Audio: Political and cultural repression in Turkey — Interview with left MP

April 13, 2020
People's Democratic Party MP Hişyar Özsoy.

Green Left's Alex Bainbridge travelled to Turkey in February, where he spoke with Hişyar Özsoy, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP).

The HDP is a secular, feminist, left-wing party with strong ties to Kurdish communities and trade unions.

The HDP has faced brutal repression from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, including regular arrests and the jailing of large numbers of party members and MPs.

Özsoy is also a foreign relations spokesperson for the HDP.

The following is a transcript of the interview.

* * *

My name is Hişyar Özsoy and I am a Member of Parliament for the HDP. I represent Diyarbakır, which is the unofficial capital of Kurdistan in Turkey. I have been serving my party as the deputy chair in charge of foreign affairs since February 2016. Yesterday we had our congress, a successful one, and I am looking forward to my new position.

Alex Bainbridge: Turkey wants to present itself to the world as being part of Europe, democratic, concerned about human rights. That is the image they want to present. At the same time there is an authoritarian crackdown on the political left, on the Kurdish community. Can you describe how you see the role of the Turkish state and Turkey’s role in the world today?

Hişyar Özsoy: The kind of democracy we have in Turkey is only very limited and quite formal. By that I mean we have some formal elections, we have a parliament, we do have some local governors, which have been severely undermined and the parliament is mostly dysfunctional. Over the last few years we have also been dealing with a very strange, bizarre political system, that's called the Turkish Type Presidential system, in which all power is monopolised in the hands of the president of the country. We don’t have any separation of powers; we don’t have any independent judiciary. So there is an institutional instability now that is characterising the whole political landscape.

So of course Turkey wants to promote its image as a pluralistic democratic country but, particularly over the last four years, particularly since the abortive coup of July 2016, the government has been implementing a very repressive and unlawful campaign against any critical voice in the country, not only the HDP.

Of course, my party is the second-biggest opposition party in the parliament and we represent the majority of the Kurdish people in the country, as well as all the marginalised peoples of Turkey: the left, Armenians, Assyrians, non-muslim populations, disabled people. We have a very powerful feminist agenda, too, as a party. The youth and women have their autonomous assemblies and make their own decisions.

So, in a way, the HDP has been trying to carry all the groups at the margins of society to the centre. Those communities that have been historically repressed and marginalised and excluded from the political landscape, back into the state. In that way we have been bringing a kind of shock therapy to the Turkish establishment, which has been based on the foundational exclusion of others, such as the Kurdish, Alevis, Armenian, Greek and other populations, as well as the poor people, women, youth and other marginalised sectors of society.

But the fight is not simply against the HDP. It is a bigger one: there has been a crackdown against civil society in general. More than 5000 academics have lost their jobs. More than 100,000 people were dismissed from their jobs without any court decision, this was just by by government decree under emergency rule, which was formally in effect between 2016 and 2018. It was abolished in 2018, but most emergency powers were later included into the national legislation, so we are living under permanent emergency rule, really. In practice nothing has changed.

This is the kind of general climate we are living in. It is a very violent transitional period. Those who are in power are so scared of losing their power. That is why the state and the government has been kind of waging a war against the people. It is a very interesting moment in the history of Turkish and Kurdish politics here.

So in addition to this, Turkey is also in a mess with their relations with Syria and Libya. Turkey is actively fighting two wars now actually. The parliament is mostly silent about this. Only HDP has opposed all the wars Turkey is trying to wage at the regional level. We have a huge economic crisis now in the country and it is deepening. People are tired of it but they are scared to express their feelings and ideas, because they know that the moment they start talking they will pay a dear price.

