In an environment that included government-appointed trustees, detentions, and arrests, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) held its third party-wide congress on February 23 in Ankara, as the major media outlets in the country, which are almost all pro-government, ignored the event. HDP members flocked to the capital on Sunday in higher numbers than the congress two years ago, and the venue, the Ankara Sports Hall, was jam-packed. About the same number of people gathered outside, unable to enter the facility.
The party’s previous congress, the third ordinary congress, was held on Feb. 11, 2018. Buses with HDP members wishing to attend the congress from all over the country were stopped by police; many party members were detained. Despite the extraordinarily oppressive environment of the day, the HDP electorate arrived in Ankara in hundreds and were able to make an appearance in the congress hall. Afterwards, they left Ankara quietly. That enthusiastic crowd was a surprise even for HDP executives.
When we consider the congress this past Sunday, the crowd was actually extraordinary in number when one thinks of the pressure the HDP has been exposed to since June 7, 2015, when the ruling AKP was not able to form the government alone for the first time since it came to power in 2002 due to the election results.
There were less slogans chanted when compared to the previous congress. The number of young people in the hall was fewer than last time, hence the decrease in enthusiasm. The HDP electorate, before any major election, are defined as “the most conscious electorate and the most politically-minded voters” by TV commentators, giving credit where it is due. Once more, the electorate gave the message that they will stand by their party, but were restrained in terms of how much they cheered.
An HDP politician I talked with did not agree with me and said, “There is an enormous crowd here. We were expecting, under these harsh winter conditions, that only delegates from the west would be able to come, but attendance has been extraordinary from the region also. The reason there are less young people is due to the police and judicial operations that became more frequent as the congress neared. A huge number of young members of the party have been detained or arrested. You are saying the masses are not enthusiastic, but I interpret it as a dignified and determined attitude. What else can we do!”
The most applauded part of the congress was when the messages sent from the prison by HDP members under arrest were read aloud.
Cynical smiles greeted the comment that the diverse HDP is similar to Noah's ark. This message from the former co-heads of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, currently under arrets, was like a response to this Noah's ark interpretation:
“We know the journey was tough. Our ship has been hit heavily many times. Our captains have been arrested, together with our experienced crew members. However, they may not know that each passenger is more resilient than the other, even stronger than the other. Neither the bridge nor the engine room were left vacant. Nemrut’s party was not able to stop the millions and now, it has split into three pieces. But Noah’s ark is strong, determinedly navigating firmly toward its post in one piece. Hail to the ones who built this ship and who run it. Hail to the ones who fell to the ground for this cause and the ones who were captured. We said this ship would reach the port; let this be our word, with God’s help. Now the target is to form the people’s government. Godspeed to all of us.”
The new co-head of the HDP, Mithat Sancar, and the re-elected co-head Pervin Buldan emphasized “democratic alliance” in their speeches. They reminded the electorate that the HDP was working towards gaining power.
The HDP has been subjected to very heavy pressures for years and they are still subjected to that pressure today. If all of this had happened to another political party, that party would have been forced to close its branches in several provinces and districts. However, this situation does not mean the party cannot be criticized.
For a long time, the HDP has been criticized for not being able to switch from its defensive position to an offensive one, and for not being able to generate effective policies. In its claim to be the party of the oppressed, the HDP can also be questioned how close it is to these segments of the society. The distance between the locals and the central administration is not even spoken out loud. A group of MPs are criticized for staying at a distance from the electorate. It has been highlighted that the distance between the grassroots and the party has increased. On the other hand, the grassroots is giving a direct message to the government in elections and in congresses. They are saying that they are behind the HDP.
Another party member I chatted with at Sunday’s congress said, “Looking at the last two congresses, I am asking, is it the HDP giving hope to the people or are the people giving hope to the HDP?”
The change in the party assembly has instilled hope for those criticizing the HDP. If certain names who are liked and trusted at the grassroots are assigned to the party’s decision-making mechanism, the Central Executive Board, it means this enthusiasm will not end in disappointment.