Diyarbakır torn between hope and despair as HDP calls for early elections

Members of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) kickstarted debates over whether to withdraw from parliament in response to the government’s dismissal of more than 20 of the party’s mayors. So, it came as a surprise to some last week when the party’s co-leaders instead called for early elections.

HDP co-chair Sezai Temelli said withdrawing lawmakers and mayors would not benefit the party’s struggle under current conditions. Instead, he and the party’s other co-chair Pervin Buldan called on all opposition parties to join them and push for early polls.

The HDP said in a statement that Turkey’s ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its junior partner the far-right Nationalist Movement Party had lost all legitimacy after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in 2018 and the coalition lost five of Turkey’s largest provinces in local elections this year.

The HDP has good reason for its animosity to the ruling coalition.

The government accuses the HDP of harbouring sympathies for the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed group that has been at war in Turkey for over 30 years, and has used this as the justification for a crackdown on the party’s politicians.

The authorities have replaced 24 of the 65 HDP mayors elected in the March 2019 local elections with government-appointees, and 13 of those removed have been arrested on terrorism-related charges. The majority of HDP’s 62 deputies in parliament face multiple indictments.

A total of 174 council members have also been dismissed from their posts while nine more were arrested in the crackdown, which started in August with the removal of the HDP mayors of three major cities in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish eastern and south-eastern regions.

People in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır, Turkey’s biggest majority-Kurdish city, have been losing hope over the loss of their mayor, Turkey’s military against Syrian Kurdish groups in October and the economic problems that have plagued the country since last year.

A significant number of the people Ahval approached for this article refused to speak, fearing state oppression and arrest.

According to Halim Kaymak, a former district chairman of the pro-Kurdish People’s Labour Party (HEP), which was banned in 1993, the HDP should withdraw both its members of parliament and mayors.

“It wasn’t the municipalities or the parliament that got the Kurds where they are today,” he said. Instead, he said, the Kurdish political movement has relied heavily on grassroots organising. “We didn’t used to have the municipalities.”

“We want to live together [with Turks],” he added. “But they don’t want us.”

The majority of interviewees who agreed to speak to Ahval said the government appointment of replacement mayors had hijacked the will of the Kurdish people and rendered elections meaningless.

“Votes in Istanbul and Diyarbakır are the same, but the people we vote for are not even recognised,” said Hüseyin Temur, an older gentleman. “I don’t want to vote anymore.”

“Without justice, the HDP being in parliament means nothing.” he added. “All HDP members are under arrest, stripped of their rights.”

The HDP fielded candidates in local polls in spite of calls to boycott the elections after the suppression it faced in previous elections.

The government removed from office 94 HDP mayors elected in 2014, and 98 out of the HDP’s 102 municipalities have faced government intervention since 2016.

But party officials chose to compete in elections and to support other opposition parties in Turkey’s largest cities as part of an alliance against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Kurdish votes played a major role in the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s election victories in Turkey’s financial powerhouse Istanbul and capital Ankara.

But the HDP’s support has not turned the opposition away from nationalistic politics that often work against Kurds. Pensioner Murat Budan criticised the opposition for aligning itself with the government against Kurds “like they did in northern Syria.”

The CHP and its ally, the right-wing Good Party, voted in favour of a parliamentary motion for Turkey’s military incursion into Kurdish-held territories in northern Syria in October, and the offensive enjoyed widespread support from most factions of Turkish society.

“This country, this land belongs to all of us. But those in power don’t allow this,” Budan said. “They don’t want the Kurds to have an official status. That is what I see in Syria.”

Opinions differ, however, on whether the HDP should withdraw from parliament completely as citizens express concerns for future repercussions this could have.

A shopkeeper in the central Bağlar district, Mahmut Orak said the HDP should not withdraw, “to show that the Kurds do exist, to fight for their rights.” Orak also questioned why the elected mayors were cleared by the state to run in the elections in the first place if they were guilty of the crimes they have been accused of.

Immediately after the local polls in March, six elected mayors and 46 council members from the party were denied their mandates for having been dismissed from their previous civil servant duties via presidential decrees issued following a coup attempt in 2016. Each of these were cleared by Turkey’s highest electoral authority to run in the election.

Some residents of Diyarbakır, however, believed parliament played an important role in ensuring that Kurdish people’s voices are heard. 

“If they leave, the government would be the only ones left standing,” HDP supporter Yaşar Güzel said.

Kader Güray, a resident of Diyarbakır Sur district, a significant part of which was destroyed in a clash between the Turkish army and Kurdish militants from 2015 to 2016, echoed the sentiment. 

“I will go vote for my own even if it would cost me my life,” she said.

“Those who try to castrate the HDP do so to destroy the voters’ faith in the ballot,” said a public servant, who wished to remain anonymous. “If they were not in parliament, there would be deeper ruptures among the people.”

“This government is on its way out. If the HDP is in parliament, the AKP has a weaker chance to hold on to power,” he said.

Fatma Kaya, another Sur resident, agreed that the AKP was reaching the end of the line. “The people are sick of poverty,” she said. “The AKP is done for, they will be gone in the next elections.”

“Nobody but the HDP fights for us,” Kaya said.