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Turkey: Kurds, the working class and the new left -- interview with Erdem Yörük

June 6, 2015 -- LeftEast, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- With Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections fast approaching, all eyes are on the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) contesting its first ever election as a party, rather than a coalition of nominally independent candidates: a momentous decision on the part of the party leadership, which stands to gain clout in parliament and solidify its position as the electoral standard-bearer of the radical Left—or fall below the constitutionally mandated 10% barrier and be excluded from parliament entirely.

At issue is whether the party has succeeded at building a leftist coalition including, but not limited to, its base of support in the Kurdish national movement. At stake is whether or not the party will play a key role in a successful effort to block Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from gaining the number of seats necessary to rewrite the constitution and transform Turkey into an executive republic with Erdoğan as its quasi-omnipotent head.

The importance of the relatively new left-wing party in this election has not gone unnoticed by those whose tactic is violence. In the last few days assaults on HDP activists and others working for the party have mounted, with four people killed in a party rally in Diyarbakıron June 5 , most likely by far-right forces, in an apparent attempt to assassinate party co-chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş, who was standing about 30 metres from where the bomb exploded.

Over the last few decades violence both physical and structural has played a major part in the creation of a sociopolitical terrain in which, in proletarian sections of many major cities, the AKP and the HDP are now the two parties fighting over votes. Recently, we sat down with Erdem Yörük (pictured), sociologist at Koç University in Istanbul and expert on the recent history of the working class in Turkey, to discuss these historical developments and assess the HDP’s chances of making history in this critical election.

LeftEast: Your work provides some perspectives on the changing face of the labour movement in Turkey in relation to the plight of Kurdish workers displaced by the state’s war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1980s and 1990s. Could you briefly sketch for us the direction that your work takes in this regard?

Erdem Yörük: It was in the aftermath of the shift in economic planning that happened around 1980 that the whole face of the working class in Turkey changed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the developmentalist economy featuring tariff protection, state-owned enterprises and an emphasis on agricultural self-sufficiency gave way to an export economy fuelled by low-wage labour by a new class: the informal proletariat. The plans for this shift were laid early in 1980 and solidified under the military regime and in its immediate aftermath. These reforms weakened the position of small farmers in the overall economy, necessitating internal immigration to the cities in search of wage labour—and other forces augmented this trend.

As far as the labour movement is concerned, of course the general suppression of the left during the 1980 coup played a role here, but a still more significant factor in the decline of organised labor and the rise of the informal proletariat was the war between the state and the PKK. Internally displaced Kurds who left villages that had been destroyed by the army or an economy generally ruined by war were desperate, and willing to do even the worst jobs, without social security or job security, often on a temporary basis, in what came to be known as the informal sector. These people swelled into the big cities, which were on every level—in terms of housing, infrastructure, health—barely able to accommodate them, and everything in their daily lives became a matter of makeshift solutions and negotiation. Without these wage labourers at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the industries that have grown in Turkey over the last few decades would not have gotten off the ground; the country’s economic growth that has gotten such press internationally is due to their labour.

The huge changes to the class landscape brought about by neoliberalism were bound to have political consequences as well. The 1980s were a time of political tranquility in Turkey, but in the 1990s ideological competition in Turkish politics really intensified, with political Islam on the ascendant. Because political Islam was able to organise social aid on a local and communitarian basis, it filled the vacuum left by a retreating left that had not adjusted to the new realities of the informal economy, and managed to address the destitute workers of the cities and earn their loyalty. The Kurdish national movement did similar things. Meanwhile the labour unions, which were unable to absorb the huge influx of internal immigrants and in any case restricted in various ways by anti-union legislation, went into decline.

Your dissertation concerns welfare policy as an instrument of social control. How does this work under the AKP?

The distribution of charity by the representatives of political Islam—not only the AKP but also its predecessors including the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) going back to the 1980s and 1990s, has had two goals: not only to maintain control through dependence, but to cultivate political support. The party cultivates support from impoverished workers by distributing aid on the understanding that membership in the right cultural and religious community positively affects the chances of getting aid. The goal is to foster a sense of community and common belonging among these people that translates into support for the party. Since coming to power, the AKP government has specifically targeted Kurdish citizens as recipients of its strategic generosity, while still ruthlessly combatting other forces, such as the Kurdish national movement, which might become rivals for these people’s loyalty.

