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Turkish elections: an eyewitness account of a coup against democracy

IT was just before quarter to nine on Sunday evening when the result we had been waiting for finally came in.

We had been drinking tea with our eyes fixed on the big screen projected onto a rusty garage door opposite the cafe where we gathered to watch the results of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

Watching the sidebar of the screen where the vote share of each party was slowly changing as results were declared, our hopes and anticipation turned into huge cheers as the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) edged over the 10 per cent threshold required to have MPs elected to Turkey’s Grand Assembly.

As the music started we danced the traditional halay and govned, hand in hand with our Kurdish brothers and sisters in celebration at a remarkable and significant result for the HDP. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had failed in his bid to keep the pro-Kurdish party below the arbitrary threshold, denying his party even more seats.

Once the results were in, HDP ended up with 11.8 per cent of the vote, becoming the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament with 68 MPs.

This incredible success has to be measured against the widespread oppression across the country, with snap presidential and parliamentary elections held under a state of emergency which has been in place for just under two years since the failed coup attempt of 2016.

Around 50,000 people are believed to have been jailed under the emergency powers as Erdogan tightened his authoritarian grip on the country.

Nobody was safe in the ensuing backlash, with more than 170,000 public-sector workers sacked, thousands of academics purged from their posts for signing a peace petition and more journalists jailed than any other country in the world.

Erdogan has created a climate of fear in Turkey affecting all layers of society. The HDP has been a particular target for the tyrannical leader as it stands for freedom, democracy and workers’ rights but mainly because of their support in the largely Kurdish south-east of the country.

Officials spoke of a “political genocide” against Kurds. The elections were held with the two former co-leaders of the HDP languishing in prison, along with as many as 8,000 activists, seriously affecting the party’s ability to function.

Selahattin Demirtas finished third in the presidential campaign with 8.4 per cent, despite being forced to run from his prison cell. As he said: “While other candidates held 100 rallies, I sent 100 tweets.”

Erdogan had set the tone during campaigning by saying at a pre-election rally that he would happily execute Demirtas if parliament asked him to.

And just a day after he encouraged supporters to “do what they must” to keep the HDP out of parliament, AKP thugs attacked and killed three of the party’s supporters in the Syrian border town of Suruc.

The Human Rights Association reported 361 arrests of HDP activists during the campaign period with violent attacks against officials including an attempt to burn down the party office in Bolu.

At least 17 HDP election rallies were banned and the party faced a near total media blackout. But there is no meaningful free and democratic press in Turkey.

Since the sale of the Dogan Media Company in May, most media outlets are either owned by or support Erdogan. This was reflected by the extensive coverage favourable to Erdogan and the AKP compared to other candidates and parties.

According to figures from the TRT state broadcaster, HDP received just 32 minutes of air time with the CHP candidate Muharrem Ince receiving 15 hours compared to 181 hours for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).  

This imbalance was also evident in newspapers and other broadcasters with wall to wall pro-Erdogan coverage. I saw posters and pro-Erdogan banners lining the streets at every turn in Van with the president seemingly omnipotent, bearing down over Turkey like Big Brother.

Under these conditions the HDP results are all the more impressive. Much commentary on social media and in the liberal press has decried the HDP’s loss of votes in the predominantly Kurdish south-east.

However this is a failure to understand conditions in Turkey generally, particularly the oppression and war on Kurds that has been intensified by the Erdogan regime. 

Whole towns and cities have been flattened by Turkish security forces, with the UN acknowledging as many as 500,000 people are internally displaced.

HDP officials, including exiled former MP Fayzal Sariyildiz, put the real figure much higher at closer to one million and say the discrepancy is down to how the UN classifies displaced people.

Some 83 towns and cities have had democratically elected mayors from the HDP sister party in local and regional politics replaced by pro-government administrators as party offices are closed down and the state takes control of operations.

