HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas.
A delegation of six elections monitors sponsored by the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign to observe the June 7 Turkish election witnessed a stunning result took the left-wing Kurdish-based Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) into parliament for the first time.
The group said it sawno violations on the election day but was able to clearly observe palpable tensions among the public in Diyarbakir and Gaziantep, where the delegation was based. On June 5, an explosion at the HDP’s last election rally killed three people. Two days after the election, three HDP members were also shot dead at a coffee house.
The delegation included: Sean Hawkey, representative of the Green Party for England and Wales; Melanie Gingell, human rights activist and barrister; Thomas Jeffrey Miley, lecturer in political sociology at Cambridge University; Bronwen Jones, family and immigration barrister; John Hunt, journalist, writer and editor; and, Austin Reid, consultant in international university development.
Thomas Jeffrey Miley wrote the following statement on behalf of the delegation.
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The recent election in Turkey marked a historic turning point for the country.
During our five-day trip to these cities, we spoke with human rights activists and representatives of trade unions. We met with, and accompanied, activists and candidates of the HDP in visits to hundreds of polling stations on election day.
Political tensions ran high across the republic during the campaign, in the run-up to an election interpreted by many as a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions to further tighten his grip on power by introducing a new constitution to convert the parliamentary republic into a presidential regime.
The stalling economy, and rising unemployment, certainly did not help Erdogan. Even more damage was done to the president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the influx of Syrian refugees, not to mention the role played by the Erdogan government in destabilising the neighbouring Syrian state.
Perhaps even more important than all of these highly salient issues, the election constituted a critical juncture for the fate of [jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader] Abdullah Ocalan, the long-stalled peace process with the PKK and the prospects for political compromise on the main grievances articulated by the Kurdish movement.
The Kurdish movement in Turkey has evolved dramatically since the arrest of Ocalan in 1998. Spurred on by Ocalan himself, the movement has officially renounced its commitment to an independent Greater Kurdish nation-state, and has embraced a program of “democratic confederalism”. It has, at the same time, come to express a clear and firm commitment to a peace process, despite substantial and ongoing violent provocations by the Turkish state.
The leaders of the Kurdish movement had a lot riding on this election. In past elections, they had opted to run candidates as independents in particular districts only in Kurdish strongholds, in order to avoid having to cross Turkey’s extremely high 10% threshold for representation (established by the military after the 1980 coup).
However, this time around, they decided to run the risk, hoping to pass the threshold. They presented candidates as a party throughout all of Turkey.
They joined forces in coalition with the Turkish left as well as with other marginalised groups and ethnic minorities including Alawites, Alevis, Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians as well as the lesbian and gay community, feminists, and labour and environmental movements, all under the umbrella organisation of the HDP.
The heroic defence of Kobane in the Kurdish region of Syria did much to boost the image and morale of the Kurdish movement, especially in and around the Kurdish capital, Diyarbakir, but also to a certain degree even throughout the rest of Turkey.
Simultaneously, Erdogan’s open hostility to the plight of the Kurds in neighbouring Syria has done much to sour his popularity among devout Kurds, who had previously sympathised with him as a fellow Muslim.
The corresponding surge in popular support for the HDP has been met with intimidation and violence on the part of the Turkish state and the AKP government.
HDP representation in the Turkish parliament would block Erdogan’s ambition to introduce a new presidentialist constitution. This helped fan the flames of this animosity, resulting in a climate quite unpropitious for freedom of expression as well as widespread concerns about the possibility of electoral fraud.
During the campaign, HDP election offices, bureaus, and activists were the targets of harassment, intimidation and violence on over 170 occasions. Indeed, during our brief stay in the country, we witnessed murderous provocation up close in Diyarbakir twice.
Firstly at the HDP’s final election rally on June 5, where bomb explosions killed three and wounded more than 100, and, secondly, two days after the election, when three HDP supporters were gunned down at a coffee house that had been used as an election bureau during the campaign.
Despite the climate of intimidation and violence, the human rights activists, trade union representatives and HDP members who we met with displayed consistent courage and restraint. They repeatedly expressing their commitment to both a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question as well as to a deepening and strengthening of democracy throughout Turkey, even in the face of murderous provocations.
Fortunately, we witnessed no serious incidents on election day, though in many districts of the mixed city of Gaziantep a climate of tension and hostility was palpable even to an outsider. As Osman Demirci, one of the HDP candidates whom some of our members accompanied on visits to polling stations, remarked: “People here are like bombs ready to go off. You have to know how to defuse them.”
Our delegation itself was received with a good dose of suspicion, especially among pro-government and Turkish nationalist stalwarts involved in running the election. One angrily commented to Demirci upon witnessing our members enter a room where citizens were voting: “How dare you bring foreigners with you to come and audit me in my own country.”
Demirci responded smoothly by offering his hand and saying: “We wouldn’t ask for them to be here if we weren’t rightly concerned about the possibility of electoral fraud. But this is a festival of democracy, and they have only come to witness it. Let us stand here together to show the world that we know how to govern ourselves, that we all can get along.”
In the end, the HDP scored a great victory in the election. It surpassed the 10% threshold by a wide margin, winning more than 12% of the vote and 80 delegates in the 550-seat Turkish parliament. The result was received with elation — though tensions still ran high in its wake.
The atmosphere in Diyarbakir the day after the election — where close to 80% of the electorate had come out in support for the HDP — was festive, to say the least.
Yet much tension remained, and was clearly on display even at the official post-election celebration, attended by tens of thousands, and held at the same venue where the annual Newroz [Kurdish New Year] celebration has taken place ever since its legalisation in 2000.
Attendees at the post-election celebration had to pass through three security checks — one controlled by the police, two by the HDP — in order to access the venue. Amid all the singing and the dancing, barely suppressed by all the elation, more than a hint of nervousness could still be detected. It surfaced when a sudden loud boom among the crowd — probably caused by a drum — was confused for a bomb, causing many to jump.
The murder of three HDP members the next morning only confirmed that the election result does not mean a miraculous end to the continuing climate of intimidation and violence. Erdogan has been stymied for now in his ambition to increase his grasp on power, but the AKP remains the number one party in Turkey, with more than 40% of the vote.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, the country’s third most voted for party was the far-right Turkish-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which managed to capture close to 17% of the vote.
It remains unclear whether the AKP will be able to form a stable governing coalition, and so there is talk of new elections in as soon as three months’ time.
Nevertheless, the election result on June 7 was a great victory for democracy in the country. The representation of the HDP in the Turkish Parliament significantly strengthens the prospect of achieving a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, at the same time that it constitutes an important step in the reconstruction of a united Turkish left.