This week’s potentially biggest news story has generated a vast amount of speculation to make up for the lack of genuine information. We know that President Erdoğan was hit suddenly by some illness because it happened when he was being interviewed on live television, though not actually on camera at the key moment, and he has taken a break from the campaign trail. But we have no idea how serious his illness is.
Another story that could have major implications is the claim that the Turkish Government has been talking with the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, but that lacks any public proof.
Before looking at these hard to grab hold of developments, I will turn to an important – if sadly predictable – event that has been recorded and discussed on all sides of the political divide.
Accompanied by stirring music, convoys of armed vehicles and police vans roar into the cities, and groups of fully armed soldiers make their way into the alleys and storm unmarked doorways. This is not the latest TV drama but the official film of the detention of 128 politicians and activists of the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), now running under the banner of the Green Left, less than three weeks before the Turkish election. The detentions served not only to remove those people from action and to send a message to other activists that their turn could be next, but also to reinforce the official narrative that the HDP are dangerous terrorists and that all associated with it are terrorist sympathisers – including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) even though they would not invite the HDP to join their alliance.
Despite all those soldiers and the urgency of the soundtrack, the culminating arrests seem uneventful, which is hardly surprising since the dangerous terrorists are actually political organisers, lawyers, journalists – even theatre actors. Or, as the HDP themselves put it, “Lawyers who could keep an eye on election security, Independent journalists who may report voter fraud, Green Left Party’s election campaign managers…, Printing house owners who work with a political party’s election campaign.”
216 arrest warrants were issued, and more people are expected to be detained. By Friday evening, the number of those detained had risen to 143, of whom 39 had been remanded in custody.
Ali Duran Topuz, writing in Gercek News, emphasises that a further purpose of these particular arrests is to put Erdoğan’s main presidential contender, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, into a position where he must either alienate his alliance partners in the İYİ Party and the more nationalist elements in his own CHP by making a public stand against the detentions, or alienate Kurdish voters by exposing his recent fraternal statement as mere rhetoric. A week ago, Kılıçdaroğlu shared a video in which he stated, “whenever the Palace saw that it was going to lose the elections, the Kurds were labelled as terrorists… There is a destiny that makes Turks and Kurds brothers. I will never, ever allow anyone to harm this fellowship for a few votes.” The HDP and their partners in the Labour and Freedom Alliance have called on all opposition parties to speak up, noting that “every silence will allow fascism to further gain ground”, but they have been met with silence.
As Kılıçdaroğlu said, playing the Kurdish terrorist card to win votes has a long history. It is a history that predates Erdoğan’s rule. Orhan Gazi Ertekin has described the pressure that he was put under as a judge in 1999, when the District Governor tried to persuade him to issue search warrants without evidence before that year’s election.
There have been protests against the detentions by HDP supporters within Turkey – which have themselves been attacked by the police – and international condemnation has come from, among others, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Human Rights Watch, the European Union’s rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sánchez Amor, and the chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the EU-Turkey Committee, Sergey Lagodinsky.
The mass arrests received international news coverage, but, as always, the significance was obscured by the repetition, without comment, of the Turkish government’s claim of “suspected Kurdish militant links”, coupled with the usual comment that the PKK “is considered a terror organization by the United States and the European Union”. Yet again, those terrorist listings are providing Turkey with cover for their oppression.
On Tuesday evening, viewers watching a live television interview with Erdoğan saw the interviewer suddenly stand up and call for an ad-break, while a voice off exclaimed “God help us”. When Erdoğan appeared again briefly after a break, he claimed he had a seriously upset stomach. With only 2 ½ weeks until the crucial elections, when he will defend his presidency and his twenty-year record of power, he had a busy campaigning schedule, but he later cancelled all appointments for the following days. He even resorted to a video link for Thursday’s much promoted ceremony for the arrival of the first fuel at Turkey’s Russian-developed nuclear power plant.
While most mainstream news-sources remained cautious, social media was busy with speculation as to the source of his illness, with many people quoting a report on China’s state television that claimed he had had a heart attack. Nazlan Ertan in Al-Monitor reminds us that this is far from the first major health scare that Erdoğan has faced. In 2006 he was rushed to hospital after losing consciousness. In 2011 he underwent surgery on his lower intestine, and in 2021 health issues were suspected when he failed to attend the Glasgow climate summit. The official account from Turkey’s health minister states that Erdoğan had a gastrointestinal infection. Al Monitor described his appearance on Thursday’s video link as “seemingly recovered but fatigued”. Outwith Erdogan’s followers, official statements will not be granted much credibility, and questions will continue to be raised.
