Village guards’ significant influence in elections in favor of Erdogan

Turkey’s Village Guards militia, recruited from pro-government Kurds to aid security forces in the fight against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels, played a significant part in helping President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party win elections last month.

One clue that the paramilitary group would play a pivotal role was the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to relocate thousands of voting booths to “guard villages”, places either controlled by the guards, or whose population made up its militiamen.

More than three decades of conflict between state security forces and the PKK in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast have led to bitter rivalries on both sides. Placing polling booths in villages controlled by the guards is likely to have put off many opposition supporters from voting.

On election day, June 24, there were reports that the guards had blocked roads leading to their villages, entered polling stations with their weapons and threatened to kill HDP election observers from the main pro-Kurdish opposition party.

After the elections, on June 26, the head of the Confederation of Anatolian Village Guards and Martyrs’ Families, Ziya Sözen, took credit and said the village guards, martyrs’ families and veterans had worked hard and played a significant part in the government victory in the region.

Established in 1985, the Village Guards were originally described as a “forest or country guard. A civilian who helps the security forces in the countryside.” But soon they were used to help the armed forces fight the PKK in the mountains using their local knowledge. Abuses abounded as many used their powers to settle local scores.

After the two-and-a-half year ceasefire between the state and the PKK broke down in July 2015, the government has made fundamental changes to the structure of the Village Guards [LINK].

Erdoğan’s party, which promised to abolish the Village Guards 16 years ago, has increased recruitment to the militia and its ties to the military with structural changes to the organisation.

The name was changed to “Security Guards” and retirement age was lowered to 45 in an attempt to replace older fighters with younger guards. More than 18,000 Village Guards were retired and 21,000 new security guards hired, reducing the average age of members from 44 to 32. The Gendarmerie General Command took over the supply of clothing, armour and equipment of the guards.

The guards were given per diems, bonuses, operation compensation, and permission to carry arms off duty. The Interior Ministry issued new high-security identity cards to the cards and distributed more than 1,500 mobile to them. Their salaries were indexed to that of civil servants.

A short trip to the region shows the results of these decisions. Not only the uniforms have changed, but also guard outposts have become state-of-the-art facilities.

But one of the most critical changes is the state’s assurance of protection against prosecution for criminal offences. If there is a criminal complaint against a member of the militia, the provincial governor’s office pays the legal fees.

The new law opened the way for Village Guards to be promoted to the professional armed forces or even become an officer. The new organisation created in the last two years has turned into a Kurdish pro-government paramilitary unit. Now the new guards are fighting alongside the Turkish military in the cities and even across the borders in Syria and Iraq. The strength of this bond depends on “willingness to protect the state”, as Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in a speech. In other words, their willingness to give up on their Kurdish identity.