The only organised group that is paying that price and taking the risk and standing against this powerful authoritarian tendency is, unfortunately, the HDP. It is not that we are heroes. We are not heroes. As an individual I am not scared. I don’t have fear over what will happen to me. I may go to prison and other things may happen. Already we have two former co-chairs, several MPs, over 50 elected Kurdish mayors and more than 5000 members, administrators and associates of the HDP already in prison. I could go to prison too. So all these people don’t have a personal fear of what will happen to us and to our families personally. But we do have fears about the future of our peoples and the future of this country. If we cannot stop this authoritarian rule and we think there will be more instability in the country, it won’t be the rich and those who are in power who pay the price. At one point they may even leave the country. It will be the people, who are trying to live on the margins of society, who will pay the price. That is why we do have fears for them and why we assume a certain role and responsibility.

The HDP does have a central place in Turkish and Kurdish politics. In the last local elections in March 2019 and in the repeated Istanbul elections in June, we were kind of a kingmaker party. We supported the broader opposition and we made Erdogan pay a dear, dear price for what he has been doing to the Kurds and other people that we represent over the last four years. So that was our very swift and organised revenge. It was a political response. So we undermined [Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)] and the [Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)], which is Erdogan’s ultra-nationalist ally.

Now we are getting prepared for the final political battle. We are both well-prepared and optimistic that in the next elections we will find a solution. Those elections are scheduled for June 2023. That is the normal schedule, but we may have early elections. There is a lot of pressure on the government: the country is unstable, the problems the country is facing in Syria are very challenging and the economy is not recovering. If we don't have a revolutionary situation now it is mostly because over the last three years and by means of emergency rule powers the government has been repressing the society very brutally. But they can't maintain this situation for long. This is how it works when a society is full of conflict and contradiction. For a while you might be able to repress them, but at one point it’s going to explode, just like the Arab Spring in many countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, everywhere. It was not just in the Middle East, but in many other parts of the world where people are coming to the point where they are saying enough is enough.

So I can tell you this much: in Turkey there has been a constant accumulation of rage, anger and frustration. Until very recently, people didn’t believe there was a way to get rid of the status quo, the establishment. But now they look at the recent local elections in March 2019, when the opposition in general won all the big municipalities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, the whole Mediterranean coast and all the Kurdish provinces. It was a shocking experience for the government. Now people actually believe in change. It’s not just that they are being victimised and they are angry and they can’t do anything. They have learned that when they come together they can actually win, as we did in the recent elections. So now we are getting ready for our final battle with AKP.

AB: Tell me more about what everyday life is like in the Kurdish majority regions of Turkey. Yesterday we were told that the Kurdish language is suppressed and cannot be spoke even in parliament.

: That question is best answered by looking at the situation of local government, because it is local governments that interacts with people on a daily basis. Turkey has had a policy, since the foundation of the republic, where the Kurdish language and culture has been perceived as a major threat to the national existence and security of the Turkish republic. It is very strange. By profession I am a cultural anthropologist and I don’t understand why a language and a culture is perceived as a threat. It’s just language and culture, for god’s sake. The problem is, I think, the politicisation of language and culture as the main marker of national identity.

When Turkey was established in the early 20th century, in 1923 to be precise, and in its formative years from then up to the 1940s, it happened to overlap with the rise of Hitler and other fascists and other crazy ideologies: the madness of modernity. So Turkey was developing its institutions and its foundational ideology within that broader political climate. So they came up with this stupid racist notion of national and cultural identity, that there is only one culture, one language and one race — that there is a oneness to everything. But the problem was that the whole country was based on the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, with its 72 different nations.

So what they did, and this is not just under the republic, it started before that, the Ottomans committed genocide against the Armenians. They removed all the remaining Greeks in a population exchange. The small Jewish community was further marginalised and many of them left after the establishment of Israel. The Alevi people suffered genocide several times. The Kurds staged a total of almost 30 rebellions and all of them were brutally repressed. Then they established a country based on the foundational exclusion of all these non-Turkish and non-Muslim sectors. So this is the pure Turkish founding idea, and that is why the Kurds cannot have any cultural or linguistic expression. Leave aside political expression or some share of sovereign power. So that is the general situation.