Since 2002 the government has very skillfully built up a system of patrimonial charity to substitute for the kind of working-class solidarity one finds in the labour movement; it has increased non-pension welfare spending while attacking the trade unions. What can or should the left do in response to this strategy?

Many leftists in Turkey have traditionally opposed welfare provision, arguing instead for more structural solutions. Of course they are right to insist that structural solutions are necessary, but in the meantime people are hungry and want to know who is going to help them. I think this has been a serious problem for the left in Turkey. When someone is hungry, telling him you have a structural solution to that is just not going to be convincing. You have to give him something in the short term while continuing to work on your structural solutions for the long term. Right now many in the informal proletariat are dependent on aid from the government, which is being given out as a favour that can be revoked at any time. What the left should do is to develop the notion that such aid is not a favor but a right. This is what has to be done.

President Erdoğan recently declared that “there is no longer a Kurdish problem in Turkey”, as if the Kurds or their condition had been a problem but that his government had solved it. This kind of negationist rhetoric was the standard discourse on the Kurdish movement for Turkish governments before the AKP; both the center-left Bülent Ecevit and the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan embraced it. What do you think the return to this rhetoric signals as far as policy in the near future is concerned?

Such statements are purely tactical. Erdoğan is approaching an election and he knows that the nationalist votes outnumber the votes in favor of a peaceful solution to the conflict. Later he may move back. He has made such tactical moves before, and he will probably make them again.

Many international leftists now see the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) as the great hope for a revival of the Left in Turkey. Do you think these hopes are well placed?

I do, and I’ll tell you, I am a member of the party and active within in, and I believe very much in its promise; in short I believe that the HDP can break the impasse Turkish politics is currently in and help democratise the country. I am not Kurdish myself, I am an ethnic Turk, and I joined the party because of the principles it espouses. It is not only a Kurdish party but rather aspires to be a broad coalition for the left in Turkey. They have reached out to various minority communities, to the LGBT’s…

Yet at the same time some of its parliamentarians, for instance Altan Tan, have said that they did not like this outreach and, if I remember correctly, refused to be photographed with the LGBT activists at the event that the party leadership had organised for them.

Yes, Altan Tan took that stance, and he represents a reality among conservative Kurdish constituency. We have to remember that the political and social composition of the HDP coalition is quite heterogeneous. Yet the party is working not only to advance the rights of the Kurdish people, but also to expand the hegemony of the left in whole Turkey and among the Kurds alike, and by doing that they are taking a risk. They are allying themselves to the LGBT’s, the Alevis and other excluded groups, even at the risk of alienating more conservative, religious elements within the Kurdish constituency.

Let’s remember that both conservatism and religion are more prevalent among the Kurds than among the citizens of Turkey taken as a whole. And some of those conservative Muslims are very active and important figures in the party, and so you have Altan Tan. And Altan Tan is a Muslim; Altan Tan is pious. And he is a very important figure in Kurdistan. Yet at the same time the party has been joining forces with the LGBT’s, feminists and other groups. What the party does deserve our respect: trying to raise the hegemony of the left while forming alliances with all progressive forces, Muslim or non-Muslim.

Recently there was a poll bandied about in the Turkish press that purported to show a large portion of the Kurdish residents of Istanbul, a majority of whom voted for the ruling party in 2011, now supporting HDP. Do you think such reports are accurate and if so, do they signal a nationwide trend?

Yes, I think such reports are accurate. I think a similar shift is taking place elsewhere in the country as well. Kobane is the turning point. Polls show that before Kobane, 50% of Kurds in Turkey voted for the AKP, and 40% for the HDP. Now it is 60% for the HDP and 30% for the AKP. Kurds felt extremely disappointed and threatened during the battle for Kobane.

Many in the ulusalcı or left-nationalist camp suspect that the HDP may be willing to suspend its opposition to Erdoğan nationally in return for a successful conclusion to the negotiations between the state and the PKK. Turkey would then be left with an all-powerful Erdoğan presidency along with regional autonomy for the Kurdish regions. What do you think of such fears?

