As the HDP have gained ground, they have also faced mounting challenges. The party’s representatives and offices have frequently been the target of violent attacks throughout the election campaigns. In addition, the peace process which had succeeded in achieving a ceasefire in Turkey’s southeast ground to a halt in 2014, after an escalation of violence in the region. The refugee flow from neighbouring Syria and a series of violent attacks claimed by ISIS across Turkey have further strained the political climate in the country – where democratic, press and academic freedoms are already fragile.
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, was in Ankara as for the party’s annual Congress and shared her report with us.
Getting the story out
Addressing a sympathetic audience of politicians and diplomats in Ankara on Sunday night, Selahttin Demirtas, leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey had a simple plea: make sure the story gets out. The story he was talking about is the treatment by the state of predominately Kurdish communities in the southeast of Turkey that have been subject to what are somewhat euphemistically known as “curfews” since the ceasefire with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) broke down.
Mr Demirtas spoke about an ongoing situation – that morning he’d been speaking to members of a household, a civilian household, numbering more than 20, in the basement of a house hit by a canon shell. They were trapped: many were injured; two had already died from their wounds. As I write, the latest report has 23 dead.
Mr Demirtas said: “States can only maintain human rights violations while the international community remains silent. We want to hear international criticism of the government’s violence. Human rights are values of us all. Nobody should remain silent. If we cannot stand equally against all violations of human rights, then those rights are being failed.”
Persecuted for calling for peace
The situation in south east Turkey has been highlighted by a petition signed by more than 1,000 Turkish academics, calling for a peaceful settlement to the “Kurdish problem”. Yet those academics have themselves been subjected to persecution, arrested, questioned, sacked – a situation that has provoked a strong response from the international academic community.
There are, of course, other issues in Turkey, notably the existence (on the latest UNHCR figures) of more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey (and 250,000 refugees from other “countries of concern”, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia).
It is to the tremendous credit of the Turkish people (and following them, the Turkish state) that these people have been able to find housing and in many cases work – the rules allowing refugees to work have recently been loosened.
One close observer of the situation said to me that the Turkish people understood these people had no option of returning home, and while they were feeling the economic strain, there had been remarkably little conflict and a great deal of acceptance.
One can only wish for similar understanding across the European Union.
Nonetheless, that admirable treatment of refugees, particularly from Syria, is no excuse for human rights abuses against the Turkish state’s citizens, and the state’s repression of democratic, peaceful, political expression.
Rebecca Harms, German Green MEP and co-president of the Green/EFA Alliance in the European Parliament, expressed her respect and support for the HDP – whose Congress we’d both attended earlier in the day – a Congress that was remarkable for its democratic nature and evident passion for peace and democracy.
“Kurdish mothers are not able to carry home the bodies of their dead children, but I am really impressed that today you stand as leaders of a party determined to stick to the path of peace.
Mr Demirtas had said, reflecting on the activities of the PKK, “We cannot support violence of any kind.”
The HDP is an alliance – it numbers the Turkish Greens among it – that, while often simplistically described as Kurdish, represents many of the most progressive forces in Turkish society, including some of those involved in the Gezi Park uprising in Istanbul.
Kurds in Turkey: between a rock and a hard place
The Kurdish minority in Turkey in recent decades has been the victim of repression on a massive scale – publications, education in the Kurdish language – after they were left by the colonial Sykes-Picot agreement as “the largest nation without a state”.
In January the HDP youth wing’s offices were raided by the government, and a visiting academic commented to me, after saying how impressive the Congress was, that it was particularly notable given that any member of it could be arrested at any time – even though the HDP won 10% of the vote in two elections last year, giving it a significant number of MPs in parliament.
Turkey is a critically important state to the future of Europe, the future of the Middle East. Its state policies have helped to fuel the rise of ISIS, driven in part by a desire to handicap the Kurdish Syrian forces that have proved the most effective military bulwark against the hideous terrorist group.
Failing to provide support for human rights and being unconditionally supportive of repressive, human rights-abusing regimes because they were our “friends” has helped to create the disastrous situation now across much of the Middle East and North Africa today.
Turkey is not yet in the class of Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya or the Shah’s Iran (let alone the human rights-defying Saudi Arabia), but it is in all of our interests – and in the interests of all of the peoples of Turkey – for democracy and human rights to be supported in the strongest possible diplomatic terms, for the state of President Erdogan to be told that it is expected to be a beacon of human rights and a bulwark against ISIS.
That demands a peaceful, fair, fully democratic state. It requires that the democratic party that won more than 10% of the vote in two elections last year, that has explicitly disavowed violence and celebrates democracy to be allowed to operate peacefully.