The hopes of the pro-Kurdish HDP in Turkey in spite of turmoil and violence

Is Turkey poised on the brink of the violent conflict of the 90s? Or does the entry of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) into Parliament offer shoots of hope for an alternative path?

Kajsa Olsson Anton Klepke
8 October 2015

It is morning in Istanbul and there is a slight haze over the city. In the square at Kadiköy's crowded harbour some young people sell handmade jewelry from a table. They have put up a large banner that says 'Suruç'. It is about two months since ISIS detonated a bomb at a meeting with young activists who gathered in the town of Suruç on 20th July. The youths planned to hand over relief supplies to the people in the Syrian city of Kobane. Thirty-three people were murdered. They were young activists who, before they went to Suruç, had stood on the same square here at the harbour to raise money for the people of Kobane.

Higher up Istanbul's hills, in the city's poorer neighborhoods, a family sits on a staircase and eats bread for breakfast. The stairs lead up to a house with broken windows and a cracked facade. Between the houses hang the pro-Kurdish HDP’s flags together with clotheslines. It is in this neighborhood that HDP has its headquarters in Istanbul.


HDP flags in Istanbul.

Müge Yamanyılmaz is speaker of the HDP's Women's branch. Today, she looks tired when she comes to the office. In recent months, violence has escalated in Turkey and the ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdish rebel group PKK has been broken. Violence in the country escalated at the beginning of September, and more than 100 of HDP's offices were attacked by nationalists while many citizens who had expressed sympathy with the Kurds were targeted by mobs. These have been dramatic months for the HDP, and the hopes raised by their victory of passing the 10% threshold and gaining 80 of the 550 seats to enter the Turkish Parliament were dashed quickly. But Müge Yamanyılmaz is still hopeful: "Nobody even thought that the HDP as a project was possible, that we would succeed to gather so many different movements under one roof. So the fact that we now together have gone all the way to the Parliament is a huge success."

Müge Yamanyılmaz 2_0.png

Müge Yamanyılmaz in HDP's office, Istanbul.

Müge Yamanyılmaz moved to Istanbul ten years ago and belongs to a young generation that has had the opportunity of studying  at university. She is a feminist and committed to LGBT and minority rights in Turkey. She shows us the women's section room where portraits of feminist role models hang on the walls. On the table lie old placards used in demonstrations. She reads some of the slogans, 'Violence against women is political' reads one, and 'We were not afraid of your violence, today we won' reads another. "In Turkey, all groups that deviate from the norm, the Turkish white heterosexual male, are oppressed," she says. "We are tired of it. There will be no peace in Turkey until all groups have equal rights, regardless of whether they are women, Kurds, or LGBT people."

During the election campaign the HDP was subjected to repeated attacks, several of them fatal. On the 5th of June, HDP's election rally in the city of Diyarbakir was the target of  a bomb attack. Several people were killed and over 100 injured. Müge Yamanyılmaz argues that the threat to the HDP and other progressive movements affect people's ability to engage in politics: "Many people are telling us that they support us in secret, but they dare not come to our meetings because they fear to be associated with us. They are afraid of being  targeted."

Turkey has a history of banning the pro-Kurdish parties. But Müge Yamanyılmaz says that the threat to ban the HDP is not a real threat: "I actually think that the ruling party AKP has given up forbidding us. They realize that it would be a scandal if the HDP was banned, because we received so much support. But still president Tayyip Erdogan does everything in his power to weaken us and make us ineffective."  She says that there are an ongoing lawsuits against both HDP leaders, Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. In addition, HDP does not receive any financial support, despite the fact that they passed the mandatory 7 per cent limit to qualify for party support in Turkey. She cannot help smiling when thinking of the party's financial straits: "Our party is so poor that we had to use horse and carriage in some cities during the election campaign. And our flags are made of such  cheap material so that the fascists who tried to burn them here in Istanbul could not set them on fire!"

She soon becomes thoughtful again, and says that the biggest threat to democratic development in Turkey is the lack of press freedom in the country. It affects the image of reality that is shown to the people: "As a large part of the media in Turkey is controlled by the governing AKP, media reporting is restricted. There is a kind of embargo around opposition movements such as the HDP, it is simply too dangerous for the media to report about us. But it's time for the media to be brave now, because this is no joke; people are being killed."

Her eyes are suddenly filled with tears. Müge Yamanyılmaz apologizes and says that she had friends among those who died in the bomb attack in Suruç. They came from the same generation, and she knew some of them through political activity in Istanbul. When we take a break, Özgür Kütküt, one of the party consultants, enters the room and sits down. He comes straight  from a press conference about the situation in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey. He dries the sweat from his forehead and takes out his tablet to show one of the reports that the HDP have written after visiting several villages in the Southeast region. One of the reports has been sent to the UN Security Council and describes all the cases where civilians have been killed by Turkish troops in pursuit of suspected PKK militants.

The bombing of the Kurdish regions began shortly after ISIS attacks against Suruç. But despite the fact that the first news of the Turkish military operation said that ISIS would be the main target of their attacks, reports show that a clear majority of Turkish air attacks targeted the Kurds instead. "The Turkish military uses the same war strategies as they did in the 90’s against the Kurds. It is terrible. They isolate villages and burn people's homes. Many civilians are killed and injured in these military operations," says Özgür Kütküt before he hurries on to the next meeting.

The PKK has responded with several attacks against the Turkish military and police. Müge Yamanyılmaz says that the Turkish soldiers killed in the war become war martyrs, strengthening the nationalist tendencies in Turkey and reducing the desire for peace with the Kurds. However, she does not think that the situation will once again become as bad as in the 90’s when hundreds of Kurdish villages were destroyed by the Turkish military and tens of thousands died. "A new phenomenon is that some of the families of the martyred soldiers are not supporting the war anymore. Today there are alternative media like Twitter and Facebook. That means that the people of Turkey know much more about what is happening in their country. They no longer rely on the mainstream media," she says. "People are more aware that it is Erdogan’s war, not a war among the people of Turkey. In the 90s, Turkish military could commit massacres of Kurds in eastern Turkey, and the people in the western parts continued to be silent. But now it's different, now there is a greater awareness in Turkey, and greater solidarity between different groups."

On the way home the sun slowly sets behind Kadiköy’s port. The banner that read 'Suruç' is gone. But at the quay some youths have brought a sound system. They are playing music and dancing the Kurdish dance that was previously banned in Turkey. They hold each other’s hands and laugh. A lot of people that are passing by stop and clap their hands and sing along. A young woman with a Mohawk haircut is dancing with another woman with hijab in the late summer evening.

It appears  for a moment as if they have forgotten about everything around them....

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