‘I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people,’ said Leyla Zana as she stood at the rostrum in the Turkish parliament in 1991, the first Kurdish female MP in the history of Turkey.
She said this in Kurdish, a language then still forbidden. It was an act of civil disobedience that made Leyla Zana the epitome of the resistance against Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish people. The mere sight of the red, yellow and green band in her hair, the colours of the Kurdish freedom fight, provoked the Turkish members of parliament, who expressed their anger by knocking incessantly on their desks.
It came as no surprise when, 3 years later, Leyla Zana was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of membership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed, armed Kurdish resistance movement. Once again, Turkey stifled the Kurdish voice.
Today, many argue that the status of the Kurds has improved significantly in the last 13 years, under the government of the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current president.
But while forced disappearances and assassinations are painful memories of the past, other violations of Kurdish rights continue under the guise of a progressive government, which has actually done little to relieve the pressure on Turkey to address the legitimate demands of the Kurdish people.
Superficial reforms, such as lifting the ban on the letters Q, W and X (used in Kurdish but not Turkish) and allowing the reversal of village names in the Kurdish region back to their original Kurdish names, are insufficient. Still, they have been accompanied by grand unveilings by top AKP officials calling Turkey ‘the most reformist country in Europe’.
One incident in particular clearly shows Turkey’s real lack of commitment to genuine peace talks with the Kurds: the Roboski Massacre. In December 2011, Turkish F16 jets bombed 34 civilian Kurds, half of them children, claiming they mistook them for PKK fighters and dismissing the massacre as ‘inevitable’ and a mere ‘error’. Almost 4 years later, the Kurdish community is still waiting for justice.
This 7 June, the pro-Kurdish and leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), founded in 2012, crossed the infamously high electoral threshold of 10% and won 80 seats in the Turkish parliament. It was a great risk that left not just voters in Turkey and the diaspora waiting with bated breath, but also onlookers: if the HDP had not managed to gather more than 10% of the votes, its seats would have gone to the AKP, a scenario dreaded by many.
The fear of President Erdogan using a major win to expand the authority of the presidency and exploit it for his own benefit led people who would not otherwise have voted for the HDP to cast their vote for the ‘radical’ party working for equality, women’s and minority rights – including LGBT rights.
The victory of the HDP was also the victory of the people. Just 2 days before the election, in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, 2 bombs exploded during an election rally for the HDP that killed 4 people and injured more than 100.
The tragedy underscored how the people’s struggle against the Turkish state had been marred by death for decades and how vital it was to have a political front in parliament representing the people suppressed by the state.
The HDP describes itself as an organization that ‘starts from the streets and develops into local assemblies in our neighbourhoods’, and it is truly that.
The party’s leaders are deeply engaged in their communities. They attend protests against injustice and visit in hospital the people injured during those protests. They attend funerals of people killed due to police brutality. They act as mediators on social issues and have always stood unwavering in their solidarity with the people.
The elected HDP members of parliament are both secular and religious candidates; Kurds, Alevis and Armenians; women and LGBT representatives, reflecting their closeness to the people.
A 25-year-old voter told Reuters that ‘the reason the HDP has won this many votes is because it has not excluded any members of this country, unlike our current rulers. It has embraced all languages, all ethnicities and members of all faiths and promised them freedom.’
The HDP’s voting results were not the only remarkable outcome of the election. A 29-year-old woman from Sanliurfa was elected to parliament for the HDP, bringing with her into the halls of Turkish democracy the name most hated by Turkish nationalists. Dilek Öcalan is the niece of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK founder who fought an armed battle against Turkey, in which 40,000 people were killed, from both sides.
Abdullah Öcalan is currently serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to have an Öcalan in parliament, let alone addressed with the Turkish honorific title of ‘sayin’ or ‘esteemed’.
She was elected alongside Ziya Pir, the nephew of another founder of the PKK, and they both took the parliamentary oath without the heckling that Leyla Zana had been subjected to 24 years earlier.
However, ascribing this change of public attitude to President Erdogan and the AKP and calling it a consequence of a brave step towards peace is a gross exaggeration. The improvement in Kurdish rights is more a result of time and Turkish international interests, rather than the AKP’s genuine interest in bettering the conditions of the Kurds.
One merely has to look at reports by independent human rights organizations pointing out the restrictions on freedom of speech, the political control of the media, threats aimed at journalists by government officials and the police brutality against civilians to see that the ‘welfare’ of the country is decided by the government, not by the people.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which still remains a controversial subject in Turkey, with the government steadfastly refusing to recognize it as genocide.
In the HDP, Armenians have found a platform they can use to inform the Turkish public and work to make the Turkish government acknowledge the genocide and issue an apology.
Garo Paylan, a founder of the HDP and the only one of the 3 Armenians elected to parliament to have won on an HDP ticket, recently said in an interview with Armenian Weekly: ‘Turkish citizens want the change – so they will vote for whoever speaks the new language for them. [...] This is why we have to struggle for LGBT rights, for the Armenians, the Kurds and the Alevis. We have to offer equality to every identity.’
With the AKP having failed to gather enough votes to continue its single-party-rule, it remains uncertain (at the time of writing) whether it will form a coalition government (and if so, with whom), or whether the president will have to call a new election.
President Erdogan and the AKP have failed to attract voters with their warnings of the possible existential threat that an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria, spanning most of the Turkish border, would pose for the territorial integrity and unity of Turkey.
It is a promising sign that people in Turkey have instead rallied behind the HDP and secured it a solid foundation from where it will empower the voice of the people, rather than the voice of President Erdogan.
In the face of the Turkish state’s continuing dismissal of Kurdish rights, the increasing restrictions on press freedom and the arbitrary police brutality at protests, the people have chosen to support a party that gives voice to those marginalized by the AKP government. One manifestation of this choice is in the seats occupied by two special people: Ziya Pir and Dilek Öcalan.