According to the journalist Amed Dicle, at the same time as attacking the Kurds, the Turkish government has been trying to extract support from Abdullah Öcalan, who is held in total isolation in İmralı island prison. In an interview published on 10 April, Dicle told Yeni Yaşam, “we know that there has been a very busy meeting traffic from Ankara to İmralı during this last one and a half and two years”, and that when the government didn’t get the answer they wanted, “[Öcalan’s] isolation was aggravated and disciplinary punishment was given”, and the government played the terrorist card against the Kurds. Dicle claims “The summary of what Mr. Abdullah Öcalan said in these meetings is as follows: ‘There is a movement, a party abroad. Talk to them, they make their own decisions.’”
Writing in Cumhuriyet, Mustafa Balbay commented on Thursday, “Before each election in Ankara, news about whether support bargains were made between the government and Öcalan come to the fore.” Balbay claims that this time Öcalan “was given some promises of ‘freedom’”, but that “Öcalan wanted steps to be taken to solve the Kurdish problem before his own freedom”. Balbay states that some promises were made but that it is rumoured that Öcalan insisted on everything being written down and also made public before the election, and that negotiations broke down in March.
None of this has been proved. Öcalan has had no contact with anyone outwith the prison for over two years. Information can only come through leaks, which can be genuine but can also be orchestrated by the authorities to convey their chosen narrative.
Although Kılıçdaroğlu generally maintains his poll lead for the presidential election, this currently is not enough to take him over the 50% line and so avoid a second-round run-off between himself and Erdoğan. The nature of that run-off would be strongly influenced by the result of the parliamentary vote, with people more generally veering towards a winner. A second stage presidential vote would also leave two dangerous weeks in which Erdoğan might try and manipulate events in his favour. The main opposition alliance has failed to convince most government supporters that they can provide a coherent alternative, and, despite crippling inflation and the disastrous earthquake response, the results of the parliamentary elections are still what British commentators would describe as too close to call.
Yesterday, despite his silence over the detentions, the Labour and Freedom Alliance, dominated by the HDP, made a public declaration of their support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential race – support that before was only implied. At the same time, the Alliance noted that the defeat of fascism also requires a parliamentary majority, and they called on “all the peoples of Turkey” to vote for their alliance to become “a voice, power and decision maker in the parliament”, as “the only way to represent all the oppressed, ignored, abused and exploited”.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is continuing its attempts to harden social divisions, and to portray themselves as the only true believers. In response to Kılıçdaroğlu’s video embracing his Alevi identity and calling for an end to “hurtful sectarian debates”, Erdoğan, who has drawn negative attention to Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity in the past, claimed that “Our religious identity has only one name, and that is being a Muslim”; while the Justice Minister has implied that if the opposition won the elections the opposition would celebrate with champagne through the night, but if the AKP won the AKP would prostrate themselves in gratitude to God.
Home Minister, Süleyman Soylu, has attempted to portray the forthcoming election as a “political coup attempt by the West”. The HDP’s parliamentary group chair, Meral Danış-Beştaş, has claimed that this statement shows him preparing for defeat.
Voting has already begun for the nearly 3 ½ million Turkish citizens who are eligible to vote but live outwith Turkey. Turnout for this group has been only around 50% in previous elections, but voting figures have started strong. Ballot boxes are mainly located in Turkish consulates and votes can be cast up until 9 May. All the political parties are allowed to monitor the voting, although only the three parties with the largest parliamentary representation are able to be actively involved in the voting arrangements, and this does not include the HDP as they are having to run under the banner of the Green Left, which has no MPs. The HDP have organised so that each ballot box has an observer on all the voting days. This is a large task as consulates may have several ballot boxes each. (In Strasbourg there are five boxes on weekdays and ten at the weekend.) On Thursday, when voting started, observers in Frankfurt and Cologne from the CHP and the Green Left caught out some government supporters attempting to vote twice.
Beyond the election
Apart from the election, life goes on, and so do government restrictions. The annual protest calling for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide has again been banned. These remembrances were held from 2005 to 2017 in front of the building where Armenian intellectuals were taken on 24 April 1915 at the start of the genocide. And, in a further example of state hypocrisy, access has been banned to a number of Mezopotamya News Agency reports on sexual attacks, including reports on an alleged prostitution network in state-run dormitories.
