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Turkey: sharing what we learn through self-organisation in a war zone

An HDP activist in Istanbul talks about the recent elections, the Kurdish movement’s political strategies, and the need to organize locally in the social sphere. (Interview transcribed and translated from the Turkish).

Heavily damaged buildings in Sur's restricted area in Diyarbakir, Turkey on 19/4/16. Uygar Onder Simsek/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Kadikoy, Istanbul:

Anna Rebrii (AR): What were your expectations for these elections and were they met?

Sibel Guler (SG): Actually, we did not have big expectations, but we intended to pass the threshold because it was in our hands to change the arithmetics of the Turkish parliament.

Since the 1950’s there has been a static political atmosphere accompanied by a growing societal response against it. Since the 1960’s, we have seen a confrontation between the 65% of the population that is religious conservative and right-wing and the 35% left-wing, social-democrat, socialist forces. But in recent years, there has been a change due to the wave created by the HDP, with leftists – whom we call ‘the opposition’ – coming together under the roof of the HDP.

In the elections of June 7, 2015, the HDP achieved an important success. But since then, due to government oppression, we have witnessed a very critical period of surrender in the society. Immediately after the elections of June 7, implicit threats were made in the speeches of AKP representatives. Then, our youth who were on their way to Rojava were massacred. Afterwards, there was the Ankara massacre, then the Sultan Ahmet massacre. It was as if a dark curtain had been drawn over society.

Immediately after that, the elections of November 1, 2015, took place, as the results of the June election were not accepted by the AKP government. Afterwards there was the referendum. They tried as much intimidation as they could, but there was a big reaction with resistance on the street. We wanted to see this reaction at least grow into support for the HDP in the elections.

We were sure of the amount of votes we would get in this election and that we would pass the threshold. However, the AKP was equally aware that its success in changing the parliamentary system within the framework of the amended constitution after the referendum was connected to the HDP’s entry into parliament. In order to keep the HDP under the threshold, there have been all kinds of oppression. Our friends in HDP province and district branches were arrested. A few days before the elections, in Suruc, three DBP members were killed. We were facing not only intimidation, detention, and threat of imprisonment, but also a death threat.   

Despite this, we entered the parliament with 11.7% of the votes. We have disrupted the AKP’s plans this time. They thought they would prevail by getting enough MPs from AKP for an absolute majority: but they did not succeed because the HDP passed the threshold. 

Frankly, I, as well as my friends who also work in the party, do not think that the change in Turkey will happen through elections. Parliament is a place where politics are visible. In this sense, it is important to pass the threshold and to be able to make the voice of the opposition heard, to be able to say that we are here. However, the social sphere is more important for us. It is important for us to organize within society. Entry into parliament was only one part of this struggle. We wanted to go through to the second round of the elections in order to disrupt the AKP’s macro-political plans. But I do not want to measure success and failure in terms of illegitimate elections. In this illegitimate election, given so much oppression, murder, fear, going against the emperor, I see 11.7% as a success. 

AR: What about the relationship between the HDP and other opposition parties in these elections? Apparently, the HDP was able to pass the threshold thanks to the tactical votes that came from CHP supporters primarily, in the west of Turkey?

SG: The HDP is a party that consists of various left-wing parties, e.g., SYKP, Revolutionary Party, Green Party. In these elections, some other leftist parties supported us, e.g. EMEP and TIP. Here I am leaving out the social-democrat base that is represented by the CHP. The HDP is a strategic alliance between those who are on the same page intellectually, those who argue similarly in regards to democracy and the Kurdish question in Turkey, who have the same views about the labour question or when it comes to violence against women, parties who see these problems as a social question and who do political organizing to come up with a solution for them. The HDP is also supported by left parties that are not part of it. There is a strategic purpose in our relationship to our component parts, as described here. 

Besides this, there was also an implicit relationship with social-democrats who are outside the HDP umbrella. Normally, we do not approve of the CHP’s place in Turkish politics. Whether from the point of view of the Kurdish question or in regards to Turkey’s social structure, we disagree with them because of their Jacobin approach. But there is an important social-democratic base that supports the CHP and we are in touch with this base. However, we do not align ourselves with the CHP or its base. In this sense, if we see ourselves together as the ‘opposition’, this is an opposition in terms of a voters’ base. But we do not agree with their party approach or on Turkey’s politics.

I’ll give you a simple example. At this moment in time our parliamentarians are jailed. There was a vote in the parliament to lift legal immunity for parliamentary members and the CHP voted for it. Thus, the CHP is also a reason for our parliamentarians and co-leaders being in jail. In this sense, from our point of view, this is not really a leftist party. We are not aligning with them either in terms of the Kurdish question or on the question of Turkey’s democracy.

