Free the HDP

One year ago today, Erdoğan’s government jailed the leaders of the HDP. It's time to build an international campaign for their release.

An HDP demonstration in Diyarbakır, Turkey in June 2015. Dogan Ucar / Flickr

On November 4, 2016, members of parliament from the Turkish opposition were rounded up in a series of nighttime raids as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government made its long-anticipated move against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The previous year the HDP — a party formed by Kurdish and leftist groups — had twice embarrassed the Erdoğan government, polling over five million in successive elections to establish themselves as a serious force in parliament. July 2016’s failed coup provided a pretext to deal with this problem. The party was criminalized in a crackdown which, one year on, sees nine MPs, eighty-five mayors, and around eight thousand HDP activists in Turkish prisons.

In April, the AKP government narrowly won a referendum granting sweeping powers to President Erdoğan. The HDP — whose ascent to 13 percent in June 2015’s election had at first denied Erdoğan a parliamentary majority — will bear much of the brunt of this more effective repressive apparatus.

The party has been one of the few points of hope in an increasingly authoritarian and reactionary Turkey, forging an alliance of Kurds and Turks on a democratic, socialist, and feminist program. Its leaders have been imprisoned for the crime of putting these politics to the people in an election. So why hasn’t there been more of an international outcry?

What Is the HDP?

The HDP was established in 2012, bringing together a broad coalition of Turkish and Kurdish left organizations including the Peace and Democracy Party, Green-Left, and Socialist Party of the Oppressed. It was born from the People’s Democracy Congress, whose participants also included labor unions such as the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey.

From its inception the party attempted to build a bridge to overcome the Turkish-Kurdish divide. It tested its electoral program for the first time in the 2014 local elections and presidential election, where its candidate and party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş polled nearly 10 percent of the national vote.

During the 2014 presidential campaign, Demirtaş made a point of appealing beyond the Kurdish vote. “You are not only Turkish or Kurdish,” he said, “not solely Armenian, Arab, Circassian, Georgian, or Bosniak. You are all of them. You are not only Alevi, Sunni, Syriac, or Yazidi. You are not solely Jewish, Hebrew, or Christian. You are all.”

During a campaign characterized by large rallies and a broadening base of support, HDP deputy chairwoman Haltice Altinisik summed up the party’s approach to pluralism: “Please remember — even if we are perceived to be a pro-Kurdish party, we are also pro-women, pro-Alevi, pro-Christian, pro-Muslim, and pro-peace. When you listen to Demirtaş, I believe you hear he is in support of the working class, the oppressed. So being a Kurd is just one of the identities. We aim to unite the Left in Turkey.”

The party, led by Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, puts forward a reformist but transformative program including support for workers’ rights in a context where trade unions are regularly repressed and workplace conditions are often unsafe. It argues for a new constitution in Turkey to democratize the country, give representation and rights to its minorities, and impose safeguards against authoritarianism.

Against the conservative, theocratic, and often racist political tendencies dominating in Turkey, the HDP embraces a politics that defends the marginalized. In particular, it stands out in foregrounding women’s liberation and ensures gender parity wherever possible, with each position requiring a male and female member.

The party’s support is based mainly in the south and east, the majority-Kurdish areas, reflecting its stance on minority rights as well as support for a peaceful and democratic resolution to the Kurdish question. Its electoral success is terrifying for Erdoğan and the Turkish state precisely because it gives an overwhelming democratic mandate to a party seeking autonomy and self-determination for Kurds. This is particularly the case because Selahattin Demirtaş, a skillful orator, was able to articulate to ethnic Turks why a just resolution to the Kurdish question was so important.

Analysis of the HDP’s breakthrough June 2015 election result showed significant support from the youth in Turkey, with a third of HDP’s votes coming from the eighteen to twenty-eight age group and more than half of first-time voters backing the party. While there was a high level of support for the HDP in working-class districts of Istanbul, the party also performed strongly in some of the more affluent areas.

