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Behind the explosion in Istanbul: the HDP’s broken peace promise

Now that the dream of a peaceful union of the “peoples” under the HDP has turned to nightmare, as embodied in the explosion at Vezneciler, there are only two possibilities.

Sanem Vaghefi
8 June 2016
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Turkish police near scene of explosion, Vezneciler, Istanbul, June 7, 2016. Emrah Gurel / Press Association. All rights reserved.June 7, 2016, was the first anniversary of the Turkish general elections in which the ruling conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) experienced a vote loss for the first time in 13 years and the newly established pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) gained an unexpectedly significant success by expanding its support base towards the dissident groups in the non-Kurdish population of the country.

However, discussions and analysis about that election and its following events were absent from the agenda of Tuesday’s news. Instead, news focused on a bomb attack in the central district of Vezneciler in Istanbul, near the city’s main university which left 11 dead and many wounded, including civilians.

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for this attack, however Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has implied that the armed Kurdish groups fighting in Turkey conducted the attack. TAK, a radical offspring of the PKK which has been the main armed actor of the Kurdish movement in Turkey for more than 30 years, has claimed responsibility for several car bomb attacks and suicide bombings in Ankara and Bursa over recent months.

Only one year ago HDP, as the legal actor of the same Kurdish movement, united a considerable part of the Turkish and Kurdish people by raising the demand for peace alongside its anti-authoritarian slogans. The HDP in fact claimed to represent the young and brave Turkish masses who had shaped the Gezi events of 2013 (a period of the most significant peaceful protest seen over recent decades in Turkey), aiming to unite them with the Kurdish people of the country around the demand for freedom and plurality against conservative authoritarianism and state violence.

This aim was realised to a certain degree, since many Turkish people voted and campaigned for the HDP, therefore causing a radical break from the electoral tradition of polarisation in the country that limited the votes of pro-Kurdish political parties only to the Kurdish population and a Turkish leftist minority.

But today, after a year of bloody clashes between Turkish armed forces and the PKK, and bomb attacks claimed by TAK in Ankara and Istanbul, the same Turkish population which the HDP targeted as its supporters, has embraced increasingly nationalist feelings against Kurdish demands for autonomy, the Kurdish movement and (to a lesser extent) the very existence of Kurds in Turkey.

Turkish social media (including facebook, twitter and famous forums known as “sozluk”s in Turkey), which was the means of expression of freedom and equality demands on the part of Turkish youth three years ago during the Gezi events, are now full of nationalist and aggressive comment and argument, including even a hashtag named “Kurtlerkatledilsin” (meaning “the Kurds should be massacred) which became a trend topic on Turkish twitter just after the explosion in Vezneciler.

This sharp change in political mood of Turkish youth and the middle classes which has led to the HDP’s downfall, should be examined in detail. This article can only make a limited beginning.

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Several reasons have led to the collapse of short-lived Turkish support to the HDP. The Turkish voters of the HDP mainly came from the upper-middle and middle classes, the secularists and the religious minorities, the educated youth including the unemployed, left-wing groups opposed to the AKP, and a new generation with liberal and pluralist ideas, who became voters for the first time at the 2015 elections.

One of the most common demands heard in the Turkish political sphere during these elections, which was in fact shared by a majority of these groups, was a request for a break with every kind of political, ideological and emotional tie with the PKK and its leader Ocalan, on the part of the HDP.

This, it was hoped, would at least cause a change of discourse by the latter, since some of the Kurdish politicians, including members of the HDP were penalized during the 2000’s because they called the PKK leader “Sayin” (a prefix similar to Mr., which implies respect). However, considering the structural and essential character of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, the implementation of this request was (and still is) almost impossible.

In the case of Ocalan, his image for the Kurdish movement is not very different from that of Ayatollah Khomeini for the Islamist people during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Even the fact that tens of Kurdish young people in Turkey set themselves on fire in protest at his arrest by the Turkish authorities on February 15 1999, shows the extreme symbolic meaning attributed to him by his followers. The HDP was embracing a populist stance, just as many of the Iranian leftist groups avoided criticizing Khomeini until the mid-1980’s, maintaining a respectful discourse towards him.

On the other hand, while it claimed to be “the party of the whole Turkey”, the HDP mainly expressed the Kurdish movement’s demands and agenda, which caused some disappointment for many of the Turkish dissident youth who expected a much more pluralistic stance from the party.

The question of secularism and struggle against the increasing political pressure of Islamic conservative politics also became a vital issue for those same Turkish youth, especially when a child rape scandal in the religious foundation of Ensar was exposed. A statement by the AKP’s speaker of parliament demanded the removal of the principle of laicite from the Turkish constitution. However, the HDP was unable to adopt a clear position in defending secularist demands during this debate, and instead provided an intermediate formula by proposing a “libertarian form of secularism”.

It can also be argued that Gezi, by its essence, was the expression of a heterogeneous and individualistic kind of political activism - therefore any representation by ordinary political parties which are necessarily shaped by some bureaucratic and hierarchical characteristics, was already impossible.

All of these factors contributed to the filtering away of the Turkish support for the HDP (and Gezi) into other political organisations including the leftist parties and to a lesser extent the secular nationalist groups. Another section of these people became politically passive and alienated after the AKP’s surprising victory in the November 1, 2015 elections, hoping for an opportunity to leave the country for western parts of the world.

Now that the dream of a peaceful union of the “peoples” under the HDP has turned to nightmare, as embodied in the explosion at Vezneciler, it seems that there are only two possibilities in the near future for Turkey and its people. The first and the worst one is an ethnic civil conflict, in which ordinary Kurdish and Turkish people will be the main actors instead of the PKK/TAK and the Turkish army/police, especially in metropolitan cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Bursa where both Turkish and Kurdish youth are living together in same neighbourhoods, working in same places and/or attending the same universities. The other option, the one hoped for by the author of these sentences, is that the “Spirit of Gezi”, which meant solidarity between ordinary Kurdish and Turkish people bravely demanding change and freedom, is born again from its ashes.

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