The City Is Ours

In tomorrow's Turkish elections, the leftist Peoples' Democratic Party is putting forward a type of politics that directly challenges Erdoğan's autocratic rule: pro-worker, anti-patriarchy, radically democratic.

Supporters of Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) celebrate early election results on June 7, 2015 in Diyarbakır, Turkey. Burak Kara / Getty

For the sake of brevity, Turkey’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is often identified as “pro-Kurdish.” But that descriptor is overly simplistic. The HDP is a pro-peace, bottom-up, left alliance that was born out of the Kurdish political movement and has become a key actor whenever ballot boxes are set up across Turkey.

Tomorrow, Turkey’s citizens will once again cast their votes in a crucial contest, this time at the local level. The HDP is running its campaign under the Kurdish slogan “Ya Me Ye,” or “It’s ours.” The phrase refers to the ninety-five HDP-run municipalities forcibly seized by the ruling government in 2016 and the arrest of ninety-four elected co-mayors, the party’s co-chairs, and several of its members of parliament.

The crackdown came after the HDP eclipsed the 10 percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation in the June 2015 elections — a major electoral setback for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic government was denied an absolute majority and, at least momentarily, blocked from installing the presidential system Erdoğan coveted. (Erdoğan later got his wish when voters narrowly approved a constitutional referendum in April 2017, handing him quasi-dictatorial powers.)

Yet analyzing the HDP’s politics through an exclusively electoral lens limits our understanding of the wider, longer-term struggle for democracy and Kurdish rights in Turkey, of which the HDP is the most recent actor. What the HDP has introduced into that struggle is crucial: a new organizational and ideological model that poses a threat to the existing, undemocratic order — and has put the party in the government’s crosshairs.

Banned Parties

Founded in 2012, the HDP’s emergence was closely linked to Turkey’s history of banned political parties — twenty-eight in all in recent decades. This party-banning tradition sabotaged any possibilities for political organization that challenged the country’s status quo, especially around Kurdish rights. Beginning in 1971 with the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) — one of the first Turkish parties to explicitly include Kurdish rights in its program — all parties that saw themselves as part of a political movement defending the rights of the country’s minority groups found themselves barred from operating.

Forced to adapt, Kurdish politicians initially started participating in Ankara-based parties by denying their Kurdish identity. Gradually, they affirmed their Kurdish roots while still running on Turkish party lists. Then in 1990, after being expelled from the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP), ten Kurdish parliamentarians formed the first political party with wider and explicit Kurdish representation in Turkish politics: the People’s Labor Party (HEP).

Similar to the HDP, the HEP was more than “just” a (pro-) Kurdish party — it saw itself as a party for all workers and all oppressed groups in Turkey. Yet it didn’t shy away from its Kurdish roots. At the party’s first congress in 1991, HEP founder Ahmet Fehmi Işıklar said the attempt to brand the HEP as a Kurdish party was an attempt to criminalize Kurdish identity in Turkey; therefore, the HEP would take pride in the label considering that it was the Kurds whose rights were most infringed upon at the time. While the pronouncement triggered the resignation of several Turkish-origin founding members, even then the so-called “Kurdish vote” was crucial for the SHP to pass the parliamentary threshold, and the party allied with the HEP in the 1991 elections, winning eighteen seats in parliament.

Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish parliament, was among the elected HEP members who ran on the SHP’s list. During her parliamentary oath, she broke from the standard declaration and added a final sentence in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish and Kurdish people.” It was a bold move. While the Kurdish language had finally been legalized, speaking Kurdish in public was still considered “terrorist propaganda” and remained illegal. Zana escaped immediate prosecution only because of parliamentary immunity.

Two years later, the ax came down on the HEP. The party was banned by the Turkish constitutional court, accused of promoting Kurdish cultural and political rights (such as the right to an education in one’s mother tongue) and decried for its demands, including an end to the state of emergency in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast. Zana and four other MPs were sentenced to fifteen years in prison on treason charges and “membership in a terrorist organization.”

From the HEP to the HDP

In 1991, the HEP’s Diyarbakır branch chairperson, Vedat Aydın, was kidnapped by two armed men and later found dead on a road. Protests exploded in the wake of his assassination, and more than twenty people were killed when Turkish police opened fire on groups of demonstrators.

Aydın’s death marked a turning point in how the Turkish state dealt with the new wave of Kurdish political participation. Increasingly, brute force was the norm. According to human rights groups, around seventeen thousand human rights defenders, activists, and politicians fell victim to extra-judicial killings by the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (JITEM), a paramilitary force tied to the Turkish state. To this day, families gather every Saturday for a thirty-minute vigil in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square to demand justice for the unsolved murders of their children.

After the HEP’s decimation, four more parties followed the well-trodden path — set up a new organization with much of the same core personnel, get hit with a ban from the state shortly afterward. Electoral support for the Kurdish political movement continued to swell despite the crackdowns, whether measured in the number of municipalities won or the number of parliamentarians passing the threshold as independent candidates. One of the HDP’s forerunner parties, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), founded in 2005, captured ninety-nine municipalities in the Southeast in the 2009 local elections. The courts banned the party nine months later and banished all founding members  from political life for five years.

Its successor party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), built on the movement’s previous electoral successes, increasing the number of municipalities in its hands to 103 and parliamentarians to 36. But perhaps its most significant contribution was its role in forming the congress out of which a new, unprecedented party was founded: the HDP.

