"The Election of the Middle East"

 /  May 25, 2015, 9:35 p.m.


The day before my meeting with Erdem Yörük, I asked if there were any security measures I should be aware of. “No, no,” he assured me over the phone. Erdem’s employer had logged forty attacks against its offices and personnel in the last month. Yet there were no barricades or police cars on my way to our meeting.  Just lots of flags, strung between lampposts to woo voters in Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary election.  Walking downhill from Taksim Square, I passed under the AK Party’s single light bulb, MHP’s three crescents, Saadet’s five stars, and CHP’s six arrows. But I was looking for another logo, a tree sprouting from two purple hands, put up by the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

After seven weeks in Istanbul, I had a general sense of where this party, better known as HDP, fit in Turkey’s political mosaic.  They welcomed gays and Socialists in a devoutly Islamic country, and they met with a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.  They were polling at around ten percent, but that might be enough to halt Turkey’s slide into one-man rule. It’s already managed to draw scorn from leaders and violence from citizens. I brought my passport in case they asked for ID.

No need. This branch, five floors up in an unmarked office building, clearly wasn’t a likely target.  After Erdem opened the door and showed me to a sunlit room facing the Bosphorus, I asked how he had gotten involved in the HDP.

“I was a member of the Peace and Democracy Party before, the BDP,” he began. “They were the party that was replaced by the HDP two years ago, because the BDP was closed down by the Supreme Court.  The HDP is a coalition of social movements in Turkey: the Kurdish movement, the Socialist movement, the labor movement, feminist movement, LGBT movement, etc. So the previous party, the BDP, it used to be more of an ethnic-Kurdish origin [party]. This new party, it has become a party of the entire country, and that’s how I became interested in working for it.”

In America, the progressive causes Erdem mentioned also tend to run together. But the HDP also hopes to resolve a crisis that generations of politicians and its own predecessor could not:  Turkey’s “Kurdish question.” Ethnic Kurds in Turkey speak a Persian-based language and belong to a unique sect of Sunni Islam. In a country that equates full citizenship with speaking Turkish and attending a licensed mosque, they are outcasts.  After several decades of state-sponsored “Turkification” campaigns, some Kurds turned to violence.  Their actions, coordinated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have killed forty thousand Turks over three decades.

The HDP’s candidates envision a better way.  Supported by a base of moderate Kurds, they hope to disarm the PKK and carve out a politically autonomous Kurdish zone in the country’s southeast.  At the opposite tip of the country, 13 percent of Istanbul’s 8.8 million voters have also voiced support for the HDP, but for a different reason. A vote for the HDP is a vote against President Erdoğan’s AK Party.

The Justice and Development Party, abbreviated as AK in Turkish, was founded in the late 1990s by politicians weary of Turkey’s eight-decade secular rule. Political Islam, they believed, could underpin a stable, responsible government.  They put that idea on the ballot in Turkey’s 2002 parliamentary elections, held in the midst of crisis-level inflation.  While the ruling CHP party gave out packets of hand lotion at its rallies, the AK Party distributed soup and bread.  Led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it has dominated Turkey ever since.

For a while, few could argue with its results: politics stabilized and the economy boomed.  Many Kurds saw Erdoğan, whose own wife is Kurdish, as their best hope for greater freedoms. In 2002, 2007, and 2011, maps of Turkey’s election results showed solid AK Party support across most of the country.  When crowds took to the streets in Cairo and Damascus, Istanbul and Ankara stayed cool. In November 2011, Time reported that, “In countries where young people have risen against old tyrannies, many cite Erdoğan as the type of leader they would like to have instead.”

Things have changed. “Erdoğan has much more popularity than the party itself,” Erdem told me. “They used to like him, [but] he is declining. We are trying to show that his time [is] over. For the last couple of years, he’s become almost like an authoritarian leader, [the] economy has been declining, growth has been declining, so this story has come to an end.”

Many outside Turkey agree. “This is, I think, ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,’” German journalist Rainer Hermann explained a few months before my trip.  Since his 2007 re-election, Erdoğan has been consolidating his control over the government and curbing personal freedoms. In 2013, tens of thousands of protesters had rallied against his actions in Gezi Park, a few blocks from where Erdem and I were meeting. Since then, the AK Party has embarked on a subtler, but equally ruthless campaign against the press. When Hermann visited Chicago, he told me about a journalist imprisoned for a single tweet criticizing Erdoğan.

