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First Thoughts on the Elections in Turkey: A Roundtable

[Supporters at an HDP meeting, Istanbul, 30 May 2015. Image via Alfonso Ianniello /] [Supporters at an HDP meeting, Istanbul, 30 May 2015. Image via Alfonso Ianniello /]

On 7 June 2015, Turkey held a general election to elect the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly and form the Twenty-Fifth Parliament of Turkey. Those who have followed politics in Turkey have watched a tense, and even violent, political scene emerge over the past few weeks. The pre-election period was shaped by vehement election campaigns by the vying political parties, as they put forward their agendas. The period was also dominated by debates over the alleged unlawful use of public funds and state grants by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its own election campaigns; the state-affiliated media’s partial and biased representation of the AKP and of the opposition parties; and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s participation in the AKP’s election rallies, despite the fact that according to the Constitution, as President he was required to be impartial and equally distant from all political parties.

In addition to this vehemently unfair competition, one of the breaking stories during the pre-election process was a controversial clash between Turkey’s security forces and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the eastern province of Agri on 11 April, which strained ties between the ruling AKP government and opposition parties, particularly the Democratic People’s Party (HDP). The hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in May and the AKP’s accusations against Fethullah Gülen and his supporters of forming a “parallel structure,” a “state within a state” that was supposedly attempting to bring down Erdoğan’s government, added to the chaotic political landscape before the elections. The revelation by the newspaper Cumhuriyet of National Intelligence Organization (MIT) trucks carrying weaponry from Libya to Syria, and President Erdoğan’s subsequent accusations that branded journalist Can Dundar as a “traitor,” “terrorist,” and “spy” for exposing “state secrets,” increased the underlying tension, as well as helping to show the limits of press freedom in Turkey.

The last weeks of the election campaign were marked by increasing violence against the HDP. Given that the question of whether the HDP could cross the ten-percent electoral threshold in order to enter the Parliament was one of the main questions during the pre-election period, “unidentified” but allegedly state-affiliated and police-supported armed and arson attacks on HDP election offices and bureaus, lynching attempts against HPD members, the brutal murder of HDP election bus driver Hamdullah Oge in Karliova, Bingol, and finally two bomb attacks at the HDP’s Diyarbakir rally last week that resulted  in two deaths and hundreds of injuries, all raise questions about the lack of election safety and security on behalf of opposition parties, particularly Kurds and HDP supporters. The violence sharpened the tension between the ruling AKP and the Kurdish-problem focused HDP.

Given this tense political scene, the results of the 7 June general election need a quick explanation for a wider audience who try to follow Turkey’s politics but may have trouble articulating a response because of the ever-changing political developments. So I asked several contributors—students and activists, as well as members of the Jadaliyya Turkey Page Editorial Team—to help Jadaliyya readers begin to formulate an understanding of the election results. Although more articulated analyses will follow in the coming days, we believe in the importance of a quick roundtable discussion in order to capture some of the evolving issues of this political moment. To follow these events on a more regular basis, see the many resources collected in our weekly Turkey Media Roundup.

Cihan Tekay

What does the HDP's win mean for the left in Turkey? Some historical-contextual notes may be in order.

Turkey's parliamentary political representation has been plagued by a ten-percent threshold since the 1980 coup d'etat. For the post-1980 socialist and Kurdish left, this barrier offered two choices: run independent candidates under the banner of a united platform and form party groups once in the parliament; or remain under the threshold and conduct politics elsewhere. The threshold, while it kept significant portions of the population unrepresented in national politics, did force the left to work towards putting aside factional/ideological differences and unite their forces throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, two successful bloc campaigns were carried out during the 2007 and 2011 general elections. Thus, this “bloc” method served the left well for two terms, taking advantage of the five to six percent of the vote that would have otherwise remained under the threshold, and carrying candidates into parliamentary politics.

