Middle East Eye talks to Ertugrul Kurkcu, the former head of the HDP
Last June, a new political party passed the constitutional vote threshold needed to enter Turkey's parliament.
The People's Democratic Party (HDP) was an interloper in Turkey's conservative political system. A coalition of the Kurdish rights movement, left-wing radicals and women's rights activists, the party's deputies were seated next to the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Kemalist centrists of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the religious conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The path that led the HDP to parliament was a rocky one, troubled by repression from the Turkish state and infighting within the movement. Since entering the assembly room there has been little time for celebration. A vicious war raging in the mainly Kurdish southeast has severely damaged the party's image in the country’s west, and an election re-run in November almost saw the party lose its hard-won parliamentary position just a few months after gaining it.
Now, the Turkish government is attempting to strip the party leadership, including its head, Selahattin Demirtas, of parliamentary immunity so its members can be prosecuted on terrorism charges.
Middle East Eye met with Ertugrul Kurkcu, the first head and current honorary chair of HDP, on his way to a conference on rebuilding his party.
He may have been the first leader of an overtly Kurdish party, but Kurkcu is a left-wing revolutionary from the 1968 protest movement, rather than a Kurdish activist.
A former president of the radical left youth movement Dev-Genc, Kurkcu was sentenced to death in 1972 by Turkey's then military government for his part in a plot to take two NATO technicians hostage and bargain for the release of his fellow revolutionary comrades. His sentence was subsequently commuted, but he spent 14 years imprisoned under a martial conviction, time he spent translating works of Karl Marx into Turkish.
“There's a long history of cooperation between the left and the Kurdish movement in Turkey,” Kurkcu told MEE in the lounge of a popular restaurant in Istanbul. “In fact, HDP was in many ways a project to bring together disparate opposition groups and form a critical mass.”
A campaigning platform
The idea of a national, but Kurdish-based, political party was conceived by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and spiritual head of the Kurdish liberation movement not only in Turkey but also in Syria, Iran and Iraq, who has been imprisoned on the island of Imrali since 1999.
At his suggestion, a congress was formed of Turkish leftists, ecological activists, women's activists, minority groups and the Kurdish left. At the time, they didn't believe they could compete in elections, but that they could still campaign on important issues.
Highly unusual for a major Turkish political movement – and the party that would follow – the congress supported not only women's equality but also LGBT rights. While the matter remains a point of contention inside HDP, many of whose core voters are socially conservative, the policy has helped the party's international image.
“It was a considerable success. For the first time in Turkish history, Turks and Kurds had set up cooperative organisations even in Western cities,” Kurkcu said.
There were still major schisms between the groups involved, and politically the country was about to close up.
“It was a troubling time. There were major clashes between the PKK and the military in the Silvan (Turkey) countryside. And after August 2011 the government vowed to end the PKK and the environment became very difficult,” he said.
The government did not tolerate a growing opposition block, and the movement endured a crackdown on its activists. Thousands were arrested in 2011 and 2012, and by 2013 the number of detentions reached 9,000.
But the congress survived, and by 2013 the national mood had changed. Talks began between the government and the PKK and a ceasefire came into effect. Suddenly there was space again for opposition parties.
The group reinvigorated the idea of forming a proper political party, HDP, and planned to bring it fully into the political arena. “If the state was willing to do this in a civilised way, so was the Kurdish and leftist movement,” Kurkcu said.
Kurkcu was suggested as a potential leader for the party by Ocalan and was elected at a gathering in October 2013.
In 2014, the movement faced an important tactical decision. Local elections were coming and they had to decide whether to run as a party for the first time, or to field candidates as individuals. In the end, the leadership decided to keep building HDP's capacities and to run as a coalition.
The birth of a party
This was the real birth of HDP as a coherent party. The already established Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) would run as a local party in the Kurdistan region, but HDP would be the movement's national face, designed to be acceptable to metropolitan western Turkey.
This was an attempt to solve the problem of the disconnect between the western, urban radicals and the Kurdish revolutionaries, but ultimately the inconsistencies in the movement weakened it. The BDP/HDP coalition managed 7 percent of the vote, not enough to break into parliament as a full, coherent party.
After the elections, Ocalan called on the Kurdish deputies to resign from BDP and join HDP, but traditional Kurdish politicians still had trouble accepting the party as a Kurdish party with non-Kurds at the helm.
“The party needed a leader who was an outspoken Kurdish politician, not an old Turkish revolutionary. I understood this, these things are important: Kurdish people had to see that the party was theirs,” Kurkcu said.
Kurkcu stepped aside and was replaced by Selahattin Demirtas, with Figen Yuksekdag as his co-chair. “The new chairs were welcomed very strongly by the Kurdish population; their scepticism was overcome by moving me aside.”
What role for the PKK?
In Turkey the extent of HDP's links with the PKK has been subject of much conjecture and confusion. Both on the pro-government side and among supporters of HDP the issue is still debated, often tensely.