The man behind these measures intends to stay.  In October 2014, after switching roles from prime minister to president, Erdoğan cut the ribbon on a 1,150-room presidential palace (the White House has 132 rooms). Now, Erdoğan’s opponents fear that he is seeking power on a similar scale. The president aims to amend Turkey’s constitution to adopt a presidential system.  The details will be fleshed out after the election, but as one analyst ominously put it, “It is clear that Erdoğan foresees...himself at the centre of power.”

A shrinking number of Turks want to see him there. Support for the AK Party has dropped to 40 percent, down ten points from the last election. Sixty-five percent oppose a strong presidential system. That rules out one means of changing Turkey’s constitution: a three-fifths majority in Parliament and approval from a popular referendum. To enact a presidential system with no referendum, Erdoğan would need a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In Turkey’s 550-seat Grand National Assembly, that comes to 367 seats.  The AK Party currently holds 327.

But many AK Party representatives, especially from the southeast, were elected by Kurds.  With their counterparts in Iraq and Syria struggling to keep ISIS at bay, and little progress on Kurdish rights at home, those voters are losing patience. “AKP has created a disappointment among Kurds,” Erdem explained, “Half of the Kurds, before, voted for AKP, but this is rapidly changing, and Kurds are rapidly going to the HDP.” With this shift of loyalties, analysts predict that HDP candidates will win about sixty seats on June 7. Many of those will be poached from the AK Party, keeping Erdoğan’s constitution-changing majority out of reach.

But there’s a catch. HDP representatives will only be allowed to take their seats if they get 10 percent of all votes cast in the election.  “In Turkey, we have the highest threshold in the world,” Erdem explained. (I thought back to an Op-Ed we had run in the Gate’s Chicago section, calling for fairer treatment of third parties. A Green or Libertarian ticket in Illinois’s 2014 gubernatorial race needed 25,000 signatures to appear on the ballot.  That came to 0.34 percent of the electorate.)

“This is totally anti-democratic,” Erdem said of the 10 percent threshold. “This is totally totalitarian, and this is trying to keep minorities unheard.” In 2011, the HDP’s predecessor catered to the Kurds and took 6.5 percent of the national vote. By broadening its base to include feminists, gays, workers, environmentalists, and others at odds with Turkey’s status quo, HDP hopes to lift itself over the 10 percent mark. If it can’t, any seats won will go to the runner-up in that district’s election—in most cases, the AK Party.

I checked the numbers. Turkey’s last general election, in 2011, took in 42,941,763 valid votes.  Assuming the same turnout, the HDP will need 4,294,177 votes for its representatives to take their seats and stand against Erdoğan’s push to amend the constitution. If they get one vote less, most of their seats will revert to the AKP, clearing the way for a presidential system in Turkey.

In effect, this election is now a referendum on the shape of Turkey’s government. America’s battle with ISIS, Russia’s route to the Mediterranean, and seventy-five million Turks’ freedoms could be affected. Adding to the drama, different polls put the HDP above and below the 10 percent mark.

With less than two weeks before the vote, Erdem is racing to boost those figures.  He showed me a conference room with a map of Turkey’s provinces on the wall: the team meets there every morning to talk strategy. “We do an evaluation of the political agenda in the country,” he explained. “What happened yesterday, and what are the political agenda items? We do an analysis of the discourses of other political parties, and the main discourses in the media. What is being discussed in the country? And we are trying to find good responses, good tactics…And for like two hours, we have these discussions.

“We are working with some research institutes and companies,” he went on. “There are a lot of sociologists working with the party. So we are doing scientific random sample surveys. It is not just going and talking to people. We choose a representative sample of the population, then you go there with a survey, then you analyze them statistically.”

It sounded like any American campaign. To see how deep the similarities ran, I told Erdem about political fundraising back home.  He nodded. “We have big problems with money.”  That much is clear on the streets: HDP flags are usually lost in a thicket of AK Party and CHP banners.  Other parties blare their anthems from fleets of loudspeaker vans, but I had only spotted two HDP cars in as many months.  Turkey has a state campaign funding system, but the HDP will not be eligible until it clears the threshold.

“That’s why we have to raise money from the people,” Erdem continued. ”And since we are the party of the Kurds and the workers...these are the lower classes in the country.  So we are doing what Obama did.  Small amounts of money from everyone, like five lira, ten lira, twenty lira. We never get support from big corporations, from companies, but from the people.”

What kinds of candidates can win on this strategy? “Those who can really get elected,” Erdem said. “Armenian, Alevi, Socialist, Kurdish.” Erdem himself is a Socialist; the HDP is the only Turkish political party to have acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. “These are all important figures who represent important social groups and movements in the country.” In Istanbul, the HDP is doubling down on three groups: “The poor Kurds, they are much more likely to vote for us; Alevi neighborhoods; then the middle-class CHP neighborhoods. These are the three target neighborhoods.”