First of all, a couple of months ago, the ulusalcı solcular, the nationalist leftists said that the HDP had decided to join the election as a party because they had made a deal with the ruling party: that they would stay outside the parliament intentionally in order to support the AKP. This was the conspiracy theory, and it was a most stupid one, a racialist one as it blames the Kurds for being stupid … and now that the HDP is organised so deeply in the elections, this kind of conspiracy theory has just disappeared, but another one has taken its place.

This second conspiracy theory holds that the HDP would support the presidency of Erdoğan. And Selahattin Demirtaş said, seni Başkan yaptırmayacağız! “We will not make your president!” So this conspiracy theory too has disappeared. So now the third one: that the HDP will make a coalition with the AKP. Demirtaş said, “We will not make a coalition with the AKP.”

So the party will respond to this conspiracy theory and next week another conspiracy theory will emerge, because there is a big sense of distrust, a structural distrust of the Kurds. The nationalist left sees the Kurds as terrorists and they see the HDP as the party of the Kurds. There’s this logic: Kurds have their own particular interests, and these interests can be traded with the AKP at the expense of the interests of the left and of the other components of the country.

But this kind of logic misses the fact that the HDP itself is a huge coalition of different groups. Kurds are the largest part, but in terms of the administrators, the activists and the supporters of the party, half of the party consists of socialists, LGBT people, women, Alevis, etc., and these groups know that if Erdoğan gets what he wants, I mean if the authoritarian tendencies of the AKP increase, they will become the first targets of this tendency. This other part will never let the party ally itself to the AKP. This is the structural guarantee of the impossibility of this kind of an alliance. So this too is complicated but to make a long story short, this kind of an alliance is only a conspiracy theory.

Also, there is one more concrete thing to falsify these conspiracy theories. During the last couple of months, the AKP has based its election campaign almost exclusively on developing hatred towards the HDP. This has manifested itself in several physical attacks on the party. Yesterday, in HDP Diyarkabır meeting, bombing killed four people. Before the Adana and Mersin headquarters of the HDP were bombed. So far during the campaign, 175 of our election bureaus have been attacked. One of our campaign staff was first tortured and then killed, one of them was burned and he is still in intensive care in the hospital. Many of ballot observers have recently been taken into custody.

These are systematical attacks on the HDP and many people find the government responsible.

Do you think that the traditional centre-left opposition, for instance the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has any role to play in the construction of a more just and democratic Turkey, or have they missed that chance?

They have lost that chance for the last 80 years, actually … but it seems that they have taken some lessons in the last couple of years. With pressure from the HDP they have moved to the left. They have made some proposals that appeal to the working class and some members of the CHP have said they would consider making an alliance with the HDP as well. These are positive things that are good for democracy in Turkey. I don’t think that the CHP is a real candidate for government in this election, as the polls show them with only 26%-27% of the vote, but in the future things may change.

… in which case the CHP’s new openness to work with groups like the HDP would be of benefit both to them and to the country.

I think so.

One more question. What relation, if any, do you think ruling party’s conservative cultural agenda bears to the class struggle in Turkey?

I think that during the last 10 years AKP has hijacked the class struggle in Turkey. They have mobilised all the class-related grievances of the working class with an anti-elite discourse, a populist discourse, and populist policies also—the social policy etc.; the AKP has presented itself as the representative of the working class, the millet, and it claims that the CHP represents the elite, the upper class and westernised people, and the West. There is some kind of reality behind this, because when you look at the statistics, there’s a positive correlation between income level and CHP voting and a negative correlation between income level and AKP voting. The AKP is a bourgeois party that pretends to represent the working class. It’s like Louis Bonaparte…

… which as we know in the Marxist tradition tends to be seen as the anticipation of fascism, right?

Yes. So what do they say about history? The first time a tragedy, the second time a farce, and the third time … I don’t know!

So the classes have formed their identity between these two parties: the lower middle class supports the AKP and the upper middle class the CHP; the HDP is trying to break down this polarisation and become the party of the working class of different ethnic and religious groups and democratic factions of the middle class. Because insofar as political discourse continues the way it has been going, it is really difficult to conduct a real class struggle in the country. Religiosity increases among the working class, and conservatism increases among the working class, and the AKP has tried to eliminate any other kind of discourse among the working class. So this is why I think the first agenda of the left in the country is to struggle against the government.

