Published by The Pasewan on the November 9, 2015

The author was an elections observer in Turkey on 7 June and 1 November 2015

Tear gas and water cannon, fired against angry Kurdish youth, marked the end of the 1 November elections in Amed (Dyarbakir), in stark contrast to the heady celebrations that followed the 7 June polls. This time the results were disappointing for the pro-Kurd HDP, which lost more than a million votes and 21 parliamentary seats while, against expectations, the ruling AKP got more than 4 million extra votes and regained its parliamentary majority. Fundamentally both elections were not really about parliament, but the powers of Turkey’s president. Recep Tayyip Erdogan craves more power and has masterminded a shockingly effective campaign to secure it.

Bullet holes on the front of the Fatih Pasha Mosque, Sur
Bullet holes on a room inside the Fatih Pasha Mosque, Sur
Bullet holes inside the Fatih Pasha Mosque

‘We Are Scared …’

“We are scared of what will happen after the election and expect horrible things”, said an old man the night before the latest poll. He lives in Sur, a working class district within Amed’s old city walls, which went through days of terror in September when state forces surrounded the area with paramilitary police, soldiers, armoured vehicles, tanks and helicopters, seeking to crush the armed youth of the YDG-H (youth wing of the PKK guerrilla movement) who’d built barricades and declared local self-rule. The military stormed into people’s homes and put snipers on rooftops, targeting young guerrillas and anyone that moved, while residents cowered in corners of their rooms. The military blasted Sur’s historic Fatih Pasha Mosque with shellfire and one of them sprayed graffiti on a nearby wall proclaiming, “Allah is great and so is Turkey”. The YPG-H withdrew, but the state maintained its ring of steel during a four-day curfew. People got hungry. When 10 year old Helin Sen popped out with her aunt to buy some bread, a sniper shot her in the head.

Her father, Ekrem, was at his brother’s because the military wouldn’t let him go home through their checkpoints following a stay in hospital. At 8.15 that morning he spoke to his daughter on the phone. “I am going out to the bakers”, she told him. At 8.30 his phone started ringing as his neighbours gave him the dreadful news. For a while Helin lay shattered, bleeding in the street. People were frightened but someone ran out, waving a white cloth, and carried her home. Ekrem kept calling for an ambulance but was told they couldn’t get into the area. Eventually three turned up but were kept outside the ‘security zone’. Ekrem argued with the military who let him through to walk home with his hands held up. With neighbours’ help he carried his daughter’s body in a carpet out of Sur and to an ambulance.

krem Sen, holding photo of his daughter Helin (Pic - Kawa Bessarini)
Ekrem Sen, holding photo of his daughter Helin
(Pic – Kawa Bessarini)

“They called her a terrorist but she was only a child,” said Ekrem. A team of lawyers is trying to pursue a case against his daughter’s killers.

Civil War Climate

Helin’s cruel demise illustrates the oppressive conditions under which these elections were held. The 7 June result deprived the AKP of its parliamentary majority, blocked Erdogan’s ambitions for an executive presidency, and confronted him with a vibrant and radical new party, the HDP, which won by a landslide in the south-east and was successfully appealing beyond its core Kurdish constituency to significant numbers of Turks and others yearning for a democratic and inclusive society. People were inhaling solidarity and hope and, for Erdogan and the AKP, this was like sunlight on a vampire. They set out to poison the atmosphere and re-run the vote. To suppress the HDP’s message of peace, they manufactured a climate of civil war.

Their strategy had twin objectives. One was to cripple the HDP’s ability to campaign through terror and repression, frighten off many of its Turkish supporters and re-establish the AKP in Turkey’s south-east (Kurdistan). Their parallel goal was to stoke the fears and prejudices of millions of Turkish nationalists and Islamists and rally them to the ‘strong man’ president and his party with a promise of stability. Erdogan fostered division and death and said, “Look, this is what happens when we don’t have a majority”. He steered coalition talks between the political parties into an impasse and called fresh elections having reignited the state’s war on Turkey’s Kurds.

