Interview with Devriş Çimen, European representative of the HDP in Europe, on the Turkish presidential election
by Laura Sestini
On May 14, Turkey goes to the first round of voting to elect its President and and 600 deputies for the Grand National Assembly – the Turkish Parliament. The two main contenders are the outgoing president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, of the Republican People’s Party – CHP – at the head of the coalition “The table of six”, and supported by the Green Left coalition, Yeşil Sol Parti, of which the Pro-Kurdish Party HDP is the majority political group.
Polls report a drop in support for Erdoğan, but if none of the candidates reaches 50+1% of the vote in the first round, the top two candidates will go to the runoff on May 28. Meanwhile, Muharrem Ince, one of the four presidential contenders, withdrew three days before the elections due to an alleged pornographic video, and the accusation that he received money to disrupt the electoral campaign of Kılıçdaroğlu, which the politician denied in a press conference. Sinan Oğan of the far right Nationalist Movement Party remains in the running.
The electoral round is crucial for Turkey, gripped by a strong economic crisis to which is added the disaster of the earthquake of 6 February. Eyes are on Erdoğan and the future of his political career.
On the Turkish elections we spoke with Devriş Çimen, European representative of the HDP in Europe.
Over the past 20 years Erdoğan’s AKP party has secured its power through violence against opposition parties, and justifications for the arrests and detentions of hundreds of thousands of people, for example after the alleged 2016 coup. It is still possible to call the Turkish political order a Republic?
Devriş Çimen: – A republic is a form of governance in which supreme power is exercised by persons elected for a specified period by the people or their representatives. Turkey is far from that. Erdoğan’s method of governing went as far as it could go within the limits of a state republic in 2011, when he guaranteed his AKP party almost 50% of the vote. To consolidate his power, he has tried to weaponize the most significant issue facing Turkey today – that is, he has weaponised rather than attempting to solve the enduring Kurdish issue, which has developed since the foundation of the republic.. Between 2013 and 2015, he did conduct negotiations with representatives of the Kurdish freedom movement, but only for short-term, tactical reasons. The country’s fundamental problems can only be solved by opening up space for the democratic process to be observed. On the contrary, following the elections of 7 June 2015, when the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 13.1% of the vote for the first time with 80 elected members of parliament, ending Erdoğan’s autocracy, Erdoğan annulled the results and repeated the elections 5 months later. The negotiations came to an end, and a resumption of war was announced. Erdoğan transformed the weak democracy that existed at the time into an authoritarian regime. Since then, there is a form of government like that experienced by the Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein, where discrimination, exclusion and violence are part of everyday life. Erdoğan controls all state institutions and uses this control against his opponents, especially the Kurds and the HDP.
Why did Turkish citizens continue to trust the AKP in the majority throughout this long period? For fear of change? Or because they love the “strong man” in power? It is right to call the Turkish people as conservative?
D.Ç.: – The fundamental problem underlying Turkish society is the question of Turkishness. They are afraid that democracy will weaken Turkishness, and Erdoğan therefore addresses the fears of the Turks. Turkish education and the way Turks are brought up means everyone is taught that the country is surrounded by enemies (meaning the neighboring countries and the West) and that in the country itself lurk traitors who want to divide it, particularly meaning the Kurds, the Armenians, the Asyrians, the Alevis and other minorities, as well as leftists. And so the list goes on. The idea of the country, and the notion it offers the possibility of democratic participation for all people, are both drilled into people’s heads by fear-mongering from school onward. Nationalism and racism shape education and thus people’s lives, creating a uniquely Turkish conservatism. We don’t even need to talk about or give examples of the effects of religiosity and sexism. People are polarized, forced to deny their respective ethnic identities and forced to accept the Turkish ethnicity, which covers less than half of people living in Turkey. All this anti-democratic coercion and nationalism, which often takes the form of naked racism, is offered to political cover and promoted by the Constitution of the Turkish Republic.
Why do Turkish citizens living in Europe also vote for Erdoğan and his party? Isn’t that a contradiction, considering that many have fled Turkey due to the economic crisis, social persecution or authoritarianism?