However, the ten-percent threshold (together with the d'Hondt method) created a winner-takes-all system, which tipped the scales significantly in favor of the party getting the greatest majority of votes, an advantage that could not be overcome by the bloc of independent candidates method. Until the major win of the AKP in 2002, no political party had been able to gather enough votes to fully take advantage of this system. The AKP, emerging out of the Islamist movements of the 1990s and also laying claim to the tradition of the conservative right in Turkish politics—both of which had its own histories of being repressed by the secular-military state—was able to garner enough support to form a single-party majority government in 2002. Once in government, the AKP consolidated its power with a combination of economic liberalism, cronyism, and increasing political authoritarianism. In keeping with the right-wing populist tradition of its predecessors, the AKP has been able to appeal to the “masses” in Turkey and expand its scope by selectively giving concessions to the Kurdish minority population while simultaneously strengthening jingoistic Turkish nationalism (with Islamic undertones and an Ottoman revivalist streak). Once in power, the AKP’s demilitarization of politics, its bid to change the 1982 constitution generated by the military coup, and its initiation of peace process negotiations to potentially end the thirty-year long war garnered it strategic support not only from the right but also from some sections of the left, causing much debate, confusion, and finger-pointing among the left to this day.

The 1980 coup d'etat struck brutal blows to the socialist and Kurdish left.[1] The unions, closely tied to the political parties, never quite recovered, with most of the militant unionism of the 1970s being replaced by bureaucratic facades. Although some of the bans imposed by the coup d'etat were lifted with a referendum in 1987, the 1990s continued to be brutal for most of these movements, especially in Kurdish areas. Village burnings, torture, targeting of civilians, states of emergency, and forced disappearances were commonplace, while a war ensued between the Turkish military and Kurdish guerillas.[2] Color televisions and other commodities became more commonplace after the structural adjustment measures following the coup, enabling new types of mass communication and contact with abroad. A large number of people could now watch the war and the parliament on television, bringing Turkey's engagement with politics to a whole new level. The war was now in our living rooms, animated by heart-wrenching images of wailing mothers hugging coffins wrapped with Turkish flags and of the young parliamentarian Leyla Zana being booed off the stand by a room full of male politicians of diverse political belongings while she recited the words, “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people” in her native Kurdish in 1991.

Meanwhile, another war ensued between the former secular elite and the rising Islamist movements that were fighting their political battles both in parliament and in the streets. We witnessed women in headscarves being forcefully detained as they protested their exclusion from the university campuses based on their dress. The coup had brought both a rise in right-wing and conservative politics, which put the country's integration to global capitalism on track, and a strong commitment to the core-foundational principles of the state: preserving the illusion of an ethnically homogeneous unitary state at all costs, with an inflexible interpretation of secularism conceived in its French form, laicité. The 1997 military memorandum left many Islamists imprisoned, further victimizing their politicians and voter base.

Meanwhile, the feminist and LGBTQI movements, which had been steadily growing since the late 1980s and which favored local, grassroots organizing over parliamentary politics, eventually started to find themselves a place in electoral politics, initially within the two independent blocs and most recently and prominently within the HDP in its current incarnation. In addition, anarchists who have been declaring their conscientious objection in protest of the war and militarism have also lent support, including prominent objector Halil Savda. In the most recent general elections, as they had previously in local elections, the HDP ran non-Muslim candidates, including Assyrians and Armenians, two minority populations that have been historically subject to massacres and genocide. A construction worker who was an HDP candidate in the Black Sea region (among other worker candidates) was widely featured in the media, as the Turkish electoral public is unaccustomed to candidate lists that are not primarily made up of lawyers. The list goes on.

A celebration is long overdue. That said, after a long-winded election campaign that required the concentrated, collective energy of many, let us take a moment to contemplate the issues that might have been overlooked in the meantime. For me, these include, but are not limited to, the tens of thousands strong autonomous strikes spearheaded by metal workers in Bursa and spread to other industrial towns such as İzmit, as well as the growing refugee issue, especially considering the fact that over two million refugees, who have been residing in the country and sharing our political reality, do not have a vote in the accompanying political system in any way. As we say in the streets: “Bu daha başlangıç, mücadeleye devam!” (This is only the beginning, let's continue the struggle!).

[Cihan Tekay is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center; her research interests include technology, modernity and citizenship in the early Republican Era. She is Co-Editor of the Turkey Page.]

Elif Sarı

The 2015 general election resulted in four political parties’ entry into the Parliament. The ruling AKP won 40.8 percent of the vote and entered the Parliament with 258 deputies. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), won 24.9 percent of the vote and secured 132 seats in the Parliament, while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) got 16.2 percent of the vote and has eighty deputies. Finally, the HDP won 13.2 percent of the vote and entered the Parliament with eighty deputies.