The period between the elections was defined by two terrorist atrocities, in Suruc on 20 July and Ankara on 10 October, killing 135 people. The Suruc blast murdered 33 young socialists — Kurds, Turks and others planning to cross the Syrian border to bring toys for Kobani’s children and help with the reconstruction of that war-ravaged city. Mindful that the AKP had backed ISIS against YPG guerrillas during last winter’s siege of Kobani, many blamed the state for the bombing and, two days later, two Turkish police officers suspected of collaborating with ISIS were shot dead in the border town of Ceylanpınar. Reportedly a PKK-aligned group claimed responsibility although, in an interview with The Pasewan, PKK leader Cemil Bayik has denied their involvement. The AKP seized the pretext to launch waves of intensive air raids on PKK bases in the Qandil mountains, destroying a peace process that was boosting HDP popularity at its expense. Inevitably, the PKK ended its ceasefire and hit back at state forces, taking significant casualties and killing around 200 soldiers and police in several clashes.

On cue, Turkish nationalists and fascists turned their ire on the HDP, ransacking and burning 128 HDP party offices during a 48 hour period in September, often while police looked on.  There was also an upsurge of racist attacks on Kurds in Turkish cities.

The state stepped up its repression of Kurdish activists: around 1,800 HDP supporters were arrested, including dozens of elected co-mayors. In areas where the YDG-H is strong and there were declarations of self-rule, such as in Sur, Cizre, Silopi and Şırnak, the state imposed shoot-to-kill curfews and terrorised residents. In Cizire, 21 civilians were killed. In Sirnak, the body of 24-year-old actor Haci Lokman Birlik was tied by the neck to the back of an armoured vehicle and dragged through the streets.

On 10 October terrorists attacked a peace rally in Ankara called by trade unions, professional associations and the HDP. 102 were killed and more than 500 injured in two explosions. Following the blasts police fired tear gas at the survivors and delayed ambulances getting to the wounded. Who was responsible? Cynically prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to blame the PKK, claiming it was working with ISIS. However, it was soon revealed (by Radikaland investigators from the opposition CHP), that the state had known the culprits for some time: they were on a watch list of people who had trained in Syria as suicide bombers. Apparently the security forces received intelligence of a bomb plot three days before the Ankara attack naming, among others, the two men who carried it out. They had belonged to a jihadist group in Adiyaman, near the Syrian border, whose members — all known to the security forces — were also involved in the 20 July Suruc attack and the 5 June bombing of an HDP rally in Amed. The state of Erdogan and Davutoglu may carry on ‘investigating’ these crimes but the cats in the streets know they are guilty, at least, of wilful negligence leading to mass murder.

Mass protests and strikes followed the Ankara attack but its net effect was to push the HDP off the streets. The party cancelled rallies for security reasons and relied on low-profile door knocking in contrast to its high-profile run-up to 7 June when HDP candidates toured Turkey’s towns and cities in campaign buses with sound systems.

Meanwhile, reports the ‘Economist’, in the first 25 days of October Turkey’s state-run TV station gave the AKP 30 hours and Erdogan 29 hours coverage, while the HDP got 18 minutes.

In Kurdistan, the HDP was prevented from campaigning in ‘security zones’ and had to contend with the mergers of many polling stations, forcing people to travel beyond their villages and neighbourhoods to vote. The Islamist Hudu-Par decided not to stand this time, encouraging its supporters to vote AKP. Through its ‘employment agency’ the AKP reportedly recruited 5,000 extra village guards last month, buying more votes and increasing the militarisation of the region.

Kurdistan’s Militarised, Crooked Election

Tanks in the playgrounds and gunmen in the corridors: that was the scene in Sur’s schools serving as polling stations on 1 November. Armed police told a group of international election observers, including the UK’s Lord Hilton, that “This is a terrorist zone” and “We can’t park our vehicles outside the school because there isn’t enough room on the street”.

Polling day in Sur (Pic - Kawa Bessarini)
Polling day in Sur   (Pic – Kawa Bessarini)

At 22 polling stations in Sirit, election observers recorded a heavy military presence and were several times denied entry and unable to see what was happening inside.

Like many crimes of deception, voter fraud can be hard to prove, especially when the perpetrators control the entire electoral process, making it easier to cover their tracks, and they have armed forces at their disposal to intimidate witnesses into silence. In such circumstances you want to strike lucky and catch the criminals in the act.