D.Ç.: – It is a curious phenomenon that people who live and work in what is, compared to Turkey, a democratic framework, want authoritarianism to continue in their country of origin. A bitter and painful phenomenon. Just as I mentioned earlier, the fear and the resulting trauma occasioned by the idea that Turkishness could be weakened, causes some of the diaspora to vote for Erdoğan. The politically-persecuted abroad nonetheless vote for parties which persecute others at home. Others support the continuation of the miserable policies of oppression, exclusion, discrimination and patriarchy which have characterised Erdogan’s rule. To properly understand this contradictory approach, social science could conduct in-depth investigation, but the question has much to do with historical and cultural fears and phobias – namely the fear of democracy, of others being able to exercise their rights. So, we have these Turks who exercise democratic rights in European countries, but don’t want others, especially Kurds, Alevis, and other minority peoples, to exercise their rights in Turkey. If, for example, the Kurds had the same rights in their homeland that the Turks can exercise here in Europe as migrants, many problems would already be solved. But on the contrary, in order that the Kurds and others who are not Turks do not manage to achieve their basic rights, the democratic process is blocked.
How much influence does Islamic religious rhetoric, with its social rules, bind and support current politics in Türkiye?
D.Ç.: – Historically, and thus politically, Turkey politics has been divided into a Kemalist (secular) nationalist current and an Islamist nationalist (religious) current. The Islamic and conservative current was largely marginalized and ostracized until Erdoğan came to power in 2002. Since then, this religious current has gained the upper hand. The numerous military coups in Turkey thus have much to do with the conflict two currents. A third current, the democratic current, which is what the country needs, however, has been fought and excluded by both sides. Erdoğan can appeal to and mobilize a certain base by deploying Islamic-conservative and nationalist rhetoric. To this base he is trying to say something like, if the Kemalist nationalist current and the democratic current – whose vanguard is the HDP and the Kurds – take over the government, they will restrict your own rights. He presents the Kurds and their demand for basic rights and democracy as though they were an enemy. In this way, he can convince a certain part of society to support him by fighting others, thus spreading fear. His Islamist propaganda and pragmatic political approach together have kept him afloat thus far.
Nationalism in Türkiye is a very strong feeling. Is this the only reason why one of the main public enemies is the Kurdish community and its (democratic) political perspective, and especially the HDP party which they are trying to shut down?
D.Ç.: – We may talk about the Kurds – but officially they do not exist in Turkey! A population group that does not officially exist can also be fought with all sorts of unofficial means of violence, which has been the case for decades. The Kurds’ demands for cultural and political rights are reduced to a security issue, and thus the Kurds become criminalized and targeted as an enemy within. Already anti-democratic laws are bolstered by an arbitrary and deeply problematic anti-terror law that leads to massive human rights violations and breaches of international law. Therefore, it is not wrong to say that the Kurds are opposed to what one German thinker calls a Feindstrafrecht (or “Criminal Law of the Enemy”), namely a legal concept which denies them any protection under the law. All the country’s resources have been put at the service of the war against the Kurds, both in Turkey itself and in cross-border assaults against neighbouring Syria and Iraq. At the international level, however, these constant violations of international law have generated little serious political, diplomatic, or legal opposition. The HDP and all others who stand up for democracy are systematically fought in an anti-democratic way, up to the present situation where the HDP faces an imminent and outright ban on its political activities. Considering that no less than six political parties that previously represented the political tradition of the HDP have been banned so far, one can see how the state operates in a consistently anti-democratic fashion. Taking into account these consistent bans on the HDP and its predecessor parties, we can see how the Turkish nation-state and Turkish nationalism operate anti-democratically. However, the demand for freedom articulated by the Kurds and the HDP is not limited to a certain part of society, but applies to the whole of Turkey. Violence, oppression, repression and war therefore constitute an attractive strategy for Erdoğan, as opposed to finding a democratic solution.
If opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will win the election, what could be Erdoğan’s reaction? Will he point to fraudulent elections? The same that happened with the mayor of Istanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu in 2019, ordering to go back to the vote?
