Turkey on a knife edge as elections loom

The article below, by SSK committee member Sarah Glynn, was published in the National on Friday. We now know the results of the election, but we hope that this can still provide useful background.

HDP supporters in Istanbul watch Dermitas's address from prison
HDP supporters in Istanbul watch Dermitas’s address from prison

Turkey on a knife-edge as elections loom

‘OUR country has reached a crucial crossroads … If you chose to vote for the AKP and Erdogan … the destiny of 81 million will be entirely at the mercy of one person.”

This warning against impending dictatorship comes from a rare appearance of presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas on Turkish state television. But Dermitas doesn’t only suffer from lack of air time. Like many other leading members of his People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and a great many other people who have criticised the Turkish government, he is shut away in prison awaiting trial.

Sunday’s Turkish election – for both parliament and president – was called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate his power. His instrumental approach to democracy was already clear in his 1996 comment that “democracy is like a tram ride: when you reach your stop, you get off.”

However, in the early years of his prime ministership, which lasted from 2003 until he became president in 2014, the Western world regarded him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model of “moderate” Islamic democracy. He made moves towards progressive reform, including lifting some of the restrictions on Kurdish cultural expression and starting peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but actual achievements were limited; and the AKP soon became increasingly authoritarian and anti-secular. In 2013, popular frustration at what was happening expressed itself on the streets of Istanbul, catalysed by the protests against the urban development of Gezi Park.

Dermitas’s HDP was formed in 2012, bringing together the campaign for Kurdish rights with other progressive and left movements, including those that came to the fore in the Gezi Park protests. Their participation in the June 2015 general election drew international interest. In the Turkish system, a party can only win parliamentary seats if it gets more than 10% of the popular vote. If it falls below that threshold then all votes given to its candidates are discounted. The HDP confounded expectations to win 13.1% of the vote, which translated into 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament and deprived the AKP of its majority.

Their resulting optimism didn’t last long. Erdogan had planned to bring in constitutional changes to increase his presidential powers, but now his AKP couldn’t even put together a government. He renewed attacks on the PKK and their sympathisers in acts of collective punishment that reduced Kurdish towns to rubble and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians; and he called another election for November. The HDP had already suffered violent attacks and bombings before the June election, for which they held the government indirectly responsible. This time hundreds of party members were arrested, and the violence was even more widespread. Their Ankara headquarters was attacked and set on fire by a mob of 500-600 people, and the bombing of a peace rally left more than 100 people dead. Some voters were frightened away. The HDP inched past the threshold with 10.8% of the vote and kept 59 MPs. The right-wing opposition also lost seats and the AKP got their overall majority.

The failed coup attempt in July 2016 provided Erdogan with an excuse to clamp down on his opponents. Although he accused his former political ally Fethullah Gulen of instigating the coup, the ensuing purge has not been limited to Gulen’s followers. It has decimated Turkish political and civil society and fallen particularly hard on the Kurds. Nine HDP MPs and 60 elected mayors from their sister party were in prison for the whole of 2017-18. Since the coup attempt, 152,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs (including 5800 academics), 139,000 people have been detained and 79,000 have been arrested (including 319 journalists).

The AKP’s parliamentary majority enabled them to hold a referendum for granting much greater power to the president, which took place in April 2017. The changes just scraped through on 51.4% of the vote, despite campaigning restrictions imposed by the post-coup state of emergency, the acceptance of unsealed ballots, and accusations of fraud. The new powers will be put into effect after Sunday.

Of course Turkish government oppression hasn’t been restricted to Turkey’s borders. There has been considerable evidence of Turkish support for Daesh fighters in Syria, Turkey has directly invaded Syria to restrict Kurdish control and effect major and violent displacement of Kurdish civilians, and they are currently attacking Qandil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s unprovoked war against the predominantly Kurdish Syrian region of Afrin, at the beginning of this year, provided the focus for jingoistic religious nationalism, and served as a distraction from internal economic woes.

Which leads us to Sunday’s snap election. Elections weren’t scheduled to take place until November 2019, but in April, Erdogan announced the new date. He clearly hopes to benefit from the war bounce – though it was hardly the swift victory he had promised – and he probably considered that the worsening economy would only have caused him to lose more votes the longer he waited. He may also have calculated on wrong-footing a divided opposition, though opposition parties have now formed an unlikely alliance.

A recent law change allows parties to compete as groups, allowing smaller parties to evade the 10% rule, and the parliamentary elections are now being contested by two groups and the non-allied HDP. The ruling AKP is allied with the ultra right-wing Nationalist Movelment Party (MHP). Their main opposition is an alliance made up of the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), who follow in the tradition of revolutionary Kemal Ataturk; the Good Party, led by an MHP dissident, and a small conservative Islamic party. Any hopes for a more left-wing voice depend on the unallied HDP passing the 10% line, but they could be helped in this by tactical voters who see this as the best hope for depriving Erdogan’s AKP of a majority. The opposition parties are each standing their own presidential candidates, and here pragmatic (though far from progressive) opposition hopes depend on the CHP candidate making it through to a second round and bringing together the anti-Erdogan vote.

For citizens of Turkey living in Scotland, the campaigning and (first round) voting is already over. They could cast their vote at the Turkish consulate in Edinburgh, which must have been intimidating for some, and impossible for anyone who had come here to seek refuge from the Turkish state. There have been a lot of campaign events, and although loyalties are fairly entrenched, the importance of the election has produced a record turnout for ex-patriot voters everywhere of 49%. In Edinburgh the turnout was 47% – 1804 people. Of course the turnout in Turkey will be much higher.

However, emergency regulations continue to ensure that this election is taking place on a far from level playing field, and recent rule changes have compounded this further. Security concerns have been used as an excuse to move polling stations away from HDP majority areas, and to place state security forces near the ballot boxes; and unsealed ballots will again be accepted. As if this was not enough to cause concern, leaked videos purport to show Erdogan instructing party workers on how to rig the ballot boxes to keep the HDP vote below 10%.

If, despite these precautions, Erdogan and the AKP fail to win the power they crave, they will not go quietly. Recent events in Suruc demonstrate the potential for violence. When a shopkeeper refused to show support for the AKP candidate, the candidate’s retinue started a fight. The candidate’s brother was fatally wounded and the shopkeeper’s three sons were all hurt. Two of the sons and their father were later lynched by the candidate’s relatives inside the hospital. The Turkish press attempted to report this as a PKK attack.

Whatever happens on Sunday, there are difficult times ahead.

 

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