[Erdem Yörük is an assistant professor of sociology at Koç University in Istanbul and an expert on the political economy of welfare policy in Turkey, and more generally on the recent history of the working classes in the country. International readers may be familiar with his articles in the New Left Review and the South Atlantic Quarterly, which analyse the class dimensions and historical contexts of the Gezi protests.]

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Turkey’s Ruling Party Loses Parliamentary Majority

NY Times, June 7 2015
Turkey’s Ruling Party Loses Parliamentary Majority
By TIM ARANGO and CEYLAN YEGINSU

ISTANBUL — Turkish voters delivered a rebuke on Sunday to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his party lost its majority in Parliament in a historic election that ended, for now, his ambition to rewrite the Constitution and establish an American-style presidential system.

The election results represented a significant setback to Mr. Erdogan, an Islamist who has steadily increased his power as president, a partly but not solely ceremonial post, after more than a decade as prime minister, and indicated that Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to accumulate power had run aground. And it was a significant victory to the cadre of Kurds, liberals and secular Turks who found their voice of opposition to Mr. Erdogan during sweeping antigovernment protests two years ago.

Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., still won by far the most seats in Parliament, but not a majority, according to preliminary results released Sunday night. The outcome suggested contentious days of jockeying ahead as the party moves to form a coalition government. Already, analysts were raising the possibility Sunday of new elections if a government cannot be formed swiftly. Many Turks were happy to see Mr. Erdogan’s powers curtailed, even though the prospect of a coalition government evokes dark memories of political instability and economic malaise during the 1990s.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, the A.K.P. had won 41 percent of the vote, according to TRT, a state-run broadcaster, down from nearly 50 percent during the last national election in 2011. The percentage gave it an estimated 259 seats in Turkey’s Parliament, compared with the 327 seats it has now.

“The outcome is an end to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Almost immediately, the results raised questions about the political future of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who moved to that position from that of foreign minister last year and was seen as a loyal subordinate of Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Davutoglu, who during the campaign vowed to resign if the A.K.P. did not win a majority, told reporters on Sunday evening in brief comments, “whatever the people decide is for the best.” Mr. Davutoglu was due to speak later in the evening in Ankara.

Mr. Erdogan, who as president was not on the ballot Sunday, will probably remain Turkey’s dominant political figure even if his powers have been rolled back, given his outsized personality and his still-deep well of support among Turkey’s religious conservatives, who form the backbone of his constituency. But even among those supporters, including ones in Kasimpasa, the Istanbul neighborhood where Mr. Erdogan spent part of his youth, there are signs that his popularity is flagging, partly because of his push for more powers over the judiciary and his crackdown on any form of criticism, including prosecutions of those who insult him on social media.

“A lot of people in Kasimpasa have become disheartened by Erdogan’s aggressive approach in recent weeks,” said Aydin, 77, who gave only his first name because some of his family members are close to Mr. Erdogan. “I voted for the A.K.P. because it has become habit, but I think Erdogan lost votes this week.”

The election was seen as a referendum on Mr. Erdogan’s tenure, especially his plan for a presidential system that would have given him more power. Polling had consistently shown that the majority of Turks are opposed to the change.

By law, Mr. Erdogan can call for a new election after 45 days if a coalition is not formed.

The election turned on the historic performance at the ballot box of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which aligned with liberals and secular Turks opposed to Mr. Erdogan’s leadership to win almost 13 percent of the vote, passing a 10 percent legal threshold and earning representation in Parliament. The People’s Democratic Party, a largely Kurdish bloc known as H.D.P., was able to broaden its base by fielding a slate of candidates that included women, gays and other minorities and appealed to voters whose goal was to curtail Mr. Erdogan’s powers.

“I voted for H.D.P. because it’s the only party that can break up Erdogan’s bid for absolute power,” said Selen Olcay, 47, a fitness instructor who voted in Istanbul’s Sariyer district. “In this election a lot of Turks abandoned their ideological preferences and voted strategically to derail Erdogan’s one-man rule.”

The Kurdish party opted to run as a unified slate, rather than field independent candidates as it had in the past. But it was a big risk: either it would reach the 10 percent threshold and enter Parliament, or it would be shut out, and its seats would have gone to the A.K.P.

In the city of Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish heartland in the southeast, celebrations broke out as people flooded the streets, dancing and setting off fireworks.