But there is a positive vein in this party that provides a basis for us to meet from time to time. For example, in Kadikoy, the neighbourhoods with really social-democratic grassroots constituencies became places for us to work together. These neighbourhoods used strategic voting to ensure that the HDP passed the threshold. They did not vote for their own parties, but for the HDP. This strategic vote was not a big percentage, just in some localities, e.g., Kadikoy and Besiktas in Istanbul, and cities like Izmir. As a percentage, they did not exceed 0.5%. 

AR: As an observer on election day, what kind of irregularities or violations have you encountered? 

SG: First of all, there was an environment of oppression already before the elections. Most importantly, our presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş was imprisoned. We did not enter the elections under fair circumstances.

The appeal that we made for his release and for fair and just conditions for the election campaign was rejected. Besides, there has been a continuous state operation against the HDP. HDP members who carried out election campaigning were arrested in significant numbers. In total, around 5,000 of our parliamentarians, provincial and district delegates and members are imprisoned. This is a process that has continued since the 2015 election; I am not even talking about the time before then.

So in this sense, we have been campaigning in a quite disadvantageous environment. Moreover, even though there were less significant problems in bigger cities, in Kurdistan people went to the election under the gun. For example, in the east, 200,000 voters had to move to new polling stations under the pretence of “election security.” Think, for example, of a voter in Hakkari who had to go to Van to vote. In a province in Kurdistan with intense poverty, it is not easy for someone to be able to find the money for such a journey and to make it. This is a major problem.

Moreover, we were confronted continuously with police harassment during the visits that we made when campaigning. We were detained. As you can see, all these things made the election process difficult for us. All of them were practices intended to ensure the HDP’s failure to enter parliament. There is a video of Erdogan addressing a meeting of heads of neighbourhood districts three days before the elections, where he said that “the HDP has to stay under the threshold for our success.” He himself explicitly admitted the ongoing [state] pressure, detentions and arrests. 

I myself witnessed the following: I was responsible [for observing the elections, ed.] at a school. All objections [to observed irregularities, ed.] that we made according to the law and its regulations were rejected immediately. We had a very serious argument [with authorities, ed.] to ensure that the elections were carried out according to the law. For example, some objections that we made in my school were rejected just because I am an HDP member. After serious arguments, bringing in a lawyer to confirm the regulations, we forced them to accept our objections. After the school’s ballot boxes were counted, we set out to the Kadikoy YSK office [Turkey’s Supreme Election Board, ed.]. When we arrived, we were met with a crowd of anti-riot forces and police in front of the building and some of our cadres were detained. 

AR: Have any of the opposition parties officially challenged the election results?

SG: As I said, we had already lodged objections to the results in some localities. But this would not change things overall. If you ask me, three per cent of votes were already stolen before the election began. In my opinion, this was planned. Besides these 3% of the stolen votes, there were attempts to change the results with things like moving voting stations, etc. But the priority for us was to pass the threshold, so we are not focusing on the stolen votes. With 11.7 % of parliamentary representatives, we will see how we can build democracy and equality in this country, how we will deal with the question of justice and violations of law; we will work toward a solution for the Kurdish question and the peace process. That’s why we are not focusing much on the parliament. We are looking forwards. There is a danger of civil war. At any moment conflicts could break out. How can we prevent this through the parliament? How can we be the people’s voice? How we can raise people’s awareness on these matters?

AR: In comparison to the 2015 elections, what are the differences in terms of the HDP supporters’ base and mobilization strategies of the HDP this year?

SG: Most importantly, the elections of June 7, 2015, took place in a conflictless period. This was the time when discussions regarding the Kurdish question and the solution process was on the agenda. People had hope. There was a mobilization. This was not the case in these elections. While in the June 2015 election, in Kadikoy, for example, we had 2,000 activists going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from door to door, explaining to people why it was important for the HDP to be in parliament, in this election only 1,000 people were active. If the situation was like this in Istanbul, it was even worse in Kurdistan. Due to the presence of the gendarmerie in the Kurdish provinces, the elections took place under gun control. Thus, we cannot compare the two elections. There has been a decrease in mobilization by almost 50%. This is very normal because people were threatened with loss of life. There have been bomb attacks in the rallies that people joined. More than 100 people died in the Ankara massacre, for example.    

AR: Why is it important to have candidates in the parliament? What can they do for the democratization of the country or for the Kurdish movement?

SG: Our party is the party with the most women deputies. It is a party with people who struggle for the leftist cause, who represent the left. 