When election observers, including human rights barrister Melanie Gingell, arrived at the Karabas village school there was immediately a difficult atmosphere. It appeared that all the election officials were AKP supporters and that illiterate women were being ‘assisted’ to vote. When the observers suggested that any assistance should be given by an independent person, they were surrounded by AKP supporters ”with obvious hostile intent”. A group of local women arriving to vote were ushered into a side room and the door shut, as a mob of 20-30 men forced the three visiting women (two observers and a translator) and their male driver out of the building. The driver was punched and kicked and taken round a corner to be roughed up some more before they were all made to leave the village. On 7 June Karabas village had backed the HDP, at the expense of the AKP; on 1 November that result was reversed in a microcosmic expression of democracy Erdogan-style: if people don’t vote the way you want, change the game and try again.

In how many other villages — where there were no observers or they turned up at less revelatory moments — did similar or worse abuses occur?

The argument that the village women should be ‘assisted’ because they were illiterate was refuted by the local election committee chairman in another village, Qarto, who called in the soldiers when an argument developed after a man tried to insist on his right to help his elderly, illiterate father to vote. Questioned later by election observers, the official showed us two paragraphs in an official manual stipulating that voters could be assisted on the grounds of their physical disabilities but not illiteracy. Evidently the application of the rules depended on which party would benefit.

Before the June poll, the independent teachers’ union could nominate some of their members to chair local election committees. Not this time: instead mainly pro-AKP and male teachers and other public employees were appointed by a tamed YSK (Supreme Elections Board). In one polling room, in Cernik, the definition of ‘civil servant’ was stretched to cover an immam who was given the job of overseeing the voting by his congregation. When election observers, including London councillor Aysegul Erdogan, questioned him we were surrounded by an irate group of AKP supporters, including the local MP who told us, “You have no right to be here” and “There is no such thing as Kurdistan”. We went back at 4pm and caught the immam allowing someone to vote after the official close of polling.

The teams of volunteer observers, who came from several European countries at the HDP’s invitation, could make only a limited impact although, as one HDP activist mused, perhaps we slightly reduced the AKP’s tally of stolen votes. Our concerns were echoed by Andreas Gross, head of the European Parliamentary observers delegation, who said: “Unfortunately, the campaign for these elections was characterized by unfairness and, to a serious degree, fear”. The international election observer mission of the OSCE expressed its “serious concern” over the curbs on the media, and noted restrictions on “some contestants’ ability to campaign freely” and the “increased number of attacks against and arrests of members and activists, predominantly from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)” before the vote.

Results – and 2.1 Million 18th Birthdays?

Erdogan got his way. The right wing Turkish nationalist MHP lost 2 million votes, many of which likely transferred to the AKP, which also grabbed votes and seats from the HDP, while the secular, quasi-Kemalist CHP secured an extra half million votes, some probably from Turks who had backed the HDP last time.

The HDP’s 5.1 million votes was 1 million down on June but better than the 3.9 million it got in the 2014 presidential election. Despite the terror campaign against it, the HDP has retained a presence in the mainly Turkish cities in the west and still has several MPs from Turkey’s non-Kurdish minorities. It won by a reduced but big majority in Kurdistan. Nationally it crossed the critical 10% threshold, with 10.75% of the vote, and is now the third biggest party in parliament.

Did the Kurdish movement make mistakes that electorally damaged the HDP? A ‘Guardian’ editorial argued that rivalry between the PKK and HDP “probably played a part in the return to war between government troops and PKK fighters”. However PKK leader Cemil Bayik has rejected this saying that “the HDP project was initiated by Apo (the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan) and the PKK” and that, despite the peace process, Erdogan was planning a renewed war on the Kurdish movement from last October, when the Kobani siege was at its height.

Another factor is the impact of declarations of self rule in Kurdish areas which, according to reports, cost the HDP votes due to the ensuing repression and disruption of local businesses. The declarations partly reflected pressure from alienated youth eager to take on a brutal state and achieve rapid change: for example, in Amed on the night of 1 November, young Kurds briefly confronted police while chanting, “We don’t want peace, we want to fight, fight, fight!” Perhaps some business votes were lost, but not all of them. A restaurant owner in Sur told us: “We are not ready for self rule, it was premature and meant I couldn’t get to my restaurant for nine days. But, despite this mistake, when I went to the polling station I put my hand on my heart and knew I couldn’t vote for anyone but the HDP”.

