Turkey gets a taste for European-style radicalism ahead of election

HDP supporters gear up for the vote. EPA/Ulas Yunus Tosun

The election taking place in Turkey on June 7 is an important turning point for the country’s political system. A central issue in this contest is whether more power should be transferred from the Turkish parliament to the president – as is hoped by incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Standing against Erdoğan’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) is a new party called the HDP (People’s Democracy Party). This was formed out of a collection of 36 once independent members of parliament.

What is the HDP?

The HDP has emerged as a radical democratic project, built on the foundations laid by pro-Kurdish political parties (from HEP to the BDP). It seeks to challenge the established order, aiming to radically transform the AKP’s neo-liberal and conservative understanding of democracy with a so-called passive revolution. For many, it is Turkey’s equivalent to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos political parties and social movements.

The HDP manifesto for the parliamentary election calls for bringing humanity back into politics. There is a strong emphasis on equal rights for women, LGBT people and workers and on social security for all. There are plans to increase the minimum wage, tackle youth unemployment and provide everyone with a basic package of free water and electricity. The party also emphasises free healthcare and education as well as peace – including by ending trade embargoes against Armenia.

When it comes to the EU, the HDP says it would pursue full membership “within the scope of our principles” – suggesting that like Syriza in Greece, the party has some scepticism about neo-liberal aspects of the union by offering an alternative EU project.

Significantly, the party would also shift the state away from religion and promote freedom of belief, ending the requirement for all children to have a religious education and abolishing the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs – the body the oversees the practice of Islam in Turkey.

The HDP also has bold ideas about Kurdistan. Turkish politics has, for 30 years, been characterised by the battle between the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) and the Turkish armed forces. Over this time, 40,000 people have died and three million have been displaced as the PKK fought for a separate, “free” Kurdistan.

The HDP’s view is that Kurdish rights are more likely to be achieved by radically reforming Turkish democracy. It wants to decentralise Turkish politics, setting up regional assemblies to ensure that all “ethnic identities” have the right to self governance.

A transnational movement

The rise of the HDP comes as the radical left is sweeping to power elsewhere in Europe, seeking to give a voice to the voiceless. The best known is of course Syriza in Greece, which won the February 2015 election by offering an alternative to established politics.

Most recently, in Spain, left-wing collective Podemos won 15 seats in Andalusia’s regional parliament – its first serious election since it secured five seats in the European parliament and joined the European new left. Podemos has its roots in protest movements and later became connected to anti-austerity social movements.

The HDP has links with these groups and is continuing the transnational trend on the periphery of the EU. Yiannas Bournous, a member of Syriza’s central committee, attended the HDP’s election rally in İzmir a few weeks before polling day and a Syriza delegation visited Kobanê in 2014 to show the party’s support for the Kurds there.

On top of its political heritage, the HDP also has links with the serhıldan (the Kurdish intifada), Kurdish street movement and the more recent, Occupy Gezi movement.

Like its European counterparts, the HDP is seeking to bring greater democratic power to citizens, giving them a greater say in the issues that affect them, from the environment, individual rights such as abortion and employment security.

Selahattin Demirtas. EPA/Sedat Suna

Then there is young, charismatic co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş – who won 9.8% of the votes cast in Turkey’s presidential election of August 2014. He has been compared to Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

Demirtaş is popular among not only his own party but many groups who feel ostracised by the Turkish political structure, which is dominated by the centre right and centre left – from Alevis, Christians and Jews to ethnic minorities such as Georgians, Arabs, Turkmens, Albanians and Lazs.

Even as Turkey seeks to emulate the EU by evolving into a modern, neo-liberal society, these groups are often the most excluded and alienated members of society. They do not have a particularly high public profile and are not represented by the mainstream parties.

The HDP has thrived by building an allegiance between the Kurdish movement and other social and political democratic forces struggling against this exclusion.

Just as Syriza and Podemos have appealed to the people who feel forgotten by their governments, the HDP is doing the same through offering a new model of life with a radical plural democratic political project.

Success may be harder for this new player though. It stands little chance of getting into government but if it can pass the (extremely high) election threshold of 10% of the national vote, it can win a place in parliament and begin to have an influence over the democratic direction of the country.

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