In Istanbul, Kurds saw the election as the culmination of decades of struggle, some of it waged violently by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which has waged an insurgency from a base in northern Iraq for more political rights. In recent years Mr. Erdogan’s government had entered peace talks with the Kurds and violence ebbed, and Sunday’s vote raised hopes for a final deal.

“This is the victory of peace against war,” said Sirri Sureyya Onder, an H.D.P. official, speaking to a group of reporters after preliminary results were published.

The performance positioned the Kurds as kingmakers in the next Parliament, and highlighted the evolution of the Kurdish movement, from the battlefields of the southeast, where a bloody insurgency raged for nearly 30 years, to the halls of power in Ankara, the capital.

Even as contentious days of political bargaining lie ahead, the election capped a two-year period of seismic shifts in Turkish politics. Widespread antigovernment protests in 2013, set off by plans to raze an Istanbul park and replace it with a mall, laid bare the growing resentments among liberal and secular Turks toward the governing party. Then, a corruption scandal threatened to engulf Mr. Erdogan and his government. Mr. Erdogan survived by targeting the followers of his erstwhile ally, the Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, who over the years had taken positions in the judiciary and the police and were accused of orchestrating a graft inquiry.

Turkey has felt strains in other arenas. It has taken in nearly two million Syrians, who have been a burden on services and exacerbated tensions in border regions, especially as the economy has slowed. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey pursued an Islamist agenda in the region, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose president was deposed by the military. Its policy in Syria of pushing for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad has been unpopular in Turkey, and Mr. Assad, four years later, is still in power.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has also seen its relations with its Western allies deteriorate, mainly over Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, the militant group that controls vast areas of Iraq and Syria. An American-led coalition has been carrying out an air campaign against the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, for nearly a year, but Western officials complain that Turkey has not done enough, such as allowing its air bases to be used for bombing runs. Critics also partly blame Turkey for the rise of the Islamic State for its early support of Islamist groups in Syria.

The election was defined by bitter partisanship, with opponents criticizing Mr. Erdogan for his accumulation of powers, his bashing of the media and his lavish new palace, which Mr. Erdogan justified by saying his previous residence was infested with cockroaches. The campaign was also marred by violence, including a bombing last week at a Kurdish political rally that left two people dead.

“Erdogan’s salvos over the past week show how nervous he is about the outcome of this election,” said Ugur Kaplan, 24, a student who voted in Istanbul. “The A.K.P. has lost votes, and it’s because of him. People are tired of having their lives dictated by one nutty man. It’s time for change.”

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting

Joy as election result puts pro-Kurdish party into parliament

Initial results from Sunday’s election reveal the Peoples’ Democratic party will take 80 of 550 seats

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Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party celebrate in the streets in Diyarbakir on Sunday. Link to video

Thousands of jubilant Kurds flooded the streets of Diyarbakir, south east Turkey,on Sunday, setting off fireworks and waving flags as the pro-Kurdish opposition looked likely to enter parliament as a party for the first time.

The Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) said initial results from Sunday’s election showed it would take 80 of 550 seats, a stunning result for a party that pollsters had said would struggle to cross the required 10% threshold.

It also marks a major setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had hoped for a crushing victory for the AK party he founded, allowing it to change the constitution and give him broad executive powers.

Supporters of the HDP celebrate after initial results of the Turkish parliamentary elections.
Pinterest
Supporters of the HDP celebrate after initial results of the Turkish parliamentary elections. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

Erdogan had repeatedly lashed out at the HDP and its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş before the elections.

“This result shows that this country has had enough. Enough of Erdoğan and his anger,” said Seyran Demir, a 47-year-old housewife who was among the thousands who gathered in the streets around the HDP’s provincial headquarters. “I am so full of joy that I can’t speak properly.”

The crowds brought traffic to a standstill in parts of the city. Elsewhere, people drove through sidestreets hanging out of car windows and waving HDP flags. Men fired pistols into the air, a traditional sign of celebration.

Just two days earlier, bombs tore through a HDP rally in Diyarbakir, killing two and wounding at least 200.

The HDP had looked to reach beyond Turkey’s roughly 20% Kurdish population, attempting to woo centre-left and secular voters disillusioned with Erdoğan.

“The reason the HDP has won this many votes is because it has not excluded any members of this country, unlike our current rulers,” said 25-year-old Siar Senci. “It has embraced all languages, all ethnicities and members of all faiths and promised them freedom.”