However, there have also been some welcome court decisions: perhaps the possible demise of the current government has emboldened the judges – or made them want to demonstrate that they are not totally tied to the current regime. The block imposed on the popular TV drama, Cranberry Sorbet, has been lifted and the series restarted yesterday. Another court ruled that, in calling Erdoğan a dictator, the CHP’s Istanbul provincial chair, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, was making “an observation rather than an insult”, so was not guilty (on this occasion) of insulting the president. And Newroz Uysal, one of Öcalan’s lawyers and one of the last people outside the Turkish authorities to meet with him, was found not guilty of terrorism charges.
Turkey in the European Institutions
In the European institutions, this week saw the publication of a letter to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, signed by fifty members of the European Parliament, which highlights the “credible allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Turkey in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” and calls for a proper investigation; and a group of European MPs attending the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe made a protest against Germany’s attempt to extradite Kurdish activist Kenan Ayaz from Cyprus to Germany, where he would face terrorist charges and possible further extradition to Turkey. Ayaz was granted refugee status in Cyprus because of his political activities in Turkey where he had spent twelve years in prison. In the last six months Germany has already extradited three Kurdish activists from different European countries.
Meanwhile, inside the Council of Europe building, the Turkish delegation was carrying out some earthquake diplomacy with a display of photographs from the earthquake zones that told a very carefully curated story. The exhibition, set up to acknowledge the international solidarity shown following the earthquakes, made sure to send a positive message with pictures of the rescue teams from Greece and Armenia, which are more usually the focus of Turkish vitriol. However, out of the fifteen images showing international rescuers, four depicted help from Turkey’s closest political and military ally, Azerbaijan, whose aggression against Armenia has received substantial and crucial Turkish support. The only other country that got more than one image was France, which had two.
Of course, the most inspiring solidarity was from the people of all provinces of Turkey, whose independent organisational achievements the Turkish government did its best to crush. This solidarity wasn’t the subject of the exhibition, but the images did include the much-written-about Beşiktaş football match when Beşiktaş fans threw toys onto the pitch for children survivors. What the caption failed to mention, is that the fans were also calling for the government to resign due to their lethal failures in both earthquake preparedness and response, that some fans were arrested for protesting, and that President Erdoğan’s alliance partner, Devlet Bahçeli, resigned his club membership in disgust.
Despite the urgent need for logistical help in the earthquake areas, Turkey’s army has continued to focus on attacking Syria and Iraq. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Turkey’s attacks on the PKK’s mountain bases have been combined with pressure designed to force the cooperation of other groups. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has become, effectively, a vassal to the Turkish state – and party chair, Masoud Barzani, last week met with the leader of HÜDA-PAR, the far-right Islamist Kurdish Party that has allied with Erdoğan’s AKP. Now, Turkey is putting pressure on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which dominates politics in the south of the region centred on Sulaymaniyah. The PUK has not joined the KDP in supporting Turkey’s attacks and has been building links with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Turkey has reacted by sanctioning Sulaymaniyah Airport, suspending Turkish flights and closing European airspace, resulting, according to Kurdistan Watch, in a direct loss of nearly half a million US dollars a month, largely from customs dues. Al-Arabiya Al-Jadeed newspaper reports that, under this pressure, the PUK’s Qubad Talabani, who is deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has promised to close all PKK offices and affiliated civil society organisations in Sulaymaniyah.
Turkish attacks continue against North and East Syria. On Monday, shelling from the Turkish occupied areas killed two young sisters and wounded three other children in Tal Tamr. On Tuesday, a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces was killed in Kobanê when a Turkish drone targeted his car.
Tuesday also saw another meeting between the Turkish and Syrian defence ministers in Moscow, and Ezgi Akin observed in Al-Monitor that Turkey was “using the word ‘normalization’ vis-a-vis its ties with Damascus publicly for the first time since their ties were severed.” Although both sides described the meeting as positive, they disagree on what was discussed and there remain major stumbling blocks to any agreement. The next meeting between representatives of the two countries will not take place until after the election, so Erdoğan has failed to achieve the vote-winning agreement that he and Putin had hoped for.
Both Turkey and Syria would like to see an end to the autonomy of North and East Syria. Last week saw reports of the removal of vital agricultural produce to Turkey from Girê Spî, which Turkey occupied in 2019. And in Al-Shahba – part of the Autonomous Administration but isolated from the rest by government-controlled land – the Syrian Government has imposed an increasingly strangling siege. On Thursday evening, fuel for the generators ran out completely and the region, which houses many of the people displaced from Afrîn, has been left without power. With no electricity feeding the communication towers, internet and cellular communication stopped working yesterday. The canton’s Economic and Agriculture Authority has warned that the region is heading towards a humanitarian catastrophe. It will be difficult for the people of Al-Shahba even to let the rest of the world know what is happening.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter