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HDP honorary president: 'Impossible' that constitution referendum will be fair

Veteran Turkish leftist Ertugrul Kurkcu says political situation in Turkey is 'worse' than he has ever seen it
Ertugrul Kurkcu of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) takes his oath in the Turkish parliament in 2011 (AFP)

Most people who faced the kinds of political struggles that Ertugrul Kurkcu has dealt with over his lifetime might consider taking up a different profession. The veteran leftist spent 14 years in jail - originally a death sentence commuted following a 1974 amnesty - after taking up arms following Turkey's second military coup in 1971, taking hostage three British NATO technicians and calling for the release of a number of imprisoned leftists on death row.

Following the abduction, Turkish special forces found Kurkcu and nine other young people in the village of Kizildere in Tokat province. During the ensuing bombardment, all the inhabitants were killed, apart from Kurkcu.

Despite living through several military dictatorships and periods of intense political violence, Kurkcu is unequivocal.

“I can say it is [now] worse, much worse - in those times, those days, you knew what the rules were and you knew what would happen when you broke the laws,” he told Middle East Eye. “Those who resorted to arms or underground struggle were assured that there was going to be something when they did breach martial law orders.

“Even under martial law, military courts under military commanders had their guidelines, had their laws, everybody knew what can happen to you when you do something.

“Now, under Erdogan’s dictatorship, the judges are inventing laws,” he said. “You may have heard, two guys were arrested from their houses for ‘offending state officials’. There is no such law in Turkish civil law.

“A judge himself is now inventing laws on his desk, police officers are chasing people without any legal warrant in their hands and of course people are losing their lives in many instances, even without having resorted to violence.

“This is the first time in Turkey’s history that everything is unpredictable.”

Unlike much of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), often referred to as a pro-Kurdish party, Kurkcu is an ethnic Turk, albeit one supportive of Kurdish social and political rights.

Like many veteran Turkish political figures, Kurkcu’s political education came at a time when armed militants, including Islamists, ultra-nationalists and Marxist-Leninists fought for control of university campuses, and when the next military coup was always just around the corner.

The rise to power of the Justice and Development party (AKP) and its charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was supposed to hail the end of the age of coups and the military’s influence in politics. This coincided with calls for the ultra-nationalistic Turkish constitution, enshrined following the 1982 military coup, to be reformed to allow greater rights for Turkey’s minorities and increase democratic accountability.

But the recent package of constitutional reforms currently making its way through the Turkish parliament is far from the kind of progress that Kurkcu and his allies wanted to see.

“All of Turkey’s democrats, socialists, liberals who are for a lawful state, human rights, the basic principles of ordinary democracy, were trying to reform or scrap the former constitution we inherited from the military dictatorship times,” he said.

“But now we have come to such a moment that even that constitution is much more in line with standard parliamentarism than Erdogan’s present amendments to the existing constitution.”

The proposed changes will create an executive presidency for the first time in modern Turkey.

The president will have the power to appoint and fire ministers and supreme court judges, effectively ending separation of powers, while the post of prime minister will be abolished, instead leaving a vice president, or possibly several.

Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) MP Ertugrul Kurkcu (3rd L) and protesters run away as Turkish police officers use tear gas to disperse the crowd (AFP)

Perhaps most critically for its opponents, the constitution will allow a president three five-year terms. Because Erdogan's current period in office will not count as one of those, he could potentially remain in power until 2034.

“None of the Ottoman sultans had such a great amount of power in their own hands - at least they believed that they were sharing power with God, so they were afraid of God,” remarked Kurkcu.

“Erdogan is afraid of no-one.”

Campaigning 'impossible'

Following the parliament's approval of the various articles in the Turkish constitution bill - which will inevitably pass with the support of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) - the new package of amendments will be put to the country for a referendum.

Despite repeated election victories for the AKP and Erdogan, previous opinion polls have continuously indicated a lack of popular support for the executive presidency system. An IPSOS poll released in May 2016 put public support for the change at only 36 percent.

"If your hands are tied, if your channels of expression are liquidated, TV companies are closed, newspapers are banned, journalists are in prison - what other channel is left for people to express their opinions?"