“The fact is the PKK welcomed the idea very strongly from the start,” Kurkcu said. “They nurtured the party, like a plant delicately grown. It isn't understood outside of the Kurdistan region just how much a part of the liberation movement the organisation is: It was they who convinced the traditional Kurdish tribal chieftains to change positions on a party.”
Kurkcu adds that at the time the government, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was praising the Kurdish movement for all this. The idea of a Kurdish party had gained ground in western Turkey, even among Turkish nationalists, as a way out of the brutal conflict.
“There were peace talks, Kurds felt for the first time relieved of pressure, and Demirtas very well formulated the language of the new period,” Kurkcu said.
The meaning of Demirtas
The Gezi Park protests and their suppression by the state's security forces, also had a great impact in shifting political debate and media presentation of the HDP. When presidential elections came later in 2014, Demirtas ran for HDP and exceeded expectations.
“Demirtas was a new face with new ideas. He gained the hearts and minds of many. For the first time a Kurdish political figure almost reached 10 percent of the vote. But Erdogan and AKP still didn't take it seriously. HDP was still supposed to be a fringe phenomenon they could use as a way to get out of the conflict with the PKK.
“They couldn't grasp the meaning of Demirtas.”
Meanwhile, in Syria, the Islamic State (IS) was expanding its territory and began a siege on the Kurdish city of Kobane. When Erdogan initially refused to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters leave to travel to the city to help, Turkey's Kurdish population was angered.
“At that moment, many Kurds decided Erdogan was not on their side. In Cizre, Yuksekova, even Istanbul, cities fell into rioting: they took over the offices of local governorates. It took the state allowing a special letter to be issued by Ocalan to calm people.”
For many, Kobane was a breaking point in what had previously been solid Kurdish support for AKP because of the willingness to enter peace talks. Support for HDP snowballed, even among conservative Kurds.
When parliamentary elections came last June, HDP surpassed the expectations of even its most optimistic supporters, winning 13 percent of the vote and causing AKP to lose its majority. This put Erdogan's central plan for a new constitution on hold.
“AKP had believed that no matter what the Kurds were conservative and pro-Erdogan, now they saw they had been wrong,” Kurkcu said. “For Erdogan this was a disaster; it meant the whole world was falling down.”
‘Now it was war’
“They instantly began attacking the party – thousands of HDP activists were arrested directly after the elections: now it was war,” Kurkcu said. “Government-sponsored mobs targeted 400 HDP offices in one night. This was when it became clear. It was a kind of Kristallnacht.”
The leadership of HDP fell into confusion, fluctuating between calling for a coalition government and new elections. Having been swept up in optimism they had failed to see what the consequences of victory might be.
At the same time, mass casualty attacks began to occur at HDP rallies. In Suruc, Diyarbakir, and even Ankara, Islamist militants killed scores. The Turkish army then bombed PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains on the border between Turkey and Iraq.
“We were unable to keep the mass movement going. We were under attack by suicide bombers, state-hired thugs, the media, everything.”
Erdogan announced new elections would be held in November, but HDP was hamstrung in its ability to campaign.
The party suspended all plans for public rallies, and Demirtas demured from appearing on television. “It was as if we were half way between fighting the election on the AKP's terms and boycotting,” Kurkcu said.
Little space now
The state played its hand more aggressively, and to better effect, Kurkcu concedes.
“Erdogan used everything at his disposal: force, money, the intelligence services, street gangs, everything – they even blamed the massacres of HDP members on HDP and the PKK. They started a full-scale war in the southeast, what did we do? We responded with the occasional speech.”
In the end HDP lost 1 million votes at the November election re-run. Kurkcu believes the party is now living the consequences of its failure to plan for victory.
“Erdogan and the nationalists decided on the night of the election, when HDP entered parliament, that this was a fatal fight: that the fight against the PKK and even against the Kurdish movement was to be a fatal one.”
“We were self-assured. We had fantasies of peace. We should have seen our entering the parliamentary building would have provoked a massive response from AKP. We failed.”
In southeast Turkey, where HDP has its power base, a bloody war continues. The party seems to be a far cry from the optimistic force of late 2014, and is more out of step with Turkish public opinion. In December, when tensions between Russia and Turkey peaked after Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane that violated its airspace, HDP sent a delegation to visit Moscow.
If the party's deputies are stripped of their legal immunity, MPs may even face trial. But despite the current troubles, Kurkcu has reserved some optimism.
“At this point they could liquidate the party tomorrow. But if they did then another would take its place. Even Erdogan can't put a wedge between the Kurdish people and the PKK, let alone the Kurdish rights movement.”
HDP, so long as it exists, is a remarkable outlier not only in the context of Turkish politics and history, but also that of the whole region. Nowhere else is there a political party of such weight running on a platform of economic justice, gender equality, and national liberation.
The party has tried to balance itself as an outlet for solidarity for the Kurdish rights movement, but in a way that is acceptable to the urban elite in the country's west. For a short time it seemed to have found the right balance. Now it is teetering on the edge of a fall.