Three months before, I had been covering another campaign that focused on underserved locales and progressive causes: “I’m rooted in Chicago neighborhoods,” mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” García told me in a phone interview. “If you look at the big picture on questions of civil rights, LGBT rights, issues like public education—I have the longest history on these issues.” After getting outspent nearly five-to-one by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election campaign, García eked out 44 percent of the vote.

In America, you get a majority or you lose. In Turkey, you can get 10 percent of the vote and hold back a would-be dictator.  I’m not sure which is more “democratic.”

After speaking with Erdem, I took a ferry to the Kadikoy neighborhood, where volunteers from all the major parties had set up a mini-bazaar. I threaded through the crowd to the HDP tent.  On one side, a poster showed four girls whose forearms converged into a single fist, punching Erdogan on the chin.

“Does anyone speak English?” I shouted over the party anthems.

A bearded man in a sport coat and HDP pin was willing to talk.  He introduced himself as Bercan Aktaş, one of the party’s executives on Istanbul’s Asian side.  I asked what people were worried about in this part of the city.

“The most-asked questions are, ‘Will you deal with AKP?’ [and] ‘What’s your thinking about religion?’ They are concerned about whether it will be us or them. We are the biggest power against AKP, and we are also at peace with religions, with all religions.”

Other voters, however, are more interested in peace with the Kurdish PKK.  In recent years, the HDP has become the militant group’s main point of contact with the rest of the country.  Some HDP lawmakers regularly confer with their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, at his island prison in the Sea of Marmara.

His actions loom over the campaign trail.  “One week ago,” Bercan recalled, “a person who was twenty, twenty-one years old came and visited our table. He said, ‘I define PKK as a terrorist organization, I define Mr. Ocalan as a terrorist, but I will vote for HDP.’ [I asked,] ‘Why will you vote for us?’ And he said, ‘Because HDP should [have a] representative in parliamentary assembly of Turkey. Because as a nation, we don’t want a continuing of the war.’”

Of course, that sentiment can cut both ways. Where some see negotiation, others see collaboration. “I don’t like that party,” a woman named Gulay said of the HDP. “They are militant. They killed a lot of people.”  We met near Taksim, where she was tabling for another party, the CHP. Despite what Bercan had said about HDP being the “biggest power” against the AK Party, the center-left, nationalistic CHP polls at around 25 percent and holds 135 seats in Parliament. But there’s little discussion of that changing. Even Gulay seemed to recognize that the HDP is the party to watch in this election. “I don’t know what it’s going to be [like] if they win in this time or the next,” she sighed.

If the HDP makes it to Parliament, it will join the CHP in the opposition.  It will somehow have to dispel views like Gulay’s while realizing its voters’ hopes for peace and autonomy.  Some of the party’s other friends—Syriza in Greece, the French Communist Party—could make that task trickier.

But for the moment, the HDP has more pressing concerns.  During the week I spent reporting, six of its employees were injured when bombs exploded at party offices in Adana and Mersin. There have been sixty attacks against HDP facilities over the course of the campaign.  Party officials charged the AK Party with provoking the latest strike. Whoever is to blame, the message is clear: a lot of Turks want the HDP stopped.

Many of them, however, just might want the AK Party stopped more. I’m not sure if Gulay would have said something different about the HDP away from her own party’s table, but she was free to voice her views on Erdoğan. “We lost many years with that dictator,” Gulay told me. “You know who I’m talking about, right? Many people [are] in prisons now…I hope he’s going to lose this time.”

This might be the last time Erdoğan can lose.  The flags and tents won’t be set up for another general election until 2019. If the country switches to a presidential system, it’s impossible to say how election laws would change, or whether Erdoğan would obey them. Bercan seemed confident that enough Turks won’t want to find out. “The people will vote for HDP this election,” he told me, “destroying the election limit.”

We were standing on Asia’s western shore, beside a strait that has carried Roman galleys and Soviet nuclear submarines.  From Atatürk Airport on the other side, it was less than two hours’ flight time to either Crimea, Damascus, or Vienna.  Across the street, campaign staffers were refueling at Starbucks and lining up at ATMs that dispensed dollars, euros, and lira.

I asked Bercan if he had anything to say to people in America.

“I think this election will be the election of the Middle East,” he replied. “America’s election is all the world’s election, because American politics are interested in Middle East, Afghanistan, Turkey.  I hope America should [have a] discourse of peace, discourse of democracy. But today…the peoples of Middle East will determine their destiny.  So I think America should adapt to that.”

The image featured in this article was taken by the author.

Patrick Reilly