why the 2014 Charter insists that the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units, or YPG) are the only legally-recognized military force (Article 15). Significantly, while the two individuals who join the HPC from each commune are elected, actual training in both military and democratic confederalist principles are undertaken by the YPG and TEV-DEM. It is under city council control, but without those institutions the HPC would be a dead letter. The unofficial local militias organized by the city council prior to this point proved insufficient, hence they requested the Jazira Canton Executive Council organize and designate a formal militia, with the appropriate support. The report claims they are an answer to guaranteeing the commune’s existence, but it is unlikely the HPC approaches the combined strength and experience of the YPG. In any case, if true it is a beneficial development for the security of the communes; something is better than nothing.

The commune most certainly exists; by all accounts it is ubiquitous. But there is something wrong when the higher levels barely acknowledge its existence. Ocalan’s Principles of Democratic Confederalism, specifically Article 3, asserts:

“Democratic confederalism is based on grass-roots participation. Its decision-making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. For limited space of time they are both mouthpiece and executive institutions. However, the basic power of decision rests with the local grass-roots institutions.” (p.33)

The two documents presented have not expanded on this principle. Instead, Rojava’s political forces, TEV-DEM with the PYD, have created a parliamentary political structure with them establishing and shepherding communes under its aegis. The communes, via the city council-requested HPC, may have some limited military autonomy but it remains to be seen if this is a permanent development that will eventually be written into the Charter. There may be a vibrant system of self-management via the commune, and self-administration via the Mara Gel and councils, but there is no legal recognition in the Charter or official statements by TEV-DEM detailing its implementation. Most concerning of all, there is no evidence that the local holds sway over the political forces occupying the formal structures other than limited, first-hand anecdotal accounts.

The Anarchist Federation compared the PYD, and TEV-DEM by extension, as having more in common with the Bolsheviks than any kind of libertarian group. This comparison may be a little crass, but it is not entirely without merit. If informal reports are accurate, the communes are implemented and organized by TEV-DEM, while their militias are trained and likely armed by them too. Dovetailing with the formal Charter, which asserts that Municipal Councils are monitored by both the Executive Council and the Canton Governor, we have a picture of a society where self-management and administration appears true, up to a point: it is conducted along the lines implemented and coordinated by TEV-DEM and the parliamentary government. However sincere TEV-DEM may be in its zealous implementation of Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalism, there appears to be an absence of independent self-organization on the part of the people participating; and, as the Charter states in Article 93, Section B, no authority which contradicts it is legitimate. Rojava’s Autonomous Regions offer a functional, progressive society in the middle of a civil war, and their expansion at the expense of Da’ish is far more preferable than the reverse. After consulting the evidence available, however, its implementation and its principles may not be aligning as closely as the rhetoric suggests.

4 Comments on "The Principles of Democratic Confederalism"

  1. Excellent article. Concise and unbiased. I still, of course, think Rojava needs to be upheld as a far better choice to “support” (whatever that means, as short of flying over there and joining up directly there’s little one can do) than anybody else involved. The leadership may need some radicalization (and optimally, of course, I’d like the “leadership” to be more Mass-based than anything, which would naturally come from more emphasis on communes), but Rojava’s the place.

    • Victor Villanueva | December 15, 2015 at 6:49 pm | Reply

      You can support them by giving money and resources to the groups trying to rebuild the war-torn parts of Rojava. Having good infrastructure and institutions in Rojava could help their project of democracy and socialism succeed.

  2. I honestly wished the higher levels of the Democratic Self Administration would actually be front loaded with more PYD and SUP (Syriac Union Party) members. The two parties (not counting any organisations such as the YPG/J or TEV-DEM) which I consider the most progressive in bringing forth the revolutionary reforms. The Anarchist Federation’s statement is based on factually incorrect statements, for example the conscription is for the HXP not some organisation directly under control of the PYD.

    I mean the Prime Minister of Jazeera Canton Akram Hesso is actually a former member of ENKS (according to Janet Biehl) which is controlled by Barzani and according to a (former?) capitalist.

    I wished the PYD were more like the Bolsheviks hahaha.

  3. The Syriacs are actually very much adapting to situation quite well actually, the military arm of the SUP (MFS) started a small woman’s battalion.

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