The HDP’s entrance into parliament as a party – previously candidates ran as independents to skirt the 10% threshold – could also herald a step forward for the Kurdish peace process.

People celebrate election results of the pro-Kurdish Peoples's Democracy party.
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People celebrate election results of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’s Democracy party. Photograph: Emre Tazegul/AP

Ankara launched peace talks with the militant Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) two years ago. The PKK took up arms in 1984 in an insurgency for greater autonomy that has killed 40,000 people.

“We have waited for this day for years. During those dark times, I wondered if I could see Turks and Kurds living in solidarity in my own lifetime. Thank God it happened,” said 63-year-old Ersin Ates.

“Now we don’t want another single bullet to be shot. Our fight will continue in the parliament.”

HDP’s poetic call for “Great Humanity”

International Viewpoint - online socialist magazine http://www.internationalviewpoint.org

HDP’s poetic call for “Great Humanity” and the Parliamentary elections in Turkey

Maral Jefroudi 

[Maral Jefroudi is a member of the SAP (Dutch section of the Fourth International).]

The parliamentary elections in Turkey will take place this Sunday. 54 million people can vote for a new parliament on June 7th. The electoral scene is focused on the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party. In this article I will try to explain how this phenomenon came into being, and what the dynamics are that made it a prominent actor in the elections.

The HDP was founded in 2012 as a direct successor to the Peoples’ Democratic Congress, a union formed after the 2011 parliamentary elections by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), various socialist parties, groups from various segments of civil society like feminist movements, LGBTQ movements, branches of trade unions, and other progressive groups such as the organization of young leftist Armenians, Nor Zartonk among others. In 2011, the last pro-Kurdish party of its kind, the BDP, made it into parliament as part of the umbrella group of independent candidates, Labour, Democracy and Freedom. This allowed them to bypass the infamous 10% electoral threshold required to get elected under Turkish law. More than half of the Bloc’s candidates, 36 out of 65, were elected to the Parliament in 2011. The founding of the HDP was therefore an attempt to solidify this solidarity, and success.

Since the 1980 coup modern Turkish politics has witnessed the formation of various political parties stemming from the Kurdish movement, which were successively banned and re-formed under new names. Accordingly, there have also been solidarity initiatives from various leftist political parties, ranging from social democrats to revolutionary socialists, in their electoral struggle.

The parliamentary quest of the Kurdish movement started with People’s Labour Party, HEP in 1990. 18 HEP - rooted deputies were elected to the parliament via the Kemalist, Social Democrat Peoples’ Party, SHP. One of them, Leyla Zana, a 30 year old Kurdish woman activist, added a Kurdish sentence after her parliamentary vow: “I take this oath for the sisterhood of Turkish and Kurdish peoples.” She was wearing a yellow, red and green head band and was booed in the parliament. After three years her parliamentary impunity was stripped, and with three other Kurdish deputies she was charged with affiliation with the PKK, spending ten years in prison.

Being aware of the political climate, the Kurdish parties worked with a back-up system. Upon realising that the HEP would be banned, the Freedom and Democracy Party (OZDEP) was founded, only to be banned in 1993. It was followed by Democracy Party (DEP), which was banned in 1994. Then Democratic Change Party (DDP) was banned in 1996, Democratic Mass Party (DKP) in 1999, People’s Democratic Party (HADEP) in 2003, and Democratic Society Party (DTP) in 2009. Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was founded in 2008, and merged with the HDP in 2014. Therefore, since the 1990s, there have been 7 political parties that were formed as a part of the organized Kurdish movement with attachment to its leader Abdullah Ocalan’s line, and then were outlawed in Turkey.

The formation of the HDP and the dissolution of the BDP into it have a slightly different story though, and that explains the halo of interest around this newly formed party. Firstly, its public appearance as a political party out of the People’s Democratic Congress took place in the political climate of the Gezi protests of 2013, the biggest mass protests in Turkey since the 1980 coup. The heterogeneity of the protesting groups, and ad hoc alliances at the barricades created a milieu that made oppositional alliances relevant. The conventional parliamentarist reflex of reaping the product of a mass movement at the ballot box found its setting in two consecutive elections after Gezi Protests. In March 2014 municipal elections took place, and in August 2014 the President was elected.