Following the failed 15 July coup, support for Erdogan - even among people who may previously have never dreamed of voting for him - skyrocketed. Many observers have suggested this indicates that the outcome of the referendum is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, Hakan Bayrakci, president of the SONAR polling company, told the Aydinlik daily newspaper that polls still suggested less than a majority of people backed the change.

“There was a certain increase in support for Erdogan following the coup attempt on 15 July, but the highest support for an executive presidency is around 42-43 percent," he told the paper.

"Although there is support for Erdogan, there is not sufficient support for an executive presidency. Fifty-six percent of voters are against a presidential system."

READ: Turkey's politics of hypocrisy

Even the staunchly pro-government Daily Sabah cited polls showing only 32.5 percent of people backing the presidential system, with 52.7 percent still backing the present parliamentary system.

But few deny that the "No" camp will have a hard time campaigning for its position, due both to the strength of support for the president and to the continuing instability in the country. The ongoing violence and curfews in the heartland of the HDP's support base in the southeast, as well as the arrest and imprisonment of many MPs, will further increase the challenge for "No" campaigners.

"It is impossible," Kurkcu said.

"Look at the matter from our point of view - our co-chairs and altogether 11 deputies are in prison now under an arbitrary decision made by judges under pressure from the government, whose parliamentary immunity was lifted in an unconstitutional way - and now we are going to campaign for our position? Can we? Is there a guarantee that our other deputies are not going to be imprisoned?

"Five thousand members and branch office leaders have been imprisoned since last year. Under those conditions, how can the HDP say it can explain its particular position to the Turkish voters?"

Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Sebahat Tuncel (2nd R), Mersin MP Ertugrul Kurkcu (L), and Istanbul MP Sirri Sureyya Onder (AFP)

"Who is going to guarantee us a fair election when there are no checks and balances?"

Turkey's southeast has been engulfed in violence between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state. According to data accumulated by the International Crisis Group, at least 2,495 people have been killed since the ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015.

While the HDP has repeatedly stressed its commitment to non-violence and condemned both the actions of the Turkish military and armed Kurdish militants, the party has found itself targeted for "promoting terror," and its supporters and politicians have been arrested en masse. In addition, Islamists and ultra-nationalist groups have attacked party officials and offices across the country.

The violence and state pressure the party has faced has made many of its supporters wary of public campaigning in the current climate, fearing intimidation. In addition, scores of critical journalists are currently languishing in jail while swaths of the opposition media - particularly those expressing leftist or pro-Kurdish positions - have been shut down, for alleged links either with the PKK or with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government blames for the 15 July coup.

'Bloodiest times'

Most worrying from Kurkcu's perspective is that, left with no alternatives, the country's opposition could turn away from the ballot box and pick up the AK47 - much like he did after the military intervention in 1971.

"I am very much concerned that the referendum campaign process, this period, could become one of the bloodiest times that Turkey has passed through," he said. "Not because, as Erdogan says, the terrorists are trying to terrorise the country, but because Erdogan and others are leaving no other avenue but violence for people to express their opposition."

'Everything has been blown up and I don’t think we can go back in time now. So we should stop Erdogan now and then we can find other ways and means.'

"If your hands are tied, if your channels of expression are liquidated, TV companies are closed, newspapers are banned, journalists are in prison - what other channel is left for people to express their opinions?"

For years, constitutional change had been the primary goal of Kurdish political activists and their allies. Looking forward from the 80s, a period when even speaking Kurdish in public could lead to a jail sentence and all but the most low-key left-wing organisations faced restrictions or outright bans, it might have seemed strange that today's activists would be so fiercely resisting the current attempts to rework the much-criticised document.

But with violence still spiralling out of control, opposition politicians facing jail time and ethnic and religious tensions spilling over, the current debate must seem like a disappointment.

Kurkcu cited the peace process in Colombia - where the government signed peace accords with FARC rebels in November 2016 - as an example of what could have happened in Turkey, had it not taken the current path.

“We could have ourselves created a new model of making peace," he said. "However, everything has been blown up and I don’t think we can go back in time. So we should stop Erdogan now and then we can find other ways and means."

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