The Many We

The HDP’s establishment in 2012 was not only the culmination of a decades-long struggle for democratization but also an attempt to redefine politics in Turkey. Introducing a bottom-up practice and a new paradigm based on a new idea of citizenship, the HDP cast itself as the foe of nationalism, oppression, and the patriarchal state, bringing together not only a broad coalition of leftist Kurdish and Turkish parties, but also various minority groups, civil society representatives, ecological movements, labor unions, LGTBQ* movements, and women’s organizations such as the Democratic Free Women’s Movement. In total, thirty-seven parties and organizations participated in the constituent assembly of the Peoples’ Democratic Congress.

Rather than continuing the tradition of constructing a new party in the ashes of a banned one, key actors of the Kurdish and Turkish left, such as Sebahat Tuncel and Ertuğrul Kürkçü, insisted on the need to build a bottom-up, movement-based party that reached beyond the traditional electorate in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast and the increasingly marginalized Turkish left. The idea was to pair multicultural representation in parliament with grassroots democracy outside the state, spurring both internal and external democratization.

The HDP project therefore is not a party project that addresses only the Kurdish electorate or seeks to simply take over the state for its own ends. The party’s aim is to transform the autocratic state by building counter-hegemonic spheres inside and outside the state. Similar to Nicos Poulantzas’s conception of democratic socialist strategy — the combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles to democratize society and the state — the HDP believes in undoing the dominant order by strengthening local organizing while winning participation at the national, parliamentary level. For the HDP and the Kurdish freedom movement, at the heart of “Democratic Autonomy” is building decentralized bases of popular power, whether in the form of local assemblies or autonomous women’s assemblies.

This dedication to autonomous political spheres was demonstrated in 2014, when the BDP renamed itself the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) and redefined itself as a strictly regional, autonomous ally of the HDP. The party’s goal was to break the vertical relationship that comes with exclusively representative politics, ensuring that the party would have not only accountable and representative political bodies at the national level but radical democratic ones at the local level. In a highly centralized state like Turkey’s, this way of doing politics might be a novelty, but it is a core part of the HDP’s ideology.

Another innovation has been the women’s assemblies. Autonomously organized yet embedded within the HDP, the women’s assemblies have been the most crucial expression of the party’s commitment to breaking with the structures of patriarchy and gender inequality. All female candidates running for the HDP are elected by the women’s assemblies, which have their own party program and possess veto power over any HDP decision that they determine particularly affects women.

Making women visible is one of the main motivations behind these and other procedural novelties, which also include a co-chair system (guaranteeing one spot for women) and 50 percent quota for elected offices. Looking at the statistics for tomorrow’s local elections, the percentages of women mayoral candidates for all other parties range from 0.7 to 5.2. The most progressive of the lot, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is fielding forty-four women mayoral candidates out of 842. Compare that to the HDP, which — in line with its 50 percent quota — is running 145 women out of 290 total mayor candidates.

While organizationally the HDP has introduced various measures to break with dominant structures, the party has also challenged the republic’s dominant mantra: one nation, one flag, one language. The slogan for the party’s first general elections campaign in 2015 was “Biz’ler,” which literally means “the many we” and is a neologism to emphasize the heterogeneity of the country’s population. For the HDP, politics should be at least as heterogenous as the society itself.

Practically, this means that the HDP has opened up representation and participation for various minority groups that have been systematically excluded, including Armenians, Alevis, and Yezidis. Although around 10 percent of the HDP’s vote comes from predominantly Kurdish areas, it’s been this new, inclusive (and more democratic) conception of the nation that has attracted voters in the country’s West, who for the first time feel represented by a party coming from the Kurdish movement.

Repression and Possibilities

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — incensed at the HDP’s heresies, committed to the idea of an ethnically homogenous and centralist nation-state — has violently pushed back against the idea of the party’s “Many We” in favor of his preferred “One We.” He has jailed HDP leaders, repressed party strongholds, and stoked extreme nationalism, all with the aim of opening the Kurdish-Turkish divide anew. Just since 2016, more than fifteen thousand supporters and members of the HDP and DBP have been arrested.

The repression hasn’t let up in the months before tomorrow’s election. Arbitrary mass imprisonments, extrajudicial killings in the Kurdish southeast, collective punishments for HDP voters, relocation of ballot boxes, deletion of forty-six thousand registered voters in HDP strongholds, media censorship, re-criminalization of Kurdish identity — the Turkish state is throwing everything it has at the HDP and its sympathizers.

Amid wide-scale harassment and threats to replace any HDP/DBP-elected mayor with a governor assigned in Ankara, the HDP has vowed to win all forcibly seized municipalities in tomorrow’s elections and to loudly claim back the cities — “Ya Me Ye.” A triumph along these lines would allow the party to demonstrate the unwavering popular support for democratic governance.

Second, and more unusual, the HDP has decided to refrain from running candidates in western cities where the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is likely to win and to mobilize supporters to vote for the strongest oppositional party on the list, even if it isn’t the HDP. The idea is to set aside immediate electoral concerns and focus on widening the democratic possibilities across the country by putting an end to AKP-governed municipalities.

Whether this twofold strategy will work remains to be seen. But we shouldn’t bet against a party with a history of maneuvering against the Turkish state’s repression and persistently creating spaces of freedom in an atmosphere of political suffocation. If the HDP can break the back of the ruling far-right coalition in the West (essentially, the AKP plus the fascist MHP) and expel the AKP’s appointed trustees in the Southeast while increasing its share of the vote, it will have delivered a significant win for democracy in Turkey.