So although the ruling AKP has won Turkey's parliamentary polls, it decreased its vote and lost its single-party government. It is perhaps the first and biggest defeat for the AKP during its thirteen years in power. The decrease in the AKP’s vote can be linked to its voters’ discontent with corruption and bribery allegations against the AKP government and in-party struggles that were triggered by President Erdoğan’s interference into party politics, as well the ongoing struggle between the AKP and the Gülenist movement. Additionally, the decrease in support can also be read as voters’ rejection of Erdoğan’s plans for extra presidential power, his increasing authoritarian tendencies, and his intolerance for all dissent.

For me, the biggest victory of the 2015 election belongs to the HDP, as it overcame Turkey’s notoriously high (ten percent) electoral barrier, which aims at making entry into Parliament difficult, if not impossible, for new and/or less-supported parties. Having easily cleared the ten percent barrier, the HDP is now in a position to derail Erdoğan’s plans to change Turkey’s political regime to a presidential system. More importantly, the HDP’s crossing the electoral threshold deserves celebration since it challenged the anti-democratic tendencies of Turkey’s electoral system, which was coded in the Constitution by the military regime after the 1980 military coup. It should be noted that Turkey is still governed by a constitution that is a by-product of this military coup, and that the HPD’s presence in the Parliament now constitutes a hope, since one of its aims is to re-write the Constitution.

I believe that having the HPD in Parliament will change the dark, hateful, and male politics of Turkey. Indeed, it already brought a new phase into politics by making joy, humor, and hope part of its election campaign. I am extremely happy and proud that thirty-one out of eighty HDP deputies are women, and both the HPD and the CHP promised to support and struggle for LGBTQI rights. Indeed, not only the HDP but also the other parties contributed to create a new, a more diverse and promising Parliament during the 2015 election. For the first time in Turkey’s history, three Armenian deputies, Garo Paylan from the HDP and Markar Esayan and Selina Ozuzun from the AKP; two Yezidi deputies, Felaknas Uca and Ali Atalan from the HDP; one Assyrian deputy, Erol Doya from the HDP; and one Roma deputy, Ozcan Purcu from the CHP, will be in the Parliament.

Beside its many other significances, the HDP’s presence in the Parliament also constitutes hope for facing Turkey’s dark history, including the “unidentified” murders and assassinations, mass graves, and evacuated Kurdish villages of the 1990s. It gives me hope for bringing justice for the Roboski Massacre, where thirty-four civilians, most of whom were children, were bombed to death, and the Soma Massacre, where 301 mine workers died because of a lack of job safety and security. The HDP has already taken a step towards bringing recognition and justice to some of these past events by having Ferhat Encu, who lost eleven of his relatives in the Roboski Massacre, as a deputy in the Parliament. Similarly, the presence of HDP deputy Huda Kaya, who faced severe punishment and remained imprisoned with her daughters for advocating women’s right to wear headscarves in public spaces and institutions during the 1990s, also shows the HPD’s attempt to face the history of oppression of different groups.

The election campaigns of both the CHP and the HPD also mentioned male violence in Turkey. In particular, the HPD’s and Kurdish women and feminist movement’s successes at organizing and transforming politics make all of us hopeful about eliminating legal impunity in gender and sexuality-based crimes, and bringing equality and freedom for women by women.

[Elif Sarı is a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, borders, immigration, asylum, displacement, law, and violence in the Middle East. She is Co-Editor of the Turkey Page, as well a co-editor of the Turkey Media Roundup.]

Mustafa Emin Büyükcoşkun

The majority government of the AKP, which ended on the morning of 8 June, provided an important contribution to the political atmosphere in Turkey; it transformed Islam into an organic constituent of daily politics and social life, and legitimized it in the eyes of different social segments, ranging from the very secular to the very fundamentalist. In other words, doing politics in Turkey became impossible without considering and taking into account Islam and Muslims. During the election campaigns, we followed the traces of this phenomenon. The struggle between the AKP and the HDP took place within the realm of religion to a great extent, since the AKP translated the HDP’s promise of reforming the Diyanet (Religious Affairs Institution) into a Cold War, anti-communist dialect of “enmity of Islam.” Instead of defending its “New Humanity” manifesto, the HDP had to prove that it is not an “enemy of Islam.”

