A group of international academics, lawyers, trade unionists and activists travelled to Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast as election observers to witness the country’s epochal elections to be held on 14 May. In a series of articles to be published every day in Medya News until the elections, Emma Müller, a member of the UK delegation, shares the international election observers delegations’ findings from the ground.
The upcoming Turkish elections are pivotal for the future of the country’s democracy. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Yeşil Sol Party (Green Left Party) called for solidarity with their campaign. As internationalists we answered their call by organising a delegation to Bakûr (Northern Kurdistan, in the South East of the territory controlled by the Turkish Republic). The delegation of academics, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, and activists came from across Europe to witness the election campaign. Our solidarity is based on the understanding that systems that oppress democracy are the same across borders, which means our resistance against them must be united.
Our focus has begun with the region of Amed (Diyarbakır, in Turkish) and will move elsewhere in Bakûr as the campaign progresses.
Green Left election campaign aims to visit every settlement
During a two-month period, the Yeşil Sol election campaign aims to visit every settlement in the Amed region. That means every town, village, and isolated hamlet receives a delegation from the party. Our journey to the villages today began in a convoy of cars bedecked in stickers, with party flags fluttering from the windows as they sped down the highways of rural Amed. The convoy was led by a campaign van packed with volunteers and election materials, announcing the campaign’s arrival with traditional Kurdish music playing from immense speakers.
On arriving in each village, the campaigners made their way to a meeting with local political organizers. The candidates asked about the situation in the villages and what the party can do for the people. They explained the importance of voting, and the party’s electoral strategy. Many villagers were confused by the process, partly because Yeşil Sol is new to them: HDP candidates are running under the Yeşil Sol banner because Turkey is likely to ban the HDP before the elections. Now the candidates need to explain not just how to vote, but why Yeşil Sol is taking over from the HDP. Candidates also need to explain why people cannot vote for a Yeşil Sol candidate for president, and have to vote for another candidate instead: Yeşil Sol are lending their support to President Erdoğan’s main opponent in the hope of beating him.
The process of explaining to the villagers the painful bureaucracy of the electoral system shows how far removed national politics are from villagers’ daily lives. Making electoral politics complicated creates a barrier to people getting involved. Explaining the process of voting and making it relevant to every single voter means Yeşil Sol gives society one of the tools necessary to defend itself against the fascism and colonialism of the Turkish state.
In the villages, men and women remain mostly segregated. In most villages, party members are the only women who attend meetings. Yeşil Sol candidates address this by going door-to-door, to every family home. Men come out of the houses to greet the politicians while women usually stay behind. The party women then go out of their way to approach every house, entering the hallways or waving women to come over, engaging every woman they can reach.
Children waving flags
On one occasion we were in a small group without a woman candidate present. Women would not come out, until the men candidates suggested that our women members could walk in front, representing the women. The women were always very happy to greet us, when we took the first step: they value political engagement as much as the men do, but are fighting against a feudal mentality that makes their participation harder. A lot of work remains to be done, but the Kurdish Freedom Movement has unquestionably improved the women’s situation in Bakûr. Women feel empowered to join the party, and the co-chair system and women politicians no longer face the hostility they once did.
In every village we were greeted by children waving the party’s flag and holding their fingers in a V-for victory sign. The children have a sense of their own national identity, running along beside the convoys, chanting the movement’s slogans.
When we visited villages in the Hazro region we could see mountains where the guerrilla lived until 2015. In these villages there was huge support for the Yeşil Sol party. One local woman told us that the society has a very feudal system, but that this has protected it from state infiltration. Local people also shared that the state often sends the military to the villages, and that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) visited the day before, intimidating locals to not put up Yeşil Sol flags.
Surrounded by police
In the evening we joined a large celebration in front of a Yeşil Sol branch office in the city. Hundreds of people from the neighbourhood came together, listened to live music and danced. The event was surrounded by police and water cannons. The street was fenced off and everyone entering was filmed. This scared off some people from joining, but as the evening continued more and more people, especially youth, defied the intimidation tactics. The dancing was joyful and energetic, ignoring the police presence and the potential repression that could follow attending party events. These intimidation tactics are part of people’s everyday lives. Everyone who is politically active, or even just openly critical of the Erdoğan regime, expects to be imprisoned for their work at some point.
In the short time we have been here, we have met dozens of people who have spent time in prison, whose children are still imprisoned, or who have lost family members in the guerrilla struggle. But the resistance and warmth of people, especially after around 130 of their comrades were arrested in Amed and a further 32 in Istanbul, is a never extinguished fire.