Against the background of chicanery, intimidation and murder it was probably inevitable that the HDP lost ground. “Maybe we lost one million votes, but we are a party that managed to stand up against all massacre policies,” said HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, adding that their biggest ‘mistake’ was to be successful on 7 June and frustrate Erdogan’s plans.

The unexpected huge rise in AKP votes cannot be fully explained by people switching from the MHP or HDP. Michael Rubin has highlighted a glaring irregularity at the first stage of the electoral process. In Turkey, people are automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthday. Between 7 June and 1 November the numbers registered increased by 2.1 million (from 54.8 million to 56.9 million), a slightly bigger rise than in the previous four years. It doesn’t add up. Rubin argues that: “It appears that AKP supporters were registered at multiple sites and so, in effect, voted two or more times …Numbers don’t lie. Erdoğan stole this election, plain and simple”.

What Next?

Hard times lie ahead for millions — Kurds and other minorities, women, workers and progressive Turks — following the AKP’s victory. Discussions have started on a new constitution and Erdogan’s messianic ambition for executive presidential powers is firmly back on the agenda. The AKP is 13 seats short of the three-fifths parliamentary majority it needs to call a referendum on the presidency, but it can probably corral extra votes from the MHP. That would mean yet more repression of the Kurdish movement and there will anyway be scores of trials of those detained before the elections. The air raids on the Qandil and state killings in Kurdish towns continue and the PKK has called off its latest, one-sided ceasefire. Erdogan talks of “liquidating” the PKK but may in future consider some kind of renewed peace process if he feels sure of being the beneficiary — for example, by sowing divisions among Kurds.

The Turkish president is eager to invade Syria and attack the remarkable Kurd-led Rojava administration. Although constrained by the US and Russian involvement there, he will seek pretexts to seize territory around Tel Abyad and Jarabulus with the objective of strengthening his hand in the Syrian imbroglio while disrupting, then destroying Rojava’s contagious experiment in equality and grassroots democracy which has helped inspire the rise of the HDP.

Across the Iraqi border is another ruler who doesn’t hesitate to break the rules to retain power. The Kurdistan Region’s technically superannuated president Barzani no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at Erdogan’s triumph. However, Sulaimaniya-born political analyst Kawa Bessarini (an election observer in Turkey on 1 November) argues that South Kurdistan’s democrats can learn from the HDP’s achievements. “It’s the first time in recent Kurdish history that one strong and dominant Kurdish political party allies itself with the Left and other oppressed people and pressure groups of the dominant nation to create a platform not only for the Kurdish national and democratic rights but for democracy and human rights in the whole of Turkey”, he says.

“After the toppling of Saddam in 2003, instead of encouraging and supporting progressive forces in Iraq, Kurdish leaders decided to go for the so-called Kurd-Shia alliance according to the demands of their backers”, adds Bessarini. “I believe the HDP project needs to be supported and emulated because, whatever your strength and political aims, you need to negotiate with the central government and, unless you have a democratic government, it will be difficult to achieve your goals — that is exactly what the Kurds in South Kurdistan are suffering from now, a reactionary sectarian Iraqi government with a chauvinistic policy towards Kurds”.

Bloodied but unbowed, the HDP emerges with a daunting responsibility to lead the resistance to one-man rule, while promoting its “civil, democratic and libertarian” alternative. Across the country millions dread an Erdogan dictatorship and the HDP can continue to inspire them with its vision of a Turkey for all its peoples. In the south-east, the Kurdish movement will defend itself while seeking to develop Rojava-style structures of ‘democratic autonomy’ circumventing the authority of the state.

Following a grisly contest that consumed perhaps a thousand civilian, guerrilla and military lives, Ergogan can sit comfortably in his vast palace, enemies vanquished, corruption scandals evaded, basking in the glow of Putinesque success. But he may yet face blowback — from the ISIS monster he has fostered, the deteriorating economy and, more hopefully, the resilient Kurdish movement and its allies.

Main photo – masked soldier outside polling station in Sur (Pic – Kawa Bessarini)