HDP made its first appearance in the March 2014 elections. Four well known deputies of the BDP, Ertugrul Kurkcu, Levent Tuzel, Sirri Sureyya Onder and Sebahat Tuncel resigned from BDP and joined HDP. Onder was a well-known face in the Gezi protests since they began, and became HDP’s municipal candidate for Istanbul. However, Onder’s personal connection with Gezi movement could not provide HDP with more than a synthetic connection with the June 2013 Gezi movements, despite its claim. The drawback was one that still haunts the HDP in the general elections, namely the Kurdish organized movement’s complicated relationship with the Gezi movement. One of the most important reasons for this was the high and one-sided expectations of some of the participants of the latter.

In addition, revolutionary leftist movements of Turkey had gone through various alliances after the coup and lately, since 2007, supported various blocs, lead by the organized Kurdish movement, for independent candidates, and results have caused internal strife and splits among others. Digging a tunnel to the parliament, as the saying went through the campaigns, did not bring a new dynamic to the revolutionary struggle and the connection between the selected independent candidates and the grassroots movements could not be founded. Parliamentarism led to the formation of personality cults, sometimes used as a tactic by some segments of political left to provide visibility for campaigns. As a result, HDP got 4.8 per cent of the votes in Istanbul where Onder was a candidate. It is hard to say that his candidacy broadened the base of the party, which was formed by the organized Kurdish movement. At previous elections, its predecessor, DTP, had 4.7 per cent of the votes. Therefore, this first appearance of HDP was not a breakout. However, a clear demonstration of the will to establish the HDP as a party that goes beyond its Kurdish and pro-Kurdish base became visible with the decision of the BDP to leave western cities to the HDP and run in elections in Kurdish majority regions of the east.

The second appearance of the HDP came with the Presidential election in August 2014. This time was different from its first appearance, which had been mostly based on Onder’s personality, the taken for granted “united front” dynamic of the Gezi movement and a politics of being against the AKP and its opponent, the Kemalist social democrats, CHP. This time Selahattin Demirtas, the co-spokesperson of HDP, came with a “new life declaration” as the presidential candidate of the HDP. The declaration began with greetings in 15 languages spoken in Turkey and introduced “radical democracy,” as the alternative to the current system.

According to the declaration, the new life would grow on the same the side as the oppressed, and those discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, class and gender. It envisioned a system that was based on decentralization and forming peoples’ assemblies for democratic, participatory governance. The leading role in this new life was given to women. Abolishing the religious affairs directorate that was based on the promotion of Sunni Islam, strengthening social welfare rights of workers, fighting against homophobia and transphobia were among many non-conventional axes of political intervention that were drafted. In accordance with the current stance of the Kurdish movement, the declaration defined the solution of the Kurdish issue as a part of the total democratization process of Turkey. This new life declaration would form the basis of the “great humanity” document prepared for the parliamentary elections of 2015.

This second appearance of the HDP was a success. Demirtas got 9.76 per cent of the total votes (3.9 million), increasing the HDP and BDP’s combined votes (2.9 million) in the local elections that took place five months before.

The Presidential elections gave visibility to the HDP and its co-spokesperson Demirtas. When the party declared that this time it will not use the backdoor to the parliament by organizing a left-wing libertarian bloc that would support “independent candidates” to by-pass the ten percent threshold, and instead participate in the elections as the HDP, it was considered to be a risky maneuver. However, the last few months proved otherwise. Basing its campaign not only on the illegitimacy of the ten percent threshold, but also on its election manifesto, titled “great humanity,” this time the HDP worked on communicating the alternatives to the oppressive, ten-year old AKP rule, and went beyond the call for solidarity with the unrepresented Kurdish constituency.

The 28-page call to great humanity starts with the statement that the absolute power of the state and capital destroys society and nature, and that it does not recognize our existence, identities, desires and necessities. The election manifesto states that empowering the society means empowering the oppressed segments of the society, it means secure work conditions for workers, rights to preserve and use our mother tongues, supporting women in their fight against male dominance, freeing the youth from anxiety for the future, ending poverty, ending the state’s imposition of forced identities and acknowledging that nature is not a resource but life itself.