The scenes of joy that followed the breakthrough were to be short-lived. The result saw the HDP deal a major blow to Turkey’s tyrannical President Erdogan who had desperately wanted to keep the HDP below the threshold and out of the democratic life of the country. 

And it was just minutes after the barrier had been broken that the anticipated attacks started. A member of the international delegation who wished to remain anonymous explained how police moved in to attack those celebrating the results at the same spot that saw more than 100,000 at a pre-election rally the previous day.

As cars drove up and down Cumhuriyet Street the authorities sealed off roads and side streets, mobilising the dreaded TOMA water cannon. After the water came the tear gas as baton-wielding police charged into the crowds, lashing out indiscriminately, he explained.

“I was a bit further away when the tear gas was fired,” he told me, “so I didn’t suffer the full effects. But it was at the back of my throat making it difficult to breathe.”

He explained how he took cover down an alleyway to escape the fumes and catch his breath.

“I was eating a pretty horrible tasting pizza when I saw a young Kurdish boy who was probably no older than 13 or 14 — definitely school age — being violently beaten by a Turkish cop.

“I swear he would have killed him if he’d carried on. I can’t explain what happened but my adrenaline just kicked in and I hit and pushed the cop to the floor. I mean if I hadn’t I don’t know what would have happened. But I couldn’t just stand by and watch,” he told me.

Luckily he had tied his shoelaces up earlier “just in case we need to run away quickly.” As he turned to see the riot police officer starting to get back to his feet he said a young man running past gave him another clout as he dropped to the floor again.

The previous day had already given us a taste of things to come. As we made our way the short distance from the hotel to the final HDP election rally in the centre of Van, we witnessed and were on the receiving end of low-level harassment from the authorities.

A number of checkpoints had been set up along the route into the rally point with a heavy police and military presence and armoured vehicles prowling the streets. This did not appear to be for safety and security purposes, but to intimidate and humiliate the Kurdish people.

I was stopped on my way through the second checkpoint and police demanded my passport and to know why I was there. Through an interpreter I explained I was a tourist. One officer noticed my tattoo of Marx, Engels and Lenin, casting a disapproving look my way.

After being held for around 20 minutes, the official returned as our HDP assistant told me in a panic: “They’ve found pictures of you on the internet.”

An officer showed me his phone with a photograph of me wearing a Kurdish scarf speaking at a Newroz rally in London.

“So Steve. You’re a tourist are you?” he said in a disbelieving tone.

“Even communists go on holiday,” I replied as he reluctantly returned my passport and ushered me on my way. This incident was to be signifiant later on, however for now I was free to join the rally.

Around 200,000 people filled the square for the final pre-election rally in Van, a marked contrast with the AKP rally I saw the previous evening which couldn’t fill a car park just two days before the vote.

It was a good-natured demonstration with singing, dancing and flag-waving in the blistering Van heat. HDP co-chair Senzai Temelli received a rapturous welcome as he addressed the crowds with people climbing up on lamp posts and gathering on the roofs of buildings to listen to the speeches.

However as the rally ended the violence started. Police and security services started to pick off groups as they left, attacking them with batons and water cannon. Several journalists were among the injured and HDP co-president for Van Yadisendan Karabulak was left bleeding from a head wound. 

The following day we gathered in our teams and set off to observe the elections. I was allocated to Ercis, about 100 kilometres outside of Van where we would attend a number of polling stations in the mountain villages.

This is where the party feared election fraud and manipulation was most likely to occur. Many of the polling stations had been “consolidated,” meaning villagers faced lengthy trips to cast their ballots. This move, many told us, was designed to “steal their vote” as we heard complaints of people being unable to reach the polling stations.

Soldiers were present in every polling station we attended, watching over people as they cast their votes inside the booths. The official reason give to us was they were helping people cast their vote “freely and peacefully.” However as one villager pointed out, “there is no free will when you cast your vote while a soldier is in the booth holding a gun.”

