Pro-Kurdish HDP discusses transformation to sidestep failure

Ayhan Bilgen, the now-dismissed mayor of Kars and the former member of parliament for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), has taken the plunge and criticised the party over various issues in a series of tweets as the party is facing a crackdown by the government and called for a change within the party to avoid an immense political failure.

The HDP, Turkey’s third-biggest political party whose base is largely Kurdish, won 65 municipalities in elections last year. Today, 18 months later, it controls just seven small towns.

Last month, authorities effectively ousted its last big-city mayor still in office, Bilgen, as Ankara stepped up its campaign to stamp out the party at home. He was among 20 politicians and activists from the HDP detained on surprise charges stemming from protests that took place six years ago.

“The only option is to lean towards change that would solve its internal problems, rebuild itself, abandoning the routine way of doing politics and seek a way that would render prejudices useless and break the cycle,” Bilgen said on Twitter on Oct. 12.

“When the HDP was founded, the aim was to sympathise with the suffering segments of the Turkish society and to lead a joint struggle. The fact that a step was taken at the beginning and the sought progress is not obtained must be discussed,” Bilgen said.

“The problems of enlargement in political parties may stem from discourse, language, perceptions and communication, as well as structural and organisational working style,” he added.

"That is true, the party has its shortcomings and insufficiencies, but there are also external attacks. This struggle is based on the prices paid by people over many years. Villages set on fire, deaths, evacuated cities..." HDP's southeastern province of Şanlıurfa deputy Ömer Öcalan told Ahval.

"But I personally do not find it appropriate to share our internal issues on Twitter," Öcalan said.

Bilgen posted his views on the HDP’s aim to become the main party of Turkey by expanding its support base from majority Kurdish cities to all Turkey, saying that the lack of progress on the issue needs to be discussed. The party is going backwards in its intention, according to Bilgen.

He also said that the weakening of the support to the party leads to the use of more radical and ‘Kurdish question’ focused language that communicates with a small margin of society, and that language forms the basis of criminalisation of the HDP by the government.

“This brings about new pressure. It is necessary to take risks to break this vicious cycle of the state of tension and to develop policies with the courage to render tensions invalid,” Bilgen said.

Bilgen was right, but he stalled in bringing out his suggestions because the HDP has been speaking only to its Kurdish voters since 2015, according to prominent Turkish journalist Levent Gültekin. 

"The lack of policy, problematic discourse and a boxed-in mood have already existed within the HDP for many years. The criticisms made by Bilgen are late. The HDP has been talking only to Diyarbakır for the last four years. However, what the HDP needs to do is to carry the problems of Diyarbakır to Istanbul, Eskişehir to Trabzon," Gültekin told Ahval.

News website Gazete Duvar writer Kemal Can said that suggestions similar to Bilgen's have been discussed among the HDP cadres for some time now and his list of criticism is relevant not only for the HDP but for all parties in Turkey.

"The HDP was also discussing what Bilgen said from time to time. We see that they have been put as a problem before the party. However, we see in Bilgen's conclusions that the HDP was not successful enough to overcome these problems," Can said.

Bilgen also criticised the HDP's mechanisms for designating candidates for local governments and the parliament, saying that the current method cripples democracy.

“The biggest guarantee to inter-party democracy is to be a people’s party and realise that it survived to this day via the efforts and sacrifices of nameless heroes. Determining candidates with nepotism would make the party rot and make it vulnerable to interventions,” Bilgen said.

Yeni Yaşam newspaper journalist Hüseyin Aykol sees eye to eye with senior HDP politicians on the matter. "Bilgen says that more candidates in the HDP should be named locally. Not so wrong. I think it would be better if there were candidates determined by the people by their own votes in local primaries," Aykol said.

"You know, the HDP tries to act together with many political groups. A quota is allocated for them. People allocated to that quota are prioritised over local candidates. There are such shortcomings, but on the other hand, there is a tendency to bring more people into the struggle this way.  It is necessary to find the average of these two approaches," he said.