Op-Eds Stories from Kurdistan

Kurdish Leader in Turkey Says ‘Democracy At Stake’

The article below originally appeared in Newsweek on March 10, 2016. The article was written by Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of Turkey’s third-largest political party, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

In Diyarbakir, where I am on this mild February winter day, I have been hearing the sounds of gunfire and artillery for hours. I wonder how many people could have died today. We are supposedly a candidate country for the European Union but it is impossible to tell that from the tanks that are firing inside our cities and round-the-clock curfews lasting weeks at a time.

We occasionally have an international delegation that takes an interest in the plight of the Kurds. But generally speaking, all that Europeans want to talk about is the refugee crisis and all that Americans want to focus on is the fight against ISIS. Understanding that both are serious problems and pose an existential threat for the world order, it is difficult for us Kurds in Turkey to understand why our own tragic predicament, intricately related to both issues, is ignored by the world.

Push for Democratic Reforms

The fact is, a real war has been simmering in the Kurdish settlements of Turkey since the middle of the summer, when peace talks between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) suddenly broke down. With that, our push for democratic reforms in the face of the increasingly despotic rule of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered a large setback.

The solution and peace process, which began with the initiative of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, now under severe isolation in prison, gave us all partial breathing space. We still had a lot to do, but we were well on our way to achieving lasting Turkish-Kurdish peace.

My party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), founded in 2012, is a product of this peace. Although borne out of the Kurdish movement in 2012, HDP was never designed to only serve Kurds, instead believing that only Turks and Kurds working together, arm in arm, could salvage Turkey’s crippled democracy.

Surveying the Middle East, with populations forced to choose between ISIS and despots, and we knew what the panacea would be. In an increasingly suffocating regime, it was clear no solo exit existed. The only salvation lay in a pluralist democratic model with secular credentials, stronger local and autonomous governments enforcing the expansion of individual and collective rights.

HDP: Future of Turkey

With that vision, and with a progressive agenda that not only emphasized but reflected our commitment to diversity, gender-equality, and class struggle within all levels of the party structure, we gained unprecedented 13 percent win. Our appeal was so broad we didn’t only have a women’s quota: indeed we had tickets made up of one man-one woman lists. We had Armenians, Yezidis, Arabs, Assyrians, workers, academics, young people, teachers and human rights activists on our ticket. On our campaign films, we danced arm in arm, men and women, Turks and Kurds, and sang songs for peace. Our 6 million citizens came out and voted for that vision.

Supporters of Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, HDP, wave a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, top right, as he addresses an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, May 30, 2015. Turkey will hold general election on June 7, 2015 and approximately 56 million Turkish voters are eligible to cast their ballots to elect the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Supporters of Selahattin Demirtas wave a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, top right, as he addresses an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, May 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

We knew we were the future of Turkey. But what we did not know was how much they yearned for the past.

Our victory in June elections alone denied the ruling nationalist/sectarian party its 13-year single party reign. From there we became the enemy to be defeated at all costs. President Erdogan craftily blocked the formation of a coalition government, declared us “terrorists” immediately after the elections, ended the peace process entirely and took the people back to the horrors of civil war from the 90s.

We were on the receiving end of ISIS terrorism (our Mersin offices were bombed, and we lost 133 people in the Ankara and Suruç suicide bomb attacks) yet we were treated as terrorists. Turkey, under the cover of joining the anti-ISIS coalition, started bombing PKK targets. The real aim of course was to consolidate the nationalist vote for the November snap elections. It worked.

“Erdogan Had Reasons to Panic”

Of course Erdogan had reasons to panic. As a new party, we had entered the parliament in June with 80 parliamentarians and were determined to challenge his authoritarianism and unconstitutional use of presidential powers.

Not only that, our commitment to ethnic diversity and feminism was ideologically at odds with AKP’s sectarian, male-dominated style. During peace talks with imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, Turkish officials asked him: “What does the women’s issue have to do with the Kurdish peace process?” Where to begin? We are so far apart from AKP’s mentality. They had no understanding that our struggle demands equality for all—not just Kurds, but all.

The costly war has been ripping through Kurdish cities and destroying the very concept of our unity. Nearly 400 civilians, hundreds of Turkish security forces and an unknown number of Kurdish militants have lost their lives. Erdogan managed to get his party’s vote from 40 to 50 percent within months, but at the cost of ravaging the country.

Turkey’s president is unwilling to return to the negotiating table and he has now turned his gaze to the Syrian Kurds.

Our sisters and brothers across the border wage a heroic struggle against a dark apocalyptic cult and have made major gains with the help of the international community.

You would think that Turkey would want to have a Kurdish buffer zone on its southern borders to stave off terrorists and jihadists—but quite the opposite. The PYD’s gains in Syria have created a sense of panic in Ankara that the previous ISIS takeover of that region had not. As Turkey shot down all the border crossings with PYD, Erdogan declared the group “terrorists”—although not a single bullet had been fired from the Syrian Kurds side.

Turkey on Fire

For the past few weeks, Ankara shelled Kurdish positions in Syria while artillery was destroying our towns inside Turkey. We want the 24-hour curfews and the violence inside Turkey to stop before things get out of control. We have repeatedly been calling on both sides to stop the fighting. The space for democratic political opposition for Kurds is narrowing and this is exactly what the government wants to see.

Despite efforts to prosecute our parliamentarians, including myself; despite the arrest or dismissal of our elected officials; despite the Turkish media blackout on our party imposed since July, many democrats in Turkey continue to stand with us in our struggle for peace. But the world fails to notice.

[To read more visit Newsweek]


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