In the months between the June and November elections, the HDP faced two huge tragedies. In July, the SGDF, the youth wing of the party co-founded by Yüksekdağ, the Socialist Party of the Oppressed, was attacked by an ISIS suicide bomber in Suruç while on their way to assist with the reconstruction of Kobane across the border, the city which had been besieged by ISIS. Thirty-three young people were killed and 104 injured. Then, in October, a peace rally in Ankara called by the HDP was again targeted by ISIS in dual suicide bombs, this time killing 109 and injuring over 500.

Despite these attacks, and the continual discourse attempting to associate the HDP with terrorism, they still achieved enough votes in the November elections to give them seats in parliament (although the AKP regained their majority). Their continued presence in parliament was an intolerable threat to the AKP and the Turkish establishment more generally, necessitating a plan to undermine them. The government by this stage was engaged in forceful military activity in the country’s southeast and was making spurious allegations of association between the HDP and the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.

The following June, the Turkish parliament voted for a bill to lift prosecution immunity for MPs. This move, passed with support from the Kemalist opposition party, the CHP, paved the way for the arrests of the HDP politicians.

The charges against its leaders included “managing a terrorist organization,” “making terrorist propaganda,” “inciting violence,” and “violating the law of demonstrations and gatherings.” The evidence was mostly gathered from public political speeches made prior to their election (and the removal of parliamentary immunity, which itself is unconstitutional).

The ongoing state of emergency, meanwhile, has allowed the government to undermine due process during the trials, including restrictions on who is permitted to attend the hearings.

HDP on Trial

The next hearings in the trials of Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ take place at the start of December. In September, an international delegation of observers travelled to Ankara for the first formal hearing of Yüksekdağ’s trial (there had been a pre-trial hearing in June). They were prohibited from entering the court, as were all but twenty members of the public.

Under such conditions, Yüksekdağ refused to attend herself, stating that if she couldn’t address the public then she had no intention of addressing the court. Predictably, Erdoğan accused the international delegation of aiding and abetting terrorists by coming to Turkey to observe the trial.

The French delegation brought a letter of solidarity from the leader of France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélénchon. But, apart from a handful of statements, meaningful solidarity with the HDP has been hard to find in the west.

This can partly be explained by the lack of mainstream media focus on the HDP. The only British newspaper that covered Yüksekdağ’s trial — one of the most important trials in recent Turkish history — was the Morning Star. Not only did the Guardian fail to cover the trial, but they’ve not even mentioned Yüksekdağ’s name since 2016. They did, however, have space to publish an op-ed by Erdoğan in July entitled “Turkey, a year after the attempted coup, is defending democratic values.”

Erdoğan’s stranglehold over free speech in Turkey extends beyond its borders. The government has agreements with social media giants such as Facebook and YouTube who accede to Turkey’s demand to censor posts and pages that are pro-Kurdish, including those based outside of Turkey. There are also diplomatic sensitivities that contribute to a reluctance by elected politicians to speak out: Turkey has the second biggest standing army in NATO.

Geopolitical trade and financial concerns often override democratic concerns in the case of Turkey. The lucrative refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey goes some way to explaining its lackadaisical attitude toward the arbitrary imprisonment of elected politicians on Europe’s doorstep.

Erdoğan himself is a shrewd political operator, courting both the US and Russia, who are desperate to keep Turkey in their respective spheres of influence. It is no coincidence that British prime minister Theresa May went straight from visiting US president Donald Trump last January to Turkey, where she brokered a £100 million arms deal.

The lack of progress in resolving the Kurdish question will have major consequences for the stability of the region. Turkey’s continual incursions into Syria and its attacks on the Kurdish canton of Afrin will no doubt escalate and spill over the Turkish border. Now that the Kurdish-led forces have defeated ISIS in their capital of Raqqa, the greatest threat to the Kurds in Syria is Turkey. As long as President Erdoğan–buffered by his NATO allies–can act with impunity, sponsoring jihadists in Syria and carrying out military attacks on the Kurds, there can be no peace.

Given the importance of the HDP’s struggle not only to the international left and to democracy but to peace in a region devastated by imperial conflict, the need to step up solidarity efforts is clear. A year after its leading figures were imprisoned, it is time to build the campaign to win their freedom.