While the curfews in Turkey’s southeastern region continued unabated, the HDP gathered in Ankara to elect its leadership and reaffirm its dedication to finding a peaceful and democratic solution out of the crisis.
Defiant, determined and bellicose; three words capture the general atmosphere at the HDP’s party congress this past Sunday in Ankara, where, for the first time since the party’s inauguration in June 2014, its members gathered to elect a new leadership.
The party stands at a “historical crossroads”, in the words of co-leader Figen Yuksedağ. The HDP is the first political party in the history of modern Turkey that has its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement and has managed to enter parliament. As such, it has a unique opportunity to play a role in the country’s future by being part of the commission that might rewrite the country’s outdated constitution.
At the same time, the party has come under severe pressure now the conflict between the state and the PKK – a banned armed political organisation fighting for Kurdish rights – continues to escalate.
HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş believes that “it’s the responsibility of the HDP to bring an end to the violence” – a task that grows more difficult by the day.
A new start
With the attacks on the party and its supporters in Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara, together with the string of attacks against the party’s offices across the country last August still fresh in everyone’s memory, security was a central concern at the congress.
The venue – a sports hall in a suburb of the Turkish capital – was cordoned off with hundreds of security fences staffed by dozens of police. Each visitor was subjected to several body searches and bag checks before entering the building, both by the police and HDP volunteers – the latter clearly not comfortable with relying on the authorities for security.
“We’re here to make a new start,” said Figen Yuksekdağ, addressing the thousands of party members who had travelled to Ankara from all over the country to attend this important gathering.
“The despotism and oppression in this country needs to be confronted,” she continued. “The political line that has been set out by the current government is not our fate.”
Before Yuksekdağ took the stage, the congress opened with a minute of silence to remember and honour all those who lost their lives in the recent clashes between the Turkish armed forces and Kurdish militants. Besides hundreds of deaths among the warring parties, almost 200 civilians have been killed, according to the latest figures by the Turkish Human Rights Association.
The congress takes places in extraordinary times, when dozens of towns and neighbourhoods have come under siege from the Turkish army and police in the past few months. Round-the-clock curfews have been imposed for weeks – and sometimes months – on end.
As the key political representative of the Kurdish people, the HDP plays a central role in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Unsurprisingly, this role has not been an easy one: “We were declared traitors for supporting the peace process,” Demirtaş said in his speech.
“Nationalists claimed we wanted to divide the country. Now, those who ended the peace process accuse us of being traitors.”
For those who gathered in the sports hall to attend the congress there was little doubt who was to blame for the recent escalation in violence. “There is a destructive political regime ruling in Turkey,” Yuksekdağ stated. “And this political regime is using its power to destroy.”
Many references were made to the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and its former leader, the current President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Accusing both the ruling party and the president of closing down all “democratic channels” and wasting energy on the “promotion of the presidential model”, the HDP’s leadership nonetheless reaffirmed its determination to continue its efforts towards a democratisation of the republic.
“How to govern this pluralist country? With one man, and one party?” Demirtaş asked his audience rhetorically. “No, it will be governed by decentralised, autonomous organisations that function on the basis of direct democracy.
“Strengthening democracy is the only way to save Turkey from disaster,” he concluded.
Drawing attention to the fact that those who call for more local autonomy and decentralisation are being prosecuted, while citizens could “advocate the presidential system” with impunity, the party’s co-leader continued to stress the need for a political solution to the conflict.
“The AKP regime attempts to eliminate the Kurdish resistance. Let dialogue and negotiation replace the violence and crackdowns of the Turkish state.”
Despite the obvious trauma of party members and representatives due to the collective punishment of Turkey’s Kurdish population, participants at the congress remained defiant and hopeful that the ultimate victory would be for the people of Turkey.
Nowhere was this sentiment more clearly expressed than on the stands, where the thousands of attendees to the congress interrupted the speakers, holding their hands high up in the air with their fingers making the V-sign while shouting the slogan: “Kurdistan will be the grave of fascism.”
This article was originally written for Al Araby / The New Arab.