Between a Dam and a Hard Place

Taksi in Taksim. Istanbul, 2013.

I’m absorbing the Kurdish equivalent of propaganda when the background noise changes from People’s Democratic Party (HDP) ads to the orchestral movements of poorly-acted dramas. 

The music moves us through images of the Gezi Park protests to the mourning of 301 deaths in the Soma mine; from the bombing at Reyhanlı to the Roboski massacre and its funeral parade; onwards to the Diyarbakır bombing shortly before the June election; then the success of HDP finally passing the electoral threshold and halay dancing in celebration; moving into the death of activist hope in Suruç, and finally the massacre of 128 people in Ankara just over a month ago.

My fellow international electoral observers, our HDP contacts and I remained quiet. The deaths in Ankara did the most to grimly illustrate the effects of years of state violence against Kurds, in addition to recent government collusion with terrorist groups in Syria.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), now approaching the end of its 13th year in government, has collected an exceptional rap list of alleged or proven attempts to aid groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Turkey’s state propaganda complex has managed to side-step most major allegations through a tangled web of AKP ownership or patronage of media organisations, co-opting the police force as a means to attack dissenting news outlets, frequent censorship of social media and state security and censorship laws that refer to concepts of Kurdishness and the ‘Turkish nation.’

The clearest example of AKP complicity in the material and logistical support of extremist groups across porous borders is the January 2014 stop-and-search by Turkish soldiers of trucks claiming to carry aid from Turkish NGO İHH to Turkmens in Syria.

Despite a ban on reports of the stop-and-search the following month, in May, Cumhurriyet finally managed to report on the contents and origins of the vehicles. Cumhurriyet found that the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) had provided trucks loaded with artillery shells, mortars and ammunition, supplies that were hidden under boxes of medicine, allegedly on their way from Hatay, Turkey to armed groups in Syria. A 1983 law (no. 2937) passed under the military dictatorship of Kenan Evren states that no MİT members can be brought to trial, meaning that AKP claims that the operation was a ‘state secret’ are legally justifiable.

Moreover, Cumhuriyet paid a heavy price. Several days ago, on November 26, the Editor-in-Chef of Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar, and the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül, were arrested on pending charges of collecting and revealing secret documents for the purposes of espionage and supporting a terrorist organisation. The arrest was first revealed to the public by Dündar himself, who later commented that the it was “nothing to feel sorry about; these are medals of honour to us.” Gül commented similarly saying “a journalist should report that story if he or she sees the country is in danger.”

This intimidation of journalists comes at a dangerous time. The Turkish armed forces have faced an increasing number of allegations regarding their practises on the Turkey-Syrian border and even within Syria. Kurdish forces in Rojava have described seeing Turkish ambulances enter Syrian land and retrieve wounded ISIS fighters for treatment across the border. Other instances of smuggling, especially in relation to oil shipments that have been widely noted, and claims of deals between Turkish border officials and ISIS members have also been ignored at a judiciary level – and even at the level of public consciousness.

Despite such claims of government corruption and military involvement with extremist groups, many laws spanning from the 1980 military coup, including those which comprise the current Turkish Constitution, effectively put a halt to dissent. These include widespread criticisms of apparent government complicity in terroristic practises both on a state and extra-state level.

Another of these laws created a 10% electoral threshold for all political parties. This threshold does not apply to independent candidates, meaning that it was crafted, and is currently being implemented, to prevent the development of minority, and particularly pro-Kurdish, parties within the Turkish parliament. While most countries have a threshold of 5% or less in order to centre discourse on established parties, and restrict grassroots alternatives, Turkey has the highest (and most unfair) electoral threshold in the world.

Although Kurdish and other minority candidates have been elected through the independent candidacy loophole, until June 2015, no pro-minority party had been able to enter parliament. As a result, there has been little to no parliamentary legitimacy for waves of pro-Kurdish organisations, and this could not be gained until such a party managed to be fully represented in parliament.

The difficulties in pro-minority parties or candidates entering parliament are not only restricted to the electoral threshold: heavy AKP campaigning in the Kurdish-majority southeast, mass intimidation that often included violence, alleged corruption on election days, including the rigging of ballots, restrictions on the entry of candidates who have been accused or convicted of terrorism-related charges, and multiple instances of spurious arrests for everything from personal insults to declarations of autonomy,  overwhelmingly affect Kurdish candidates.

The HDP’s 13% vote share in the June 2015 was a genuinely heart-warming moment in Anatolian history – that is, the history of the peoples collected under the Turkish state. The passing of the baraj (a neat term meaning both “electoral threshold” and “dam” in Turkish) was won not just through decades of struggle by Kurdish activists, politicians and peshmerge, but also through a remarkable grassroots campaign disseminated and supported by Turks, Kurds and other minorities alike.

10’dan Sonra (“After 10”) spread campaign materials throughout social media, and all over Turkish cities, stickering and flyering bars, cafes and streets, particularly in Istanbul where HDP votes were crucial.

Despite 13 years of AKP dominance in the southeast, the HDP’s bid to seek seats in parliament as a party and not as independents seemed likely to succeed. However, in Western cities, especially Istanbul which has three electoral regions, 10’dan Sonra’s campaign to make clear that a vote for HDP could displace nationwide AKP dominance was important in influencing vote share. As just one example, many liberal Turkish voters who would normally vote for the centrist, secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) were persuaded to vote HDP in order to displace the AKP, at least within the context of the June elections.

The same impulse behind this vote-swapping – that a vote for a minority party, rather than an established one, although normally ‘wasted,’ now represents a push against the miserable status quo – also influenced Kurdish voters throughout Turkey in their major-scale withdraw from AKP voting. The HDP vote tally proved that a pro-Kurdish party – one that talks about economic and political autonomy for Kurds, as well as a socially-engaged pluralistic response to all elements of Anatolian society – could be viewed as legitimate. Kurds no longer needed to rely on the AKP for the southeast’s alleged peace and stability.

However, this perspective on the HDP lost headway within the context of increasing state violence in the Kurdish south-east as well as ISIS-related terrorism perceived to be state-supported.

Photograph courtesy of Seamus Travers. Published under a Creative Commons License.