On morning of 8 June, members of parliament who come from different traditions and elements of the Turkish Islamist movement including from the most radical ones, according to their biographies and politics, are present under the roof of the HDP. It is projected that at least one million votes out of the six million won by the HDP in fact came from AKP voters—in other words, from conservative Islamist Kurds. The co-president of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, expressed his gratitude in his speech after elections to the Med-Zehra, whose leader, İzzettin Yıldırım, was tortured and assassinated by the state-supported Kurdish Islamist paramilitary group Hizbollah, as well as to Nu Bihar and Öze Dönüş Platformu. All this gratitude represents the fact that the HDP is a democratic mass party that is not allied just with the socialist and left-wing sections of Turkish society, but also with proto-democratic elements of the Turkish Islamist movement.

The fiasco of the AKP, the shift of the CHP from Kemalist nationalism towards the HDP, thus to the left, and the donning by the HDP of a much more leftist and pluralist character instead of a nationalist one has brought the Turkish Islamist movement to a new threshold. The HDP, with its language cleared of radical positivism, its inclusive understanding of secularism, and most importantly, its understanding of religion, recognizing all oppressed people and lining up with them not unlike an Islamic Liberation theology, have very serious parallelisms with the fundamental demands and promises of Islamist politics. Apparently not just Islamist Kurds but also a limited number of new Islamist youth organizations, Islamist syndicates, human rights associations, and civil platforms from western Turkey have shown sympathy towards the HDP; this may seem very minor in quantity, but it has an important effect upon the political scene. Now the present question is: how will the Turkish Islamist movement, which is absorbed and articulated into the hegemonic body of the AKP and thus has erased its political difference from conservative right-wing politics in the past three years, answer to these new politics of the HDP, which offer the principles of another kind of Islamism?

[Mustafa Emin Büyükcoşkun studied History and Sociology at Bogazici University. He is a filmmaker and a member of Emek ve Adalet Platformu (Labor and Justice Platform).]

Cemile Gizem Dincer and Esra Ozban

We have been drowning in a collective joy since we learned that the HDP crossed the ten-percent threshold. Leaving aside our questions about the parliamentary system, it is the first time in our lives that we feel excited about an election’s results. This is the pride and joy of having a political party entering the Parliament with the most progressive election manifesto in which we could find something about us: women, feminists, LGBTQI individuals, and migrant rights activists. Seeing that the HPD crossed the threshold with an election manifesto that proposes a diverse agenda, including the employment of women and LGBTQI individuals, gender training, and the fight against discrimination, hate crimes, and racism, and knowing that our fellow comrades with whom we have been fighting and resisting together will be in the Parliament, is a feeling beyond words. With thirty-one women HDP deputies, including feminist activists, finally “we will be in Parliament.”

The HPD’s election manifesto also differed from other political parties’ manifestos that render invisible the migrants and their problems, and even worse, exacerbate a racist and xenophobic language. During the pre-election period, the CHP was unblushingly and constantly pledging to deport “our beloved Syrian siblings” back home, while the MHP was focusing on “the cost of Syrian refugees to Turkey’s economy,” blaming Syrian refugees for increasing the crime and unemployment rate in the border cities of Turkey. In the meantime, the AKP was discussing how the “benevolent state” opened up its doors to Syrian refugees, who were described by the AKP as “guests.” This language not only triggers racism and xenophobia, but also prevents the implication of rights-based politics by making refugee rights contingent upon a state’s benevolence. 

The HDP is the only party talking about the possibility of granting citizenship to migrants and refugees in Turkey. Its election manifesto also promises the implementation of anti-racist policies, and lifting the geographical limitation to the 1951 Geneva Convention. Its mention of the right to live and the right to work as basic and indispensable human rights makes us hopeful about extending our struggle from the streets to the Parliament. As we have been saying for years, with thanks to the Gezi Resistance for coining the slogan, “Bu daha başlangıç, mücadeleye devam!” (This is only the beginning, let's continue the struggle!).