The city of Sur, for example, was burned down in the war [2015-2016]. People were crushed by military vehicles. We have a friend who took part in this resistance, who later was detained. She is now our deputy. She is someone from the people [Remziye Tosun, ed.]. Selçuk Mızraklı, who is from Diyarbakir and interested especially in the question of poverty, is also in the parliament right now. There is an immense knowledge in these people’s experience. Murat Çetiner from the left ESP  [Socialist Party of the Oppressed], Barış Atay from TIP [Workers’ Party of Turkey], Erkan Baş from the TKP tradition in the June Movement are our deputies. When you look at our representation, it consists of people who are trying to think at the same time in terms of opposing war, the labour struggle, and the Kurdish question and who believe in building real democracy which can only come through the solution of the Kurdish question. Our deputies are women, youth, imprisoned people, workers and people who have paid a high price for the privilege. So, we think that our voice in the parliament will come out loudly. But again, I stress that parliament is not the priority. What is most important is the social struggle. 

AR: In its programme, the HDP claims that it promotes radical democracy. Compared to the traditional party model, what are the structures within the HDP that allow for direct participation? 

SG: The HDP is a coalition created by leftist groups involved with the Kurdish question, workers’ exploitation and women’s questions. But before the HDP there was the HDK: this is a congress model made up of all these groups. Most importantly, the HDK is a social base and the HDP is its counterpart in parliament. That’s why I am saying that the parliament is only of relative importance for us. For us, neighbourhoods and streets are the principal area where a democratic society can be built. That’s why we believe in organizing locally and that’s why we are making visible the HDP in the parliament. Organizing locally is the priority.

We do not want the government to expand into every sphere. Actually, by expanding society’s self-organization – with neighbourhood councils, cooperatives, women’s houses, etc. – we want the government to become just a tool. We consider as essential an organizational model through which economic, political, social connections are all built anew.

Due to the fascist policies inside Turkey, the HDP has become more visible and more popular. Politics in Turkey are carried out with a focus on the parliament. For us, however, the parliament will be just a roof [for HDP politics]. Our main councils will be in the localities. The HDK, as a congress model that hosts LGBT, women and leftist groups together, wants to have some representation in the parliament. This is done through the HDP. That’s why the HDP insists on women and youth quotas, to ensure that every sector can represent itself, so that their voice can be expressed in the parliament in a just and fair way. Moreover, the HDP defends a democratic constitution for all people. That's why, it revises and expands provincial and district organizations alongside Turkey’s official party organizations. For example, in Turkish law, there is no co-chair system, just one chairperson, but we have to have a female and a male chair. We enforce this de facto to ensure women’s representation. We prepared our program and charter according to the political parties’ statutes but in our inner mechanism we made some de facto changes so that women’s and youth’s voice can be expressed. We carry out this in all of the district and provincial branches.

AR: Tell me more about the labour division between the HDP and the HDK?

SG: In Turkey, as I mentioned earlier, assemblies are the HDK’s sphere of activities because the HDK is administered as a democratic congress model that represents the voice of people from each part of the population. Neighbourhood organizations are inside the HDK. These are organizations in which women, for example, can make visible their own labour, where they can empower themselves and raise women’s awareness. The HDP, by contrast, does not have cooperative activities. The HDP simply participates in activities where a democratic economy might be discussed, but the organizer of these activities is the HDK. In spheres like a democratic ecology, democratic economy, women’s organizing, youth and neighbourhood organizing, where social and political connections can be established between people, the HDK is everyone’s interlocutor, even in the smallest localities. Due to its structure, this is the place to discuss social problems. The HDK organizes the HDP in order to make visible its politics. Hence, while the HDP’s main goal is the parliament, our principal sphere of activity is the HDK. 

For example, I am a HDP activist but the women’s activities I am involved in in my neighbourhood are organized by the HDK. I worked for the HDP neighbourhood Rasimpaşa-Hasanpaşa during the elections, but the question of neighbourhood urban transformation, for example, is a sphere of HDK activities. We discuss problems and determine organizational models and activities within the HDK in cities and localities. During election periods we work for the HDP but consider the HDK as our priority. 

AR: What are the mechanisms for choosing candidates for the HDP? Are decision-making processes open to bottom-up participation?  

SG: We have to differentiate these elections a little from previous ones because this year we learned that they would take place on June 24, only two months in advance. So we were under unique conditions in these elections. With our co-chairs, cadres and representatives in district branches imprisoned, we also faced serious oppression against academics, students, and intellectuals. 70,000 students are currently imprisoned . 
Under normal circumstances the HDP receives suggestions from provincial and district organizations and from neighbourhood councils. People who are suggested the most are chosen as candidates, for example, I am a candidate from Kadikoy. Various civil society organizations are consulted for suggestions. Women themselves decide in neighbourhood councils on their own candidates. The same thing happens for young people. The decision is made by the localities. This is the normal mechanism for selecting candidates.

