The Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitîya Demokrat, PYD) was founded in 2003 on the initiative of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Thus, the PYD is, contrary to how it presents itself, the Syrian branch of the PKK.
After years of cooperation with the Syrian regime, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was expelled from Syria in October 1998, due to Turkish pressure. Numerous high-ranking PKK cadres were successively extradited to Turkey, and PKK supporters in Syria were given long prison sentences. The establishment of the PYD aimed to bind sympathizers and members of the PKK living in Syria to the party and to avoid state repression. The latter aim hardly succeeded: Until the beginning of the protests in 2011, the PYD was not only the party with the most prisoners, but its members were sentenced to longer prison terms than members of other parties and were subjected to systematic torture. Since then, the balance of power, however, has shifted in favor of the PYD. The PYD/PKK has once again entered a strategic alliance with the Syrian regime.
From mid-2012, the PYD took over the predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria—Jazirah, ʿAyn al-ʿArab (Kobanî) and ʿAfrin—from the Syrian regime. In January 2014, the creation of three »cantons« was proclaimed. The PYD has set up not only its own administration and courts, but also its own militia and intelligence service, the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Asayiş respectively, the latter one assuming police functions.
The term »Autonomous Democratic Self-Administration«, chosen by the PYD for the territory it administers, is, however, misleading. The PYD is, as its mother organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a tightly organized cadre party. PKK cadres hold every important function in the PYD, and the military leaders of the PKK, who are based in the Iraqi Kurdish Qandil Mountains, make all fundamental decisions. The numerous PYD committees that exist on the local level do not serve democratic decision-making, but focus on the control of the population. Individuals who do not integrate are immediately deemed suspect.
The PYD and PKKs understanding of democracy is not the one of Western states, but instead it corresponds to the model of »people’s democracy«, a political concept familiar in former socialist countries. There is one ruling party, and all other groups must subordinate themselves to the main party. Competing parties are not allowed to participate in the political process. Thus the PYD-critical parties of the Kurdish National Council—an association of currently twelve Syrian Kurdish parties—are neither involved in the PYD administration nor in its parliament.
The freedoms of assembly and expression are not guaranteed in the PYD-administered areas. The media law passed in early 2016 demonstrates this very clearly. The law allows extensive control of print, digital, audio and audiovisual media in the Jazirah. The establishment of a »media council« is planned that would have far-reaching authority. The media council has the power to call in journalists at any time for an interview and demand they name their sources. If the media council deems a statement from a journalist as a »false report«, the council can sentence the author to a heavy fine, ban the person from working, and suspend the medium in which the report was published, either short term or indefinitely. An independent court is not involved in the process.