[Cemile Gizem Dincer is a PhD student in sociology at Middle Eastern Technical University and a member of Migrants Solidarity Network/Ankara (Gocmen Dayanisma Agi/Ankara). Esra Ozban is a member of Pink Life LGBTQI Association and programmer and co-coordinator of Pink Life QueerFest.]

Özge Kelekçi

Coming from a radical leftist background, it is not only extraordinary but also unique for me being a part of the circulation of joy amongst millions of people. I strongly realize that I do not have any proper song that captures me after this major victory of the HDP. Not only songs: I do not even have the proper language to articulate my, or our, feelings. I think what the HPD has done in the 2015 general elections, before anything else, is to create a fundamental change in our political tradition through its practices and discourses based on a radical challenge to what has been defined as politics in Turkey.

The potentials of politics do not come with strict and predefined sets of probabilities; the language of potential realized in the HDP’s election results is a way to read how all oppressed dissents of Turkey may come together and communicate with each other. The HDP’s emergence as a potential to accumulate “all state of exceptions” including the LGBTI movement, Alevis, Islamists, Gezi protestors—all those who resist preoccupied, predefined politics—has proved itself to be a power field against the fascistic tendencies of the AKP regime. This power field, established not solely through parliamentary and representation-based politics but also through street-based, grassroots politics, and existentially defined via resistance through both historical and up-to-date memories of struggle, must now conduct and imagine its own language, its own sentiments, and its own reality.

[Özge Kelekçi is a graduate student in philosophy at Boğaziçi University.]

Nicholas Glastonbury

In their statement on the evening of 7 June, as the election results were being finalized, co-presidents of the HDP Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş stated to a crowded salon that the HDP’s entrance into parliament was a collective victory for all of the marginalized and othered peoples of Turkey. Most of all, though, they stressed that the HDP’s victory was a victory for women. In fact, out of the HDP’s eight members of parliament for the upcoming term, thirty-two of them (forty percent) are women, a ratio much higher than any other party (less than sixteen percent from the AKP, less than seventeen percent from the CHP, and five percent from the MHP). While Yüksekdağ stressed that forty percent is still not a sufficient ratio for women’s representation, the HDP’s “victory for women” is nonetheless built into the very structure of the party.

The HDP takes equal representation of men and women as its primary organizing principle; this is true not only for the co-presidency of Yüksekdağ and Demirtaş or the national electoral campaign, but also in their local politics as well. The co-presidency system operates on the municipal level and also structured the local campaign organizations. In Sultanbeyli, for example, a district of Istanbul where I spent the election day as an independent observer on behalf of the HDP, I met the co-presidents of the party’s district branch, Kifayet Yılmaz and Rüstem Kandilci. Both presidents, along with the voters I spoke to at various polling stations, underscored the critical role that women and women’s activism played in building the HDP from the ground up.

The active participation of women in the HDP is not an anomaly. The co-presidency system has been a fixture of Kurdish political parties since the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, or DTP) was founded in 2005. Women have played an important role in the Kurdish freedom movement since the emergence and rise of the PKK in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The writings of the PKK and of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, lay out a political vision predicated on the emancipation of women and the destruction of patriarchy as essential to the liberation of Kurdistan. In addition to participating in the Kurdish freedom movement as a whole, Kurdish women and Kurdish feminists have developed spaces, such as the Congress of Free Women (Kongra Jinên Azad), independent from men, where they are able to organize themselves and develop the course of their political struggles; the Kurdish freedom movement and the HDP take their lessons and cultivate their political positions accordingly. The popular protest slogan “jin, jîyan, azadî” (women, life, freedom) comes out of this long tradition of robust Kurdish feminism. And, as Yüksekdağ and Demirtaş left the stage on 7 June, the audience in the salon chanted this slogan in unison—at once a celebration and a mandate for the HDP to transform the face of Turkish and Kurdish politics.

[Nicholas Glastonbury is a freelance translator, editor, and independent scholar interested in gender, sexuality, law, historiography, and Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. He is a co-editor of the Turkey Media Roundup.]


[1] For exact numbers see: Rakamlarla 12 Eylul (Turkish).

[2] For more on this, see Eric Avebury, "Turkey's Kurdish Policy in the Nineties."

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