But these elections were different. This sudden election was called by Erdogan in order to gain legitimacy for himself, be able to dispatch economic politicking inside the country and seize various international opportunities. Of course, in this election, the normal process did not function. Candidates were not determined from the localities. Instead, we asked people from civil society groups for suggestions. For example, Peace Academics were asked whom they, as Peace Academics, want to see in the parliament and people who were chosen by them became candidates. Youth and women used their right of speech but we were not able to have the broadest neighbourhood participation.

This was an extraordinary situation. But in general, according to our organizational model, candidates are determined and party decisions are taken by localities. And these localities rely on councils. This time, opinion leaders and civil society organizations had to come forward because this was a unique election. 

AR: Is the HDK actıve in North Kurdistan, i.e. the southeast of Turkey? How do popular participation and organizational structures differ in Turkey and Kurdistan?

SG: The DBP [the only Kurdish party within the HDP, ed.] is part of the HDP. The DTK, on the other hand, is a congress model in Kurdistan, the counterpart of the HDK in Turkey. In the parliament, both sides are represented through the HDP. The DBP as a political party and, like the HDP, it has a right to join in the elections, but it does so by supporting the HDP as one of its components.

When you compare the DTK and the HDK’s activities in the east and west of Turkey, you will see differences because the political awareness and organizing of the Kurdish people for the last 30-40 years has had a very different impact from anything experienced by the Turkish people. Kurds participate more in their own self-organizations and initiatives. We cannot say the same for the west of Turkey. Our goal is also to be able to increase this awareness in different populations in the west of Turkey. So far, the rate of participation in the west is not comparable to that in Kurdistan. 

AR: What are the parallels between the struggles in Turkey and North Kurdistan and the system that Kurds in Rojava are trying to implement?

SG: People in Rojava in Syria are trying to institute their destiny. They themselves discuss which system they need. Since their political perspective is parallel to ours, we support them. They are organizing a democratic communal society. Naturally, we are in solidarity. This is not just for Rojava: it is a system that we want for the Middle East. It is important to defend any system where people who nurture confederalism can live together. This is a place that we support. We support the need for workshops in each and every sphere, making people’s voices, their representation heard.

At the same time, Rojava is important from the point of view of the Kurdish question. Kurds constitute a big part of the HDP. At a rough estimate, 9% out of the 11.7% votes that the HDP got in total were Kurdish votes. But actually to say “Kurds” is not completely correct. These votes are from Kurdish people positioned around the Kurdish freedom movement (KCK-PKK). A 40 million population cannot be homogenous. It is a nation that consists of a lot of classes: middle class, oppressed class, bourgeoisie, AKP bourgeoisie. Kurds vote differently depending on their clas positioning. Thus, it is not correct to call this the Kurdish vote. There were people who do not belong to the freedom movement who voted. 0.5% of the vote came from people who are not HDP supporters but voted for it so that it could pass the threshold. The rest of the votes came from different peoples and religions whom we attracted through our activities. These are also people who identify themselves with the HDP.

People in Rojava defend a social revolution, they are trying to build a democratic communal social structure, struggling against ISIS with women at the forefront. We attach importance to the women’s village established in Rojava. We are watching and following how women there will organize, which economic model they will implement, how they will build cooperatives. We discuss what we can do for certain provinces, we exchange ideas, e.g. we did a workshop on democratic economies. We share our workshops with them.

We are also partners on an international level. For example, the HDK joined a meeting on Rojava organized by anarchists in Selaniki. People from Rojava joined via the internet. They explained what sort of social model, economy, education and women’s organization they want as well as the values that we both defend. We share our experiences. If we have here [an experience] of municipalism, we share it. We are also trying to imitate the cooperative or educational model that they are building. As you can see, with the conflict in Turkey, this is not easy. We are not as successful. While people in Rojava are both fighting and rebuilding themselves, in Turkey war is more important than any other issue. Unfortunately, matters of self-organization cannot be a priority on the agenda. We are not able to gather together a conference for ourselves on a democratic economy. So far though, we have been able to share our experiences with each other.  

About the authors

Sibel Guler grew up in Dersim, a Kurdish city, and graduated from Istanbul Yildiz Technical University. She worked as a journalist at the Kurdish newspaper named Ozgur Gundem which was bombed in 1994. 72 of its journalists were killed between 1990-1995 by Turkish paramilitary forces. She was arrested in 2011 along with 34 journalists and spent two and a half years in prison. After being released from prison, she became an HDP activist and conducted campaigns for elections in Turkey. Her case is still in the court and the trial continues.

Anna Rebrii is a PhD student in Anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center, NYC, researching the Kurdish movement. She is based in NYC and Istanbul. 


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