Veteran Kurdish politician Hatip Dicle says HDP to prove its legitimacy in March polls
Turkey’s main opposition party has painted the March 31 local elections as a referendum on nearly 17 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, but analysts describe it as a last chance for an opposition whose string of electoral defeats has left the ruling in a position of unparalleled power.
But for Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the elections are a fight against the odds that could determine its fate.
The HDP commands the support of millions of voters in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, as well as in the cities where millions of Kurds have migrated over decades.
The breakdown of the AKP’s peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, and the state of emergency following the coup attempt the following year, left HDP politicians vulnerable to prosecution on terror charges. Those jailed include former party co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. At the same time, pro-HDP municipalities across the country have been taken over by AKP-appointed administrators, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he may do so again in seats won by the HDP.
“I’ll tell you this, it would suit fascists to do that, and they may well do it. Fascists don’t listen to the will of the people,” Hatip Dicle, a veteran politician of Turkey’s Kurdish movement, told Ahval. “The goal we have locked in on is to show the world our people’s will. That is what is important to us.”
The prosecution of Kurdish politicians is based largely on allegations that they are members of, or produce propaganda for, the PKK, which Turkey lists as a terrorist organisation. Thus, politicians who have spoken out against the January 2018 Turkish military operation against Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliates in Afrin have been jailed, as have others who criticised the military’s use of tanks and artillery in urban centres against the PKK youth wing after the peace process broke down.
The Kurdish politicians say they spoke out in defence of human rights, and, Dicle said, the same consideration is behind a recent hunger strike led by HDP member of parliament Leyla Güven to protest the prison conditions of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has been held in a prison on İmralı, an island in the Marmara Sea, since 1999. After engaging with Öcalan during the peace process, the AKP took a swift about turn when it ended in 2015, and since the 2016 coup attempt has prevented the PKK leader meeting his lawyers.
“The (peace talks) ended on April 5, 2015, and since then Turkey has lost a lot,” said Dicle, one of the Kurdish politicians who had previously been allowed onto the island to meet Öcalan during the peace process. “Freedoms, the economy, democracy - since the coup attempt thousands have been arrested and there are great infringements on people’s rights from every angle.”
“I believe that is what Leyla is thinking: we need to seek what we lost at the place we lost it … Because every time Öcalan is put into isolation, Turkey quickly enters a period of anti-democratic actions like the attacks on Kurds. So, the hunger strike is a good decision,” Dicle said.
Since the beginning of Güven’s hunger strike, authorities have broken 28 months of restrictions preventing visits to Öcalan, allowing his brother Mehmet Öcalan access on Jan. 12.
“Leyla Güven will continue, because we’ve learned (Öcalan) is alive and well, but he is still restricted from visitors. I say this as someone who has spent 15 years in prison: every convict, every prisoner has a legal right to visits from their family and lawyer. Restricting Öcalan from that right is unacceptable,” said Dicle.
Güven’s health is in critical condition after spending months ingesting only liquid nutrients, and Dicle believes that if necessary she would take the hunger strike to the bitter end, as members of the Kurdish political movement did after the 1980 military coup.
The important difference today, said Dicle, was that the 1980 military junta, despite widespread torture and extrajudicial killings, made at least some efforts to stick to the law.
Today’s administration “does not even abide by its own laws. The administration is very much arbitrary. The state of law has been completely sidelined. In fact, Turkey is no longer even a state of law. That’s why prisoners and detainees are under great pressure,” Dicle said.
In the event that Güven or other members of the roughly 250-person hunger strike die, Dicle said the consequences could be grave.
“(It) would take the problem to a far more complicated point, that is levels different to today,” he said. “Sane politicians can see this. We just hope that a modicum of sanity is left in the government. If not, it’s obvious that there will be very bad consequences.”
Some have questioned why the focus of the strikes has been on Öcalan, as opposed to the charismatic Demirtaş, who led the HDP into parliament in 2015 and achieved a respectable third place with more than 4 million votes in last year’s presidential race after running a campaign from his prison cell.
In fact, there has been speculation that a faction opposing Demirtaş has taken shape within the HDP and sought to sideline him. Dicle, however, strongly rejects these claims as rumours started by opponents of the party, and said he had no doubts Demirtaş would be party leader if he were released from prison.
Dicle said there were reasons to focus political action on Öcalan as only he could issue orders to PKK fighters.
“As a respected member of the Kurdish community who has given 40 years to the struggle and led a party, I could not give commands to (Kurdish) guerrillas … They may respect me, but they won’t take what I say as an order. Demirtaş has said the same thing,” he said.
“But Öcalan is a leader with a great moral influence over Kurds in all four states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran). If Öcalan says the Kurds in Rojava (northern Syria) should do something, they do as he says. America knows this, Russia knows this, all the world’s powers do. It’s Öcalan who is the leader with influence over Kurds around the world. He’s the leader,” he said.
While a similar hunger strike preceded the beginning of the peace process in 2012, Dicle said a similar result this time was doubtful under current circumstances, in which Kurdish political groups find themselves under attack on all sides, with politicians jailed in Turkey and Kurdish administrations under threat of Turkish attack in northern Syria.
Under such conditions, the HDP is looking at the March 31 local elections both pragmatically and realistically.
The party, Dicle said, would follow a simple strategy of running its own candidates against the government appointed administrations in the southeast, while supporting opposition parties in other constituencies where their candidates are better placed to secure victory against the AKP and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies.
It will thus lend its support even to candidates from the Turkish nationalist Good Party, Dicle said, provided their approach is at least somewhat positive for the Kurds.
Nevertheless, Dicle said, the HDP was aware of recent allegations of electoral fraud and fully expected the ruling party to attempt to win municipalities in areas bordering Syria through trickery.
In any case, the party is determined to strive for every possible victory in the local elections to prove to the world it is the legitimate political force in the constituencies the government has stripped from it since 2015.
“It doesn’t matter to us now if the day after (the election) they appoint administrators again, if they cancel the elections. The aim of the people is to win back the municipalities that were stripped from the HDP and to win more besides, and absolutely to push the AKP and MHP back in the west of Turkey,” said Dicle.