Supporting the military were the notorious Village Guards, a paramilitary force who have waged a bloody war against the PKK and Kurdish resistance movement for decades. They told us the reason the polling stations had been consolidated was because “the villagers are terrorists.”

As we left one polling station, a military vehicle blocked our car in the middle of the road and asked us to step outside. Interpreters told us they were “assuring us of our safety” and invited us to come with them for a discussion.

As news was reaching us of the arrests of international observers — members of the French Communist Party, four Italian journalists and German members of Die Linke — we declined their offer, making our excuses before leaving.

But we were met with the same story at every polling station. Officials telling us that everything was running smoothly while villagers told us how they had been subjected to unfair treatment, unable to vote freely and accusing the AKP of trying to keep the HDP below the threshold.

We heard news from other delegations reporting how officials had blocked us from entering while in the village of Saray HDP supporters were prevented from voting by government officials backed by soldiers.

Photographs circulated appearing to show stuffed ballot boxes arriving at polling stations while pictures on social media showed ballot papers marked as votes for Demirtas and the HDP allegedly found in the bin.

While we will never know the truth for certain, history tells us something. In last year’s controversial referendum there was widespread evidence of fraud with the Andalou state agency announcing results while ballot boxes were still in polling stations.

And the country’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) allowed more than 2.5 million unstamped ballots to be counted, playing a decisive factor on the result.

The result should not be a surprise. After 16 years in power, Erdogan was never going to concede defeat or allow the election to be lost. But the results showed a loss of support for the tyrannical leader.

Erdogan and the AKP lost two million votes in eastern and western Turkey as he relied on support from the ultra-nationalist MHP to form a coalition government and could only stop a second round run-off for the presidency as they did not field a candidate against him.

These were not free or fair elections. But the election was not won or lost on one night or in one campaign. This was the culmination of a long-planned coup against democracy.

And Erdogan has been aided and abetted by Nato, the EU and Western governments who have backed him to the hilt both politically and militarily. Many people have asked why these institutions which claim to be bastions of freedom and democracy continue to back a dictator.

But Erdogan is very much a creation of imperialism. The last thing they want to see is a free and democratic Turkey with an independent foreign policy that threatens their interests in Syria, Iraq and Iran. And with Turkey separated from Russia by the Black Sea it retains a position of geopolitical importance.

Kurds once put great hopes in the EU and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan references the neoliberal bloc in some of his writings.

However speaking after the election results Kubra, a young Kurdish woman sacked from her public-sector post after making social media posts critical of the government, was clear that the West was complicit in the atrocities committed in Turkey.

“Fuck the EU,” she stormed. “They are killing our people. The money they give to the government to keep refugees in Turkey isn’t spent on helping them. It’s spent on weapons and bombs and war. Here in Turkey and also in Afrin.

“Why can’t the EU spend that money on helping the refugees themselves?’ she asked.

She has a point. Donald Trump and the EU are two sides of the same coin. While the former builds a wall to keep out Mexicans, the EU builds its own “Trump-like” wall on Turkey’s borders throwing migrants into the sea as a result.

The people of Turkey are fearful of what the election results mean. In his victory speech, Erdogan promised he would escalate the war on “terrorists” in Turkey, striking fear into those in the Kurdish region who have suffered decades of war.

The country stands on the brink of an economic crisis, one that is largely of Erdogan’s own making. His insistence on keeping interest rates low to encourage investment and an unstable currency is likely to mean a recession with drastic public spending cuts. Businesses are thought to be close to defaulting on credit payments leaving the country in serious crisis.

However the HDP also clings on to hope and will continue the struggle for freedom and democracy. And we can build solidarity and support with those fighting for freedom in Turkey.

One of the best things we can do is build a strong labour movement in Britain. A movement that brings down the Tory government and replaces it with a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government with a foreign policy based on solidarity and co-operation, not war, arms sales and profit.

Steve Sweeney is Morning Star international editor.

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