D.Ç.: – The most important aspect of electoral fraud has already been put in place by Erdoğan before the elections, when he forced the HDP into a position where they were unable to participate in the election through the political ban he is seeking through the courts. This has meant the HDP is forced to submit its candidates via another, smaller, party, the Green Left Party. Even in these circumstances, the idea of the HDP will play its role. If Erdoğan loses, his myth will be over and it will be a turning point for Turkey. This turning point can be used by the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu to lead Turkey toward democracy. This is also the reason why the HDP and democratic opposition are supporting Kiliçdaroğlu. We want to see a democratic Turkey not only for the benefit of Turks – or a certain political constituency among the Turks – but a democratic homeland for all. We especially seek a future where women participate and lead in all aspects of life. We want to see a democratic country for Turks, Kurds, Asyrians, Armenians, Arabs, Circassians, the Laz, Muslims, Alevis, Christians and Yezidis where these minorities are also officially recognized. This requires the political will to solve the problems, recognition of and dialogue with all social groups and finally a new democratic Constitution that should also include all of the aforementioned groups. So there is a long way to go, but everything to play for. Erdoğan can and will do anything to stay in power. He has a wealth of state resources and institutions at his disposal.
What might be the reactions of Erdoğan’s foreign partners, Russia, Iran and others, if he loses leadership of Turkey?
D.Ç.: – Erdoğan’s authoritarian approach was a useful tool for his international partners. If you look at Erdoğan’s friends, you quickly see that they are not democrats. Other international partners, such as the EU with its refugee deal, or Sweden and Finland with the deal they reached allowing them to join NATO, perceive him as a useful ally in some aspects and therefore choose to overlook his authoritarianism, while benefiting from it on issues such as the control of refugee flows into Europe. Many similar approaches by various international powers have nipped the possible democratization of the country in the bud. If we assume, however, that Erdoğan will be voted out of office, the mostly strained international relations that he has so far enforced through blackmail could normalize over time.
If Erdoğan is instead reconfirmed as president, how will Turkey’s future evolve?
D.Ç.: – Let us hope that the voters, despite being manipulated by his strong nationalist-Islamic rethoric, will act with reason and not re-elect him. If he is re-elected as president, the people will punish themselves even more, and guarantee themselves an even more anti-democratic future. But Turkey has experienced all kinds of politics in its hundred-year history: Kemalism, Islamism, coups, military dictatorship, and finally authoritarianism. The only thing that has not been tried is democracy. Whether now or in the years to come, Turkey must overcome its fears and dare to be democratic. In this regard, the worldview of the HDP, i.e., the Green Left Party, and the broader political approach of Kurdish movement are the most important sources of inspiration. Whether the two opposing Islamist-nationalist and secular-nationalist currents want to seize power or not, we remain the most important force struggling for democracy and a true alternative in Turkey.
What will be the role of women in this fundamental electoral round?
D.Ç.: – Women have always had a limited space in Turkey’s history, where religion, culture and tradition played a certain role. Since Erdoğan has been in power, his patriarchal and Islamist politics have also tried to determine how women can participate in the public space. However, from the ranks of the HDP and its tradition, in which the Kurdish women’s liberation struggle plays an inspiring role, there are great efforts for an equal life. For this reason, our women comrades and thus our pioneers in parliamentary politics, such as former co-mayor of Diyarbakır, Gültan Kışınak, former co-chair of HDP, Figen Yüksedağ, former co-chair of HDP and recently of DBP – Peace and Democracy Party – Sebahat Tuncel, former parliamentarian Ayla Akat, and further thousands of politically active women are imprisoned as political prisoners. The role of politically active Kurdish women and the HDP has changed politics in Turkey to some extent. In and around the HDP, politics is strongly shaped by women. For example, in the HDP and its sphere of influence, there is a co-chair system – woman and man – in all decision-making bodies. And this democratises politics and thus public life. Even if the demands of the women of the majority society were not sufficiently taken into account in these elections, despite the efforts of the HDP and the Green Left Party, politically active women will shape the elections and thus the future. In this context, the foundation of what Kurdish women have built through great efforts is a great achievement and a lesson for society and politics in Turkey. This was visible during the election campaign and will be visible after the elections.
Saturday, 13th May – n°19/2023
On the cover: Yeşil Sol Parti during the presentation of the electoral manifesto – Photo: ©Halkların Demokratik Partisi – HDP
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