The manifesto argues for a new democratic constitution that would replace the 1980 Coup constitution and argues clearly against the concentration of power, as would be created by the presidency system that Erdogan is fighting for. The new constitution would guarantee a number of fundamental rights, such as the right to peace, the right to truth, the right to organize, strike and be covered by collective agreements, social security, a basic income, the right to respectful accommodation and transport, disability rights, the right to clean water and sufficient food, conscientious objection, cultural identity rights, the right to use mother tongues, the right to education, the right to a fair and just trial, rights of children, rights of elderly people, animal rights, freedom of expression and organization, and religious freedom.

A number of the HDP’s arguments were considered to be un-pragmatic for a political party that aims to broaden its base and pass the ten percent threshold. These included clear cut positions on historically taboo issues like the Armenian genocide, abolition of obligatory religious (Sunni) classes at schools and the directorate of religious affairs, and acknowledgement of the legacy of the Kurdish struggle and the movement’s leader, Ocalan. But in fact, this became a point of strength for HDP. The clearer their positions were declared, the more trustworthy the HDP became. In a political climate where the trend is concentration of power in few hands and impunity of the leader from any criticism, the co-spokesperson of HDP, Demirtas emerged as a figure who answered all questions with clarity and sincerity. He clearly rejected the assumption that the HDP would support or form a coalition with Erdogan’s AKP after the elections, and stated unequivocally that what happened in 1915 was a genocide. He also acknowledged the role of Ocalan in the making of HDP’s political line. Having been a human rights lawyer and activist for many years, and coming from the legacy of the Kurdish movement, the 41-year old politician represented a new face in the Turkish politics, where successful politicians were associated with patriarchal authority figures. Demirtas was not embraced as a father or an elder brother, or the future omnipotent leader of the country; he made it clear that the HDP was not there to create new leaders, but to empower grassroots democracy. It did not claim to be a socialist or revolutionary party, but a party of the broader left, a snowplow that would open the way for socialists and activists from other political tendencies.

Revolutionary socialists who did not endorse the HDP’s political line totally nevertheless organized their own pro-HDP campaigns inside and out of Turkey. In Turkey, two main campaigns, 10’dan Sonra (after 10), which refers to the 10 percent threshold and +1, which builds its campaign on being an extra vote to HDP, testifies to the aura that the HDP has created for itself. Critical of parliamentarism, these initiatives not only campaign for strategic votes to the HDP to help end the one party rule of the AKP, but also helped disseminating HDP’s message for the “great humanity.” Progressive groups outside Turkey, such as the federation of democratic workers’ association, DIDF, have openly declared solidarity with the HDP for the elections as well.

Mathematical calculations about the election point to the importance of voting for the HDP to weaken the AKP. One of the videos of the 10’dan sonra campaign shows that if the AKP gets 44 per cent, CHP 25, and the nationalist party MHP 16, AKP will have 333 deputies. However, if HDP passes the 10 percent threshold, the AKP will be the most effected, with a loss in their number of deputies. In the latter scenario, the HDP gets 60 - 70 deputies, while AKP loses around 50. If the HDP gets more, and AKP gets around 40-41 per cent of the votes, the AKP will not be able to form the government by itself and will have to go for a coalition.

Whatever the results turn out to be, this is an election that has inserted hope, and proved that despite former frictions in attempts to form “united fronts”, collective working practice is still possible for the broad left in Turkey. It is also impressive that a guerrilla force (PKK), with 40 years of armed struggle behind it, has paved way to the formation of a self-critical, modest, inclusive and cheerful political party. Supporting the HDP in this elections does not necessarily mean endorsing its legacy and political line totally, but supporting their bid to stop the AKP’s will to concentrate power in its hands, which would sever the conditions for social and political movements to spring up and exist.

Moreover, issues raised in the “great humanity” manifesto, if put on the agenda and discussed in and out of the parliament, will provide stimulus for progressive, revolutionary change. The fact that this political phenomenon came into being with the initiative of the Kurdish movement, with its years of organising, sturdy social movement and guerrilla force in Turkey, should not be seen as an obstacle but the icing on the cake.

The title of election manifesto, which is a direct reference to Nazim Hikmet’s poem named “Great humanity”, breaks the clouds of disenchantment lingering on Turkish society for a period, which predates AKP’s rule. Nazim ends the poem like this:

The great humanity has no shade on his soil

no lamp on his road

no glass on his window

but the great humanity has hope

you can’t live without hope.


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