But with the local government system since 1999 when we first came to power (21 years ago), we have been able to institute various linguistic and cultural programs here and there, often not through formal institutions or organs, but there was a generalised interest in the Kurdish language and culture. To promote a language and culture you need some institutional and economic support, otherwise it is very difficult. In Australia you have all those Indigenous people. If you do not support them it won't be easy for them to protect and promote their culture, identity and language. Particularly under this very, very aggressive tendency of globalisation everywhere.

The problem is, since 2016, almost all Kurdish municipalities that were won and run by HDP were seized and their mayors removed and sent to prison totally unlawfully. Of the municipalities, 94 were forcibly taken in 2016, and some bureaucrats were appointed as governors in the place of our elected mayors. This is the mentality that I call internal colonialism. So the Turkish government is appointing non-elected Turkish governors to rule Kurdish cities that are normally run by elected Kurdish mayors. This is colonialism.

So in my city that I represent, Diyarbakır, the population is more than 1 million and we get more than 500,000 votes, close to 600,000 votes. Then in 2014 we had our co-mayors — by the way, the HDP is the only party that implements the co-mayor system, one male and one female — we had 102 municipalities and then in 2016, right after the declaration of emergency rule, they removed all of our mayors and sent them to prison. One is still in prison, one is in exile in Europe somewhere, had to flee. Then between 2016 and 2019 we didn’t have any municipalities. It was mainly these appointed Turkish governors ruling Kurdish cities. We don’t have any self-government. That was the major issue. This is actually one way we think empowering the local government may give us a degree of autonomy in the way we respond to the broader political issue we call the Kurdish question. But the government is destroying every single local Kurdish institution that we have won through struggle over decades, over a century actually.

In March 2019, for example in Diyarbakır we won 63% of the vote and the governing party won 20-something percent. But what they did, again, was they removed our mayor [Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı] and sent him to prison and replaced him with a governor. This is Turkish colonialism par excellence. They did do similar things in the early years of the Turkish republic. If you ask me what is happening, I think those in power, the Turkish elite, literally don’t know what they are doing with the Kurdish question, other than attacking, killing, destroying, torturing. And not only in Turkey but also in Syria, where you are seeing invasion in certain parts of Syria — but the Kurdish territories. Turkey never fought ISIS there. Or any other group. Seriously. Even when [Turkey] entered ISIS territory there was no fight. ISIS just left the place to them. But it was the Kurdish-dominated territories under Turkish attack. Turkey is now formally sponsoring all the terrorist groups in Idlib, for example — a NATO member, a member of the Council of Europe. And all the Western countries — I cannot understand them. They are so hypocritical. They are seeing a NATO member and a member of the Council of Europe and one of their key allies is supporting all kinds of nasty, crazy, extremist groups in Syria mostly because they are scared of another refugee crisis. They are scared of all these brown people pouring into their European countries.

That is the situation now. But that is on the negative side: Turkey is fighting a war against the Kurds on either side of the border. Even the Kurds in Iraq are a threat, because from the very beginning Turkey has seen the Kurds as the main national security threat. Foundationally, it is an existential issue: that the Kurds exist and they have certain political and cultural rights is so unbearable to Turkey. What if the Kurds speak their own language? What is their problem? What if the Kurds do have some autonomous region in Syria? Why do they feel so threatened? They feel threatened because Turkey is based upon the exclusion of the Kurds and the non-existence of the Kurds.

For 100 years it was like that, but the status quo established after the First and Second World Wars — the status quo that buried the Kurds — that is gone. The Middle East as a region is being transformed now and that is why, from the cracks and splits and all this mess in the Middle East, the Kurds are coming back to the political stage. It is the return of the repressed. So they are here. One hundred years of being killed, tortured, exiled, displaced, but we are going nowhere. We are in the Middle East and now the region is being restructured, in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, everywhere. The only thing we want this time, when new political systems are hopefully being established, we just want some pluralistic, democratic, fair political systems where the Kurds and other marginalised populations can have some degree of political representation and some form of dignified life. That’s not too much to ask for is it?

[Transcribed by Kathy Fairfax.]

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