Friendly neighborhood radicals

I have read stories about their offices being bombed, their activists being accosted, their stalls destroyed, and I’ve seen evidence of it. The president and his party hate them and none of the other leading political parties is incredibly happy about their skyrocketing popularity.

For a group that is threatened and opposed from all sides, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) runs an upbeat and positive campaign. Their tables are well staffed by smiling people who hand out cookies, fruit, and literature. They often dance and I must say that of all the parties campaigning in Istanbul, they have the best music. They all know their stuff too. They patiently explain their positions to whoever stops by and that number seems to be increasing all of the time.

Today, while out for a stroll in Cihangir (Ja-han-geer) I stopped by the HDP table to talk with some party activists about the June 7 elections and whatever else might come to mind in casual conversation.

As I approached the table, I was immediately struck by the music they were playing. The song was El Pueblo Unido, first made popular in Chile 1970’s during Salvador Allende’s preesidency. I heard it a lot in Venezuela but it was a little surprising to hear it today.

The woman I spoke to was named Fusun. She seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet her; an English speaking member of the “Turkish SYRIZA.” It turns out that many of them speak English and they all seem to know plenty about the big political questions in other countries, especially in Europe. We talked about the possibility of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, the demonstration in Rome that Nathan and I attended on March 28, and the recent successes of Spain’s new anti-austerity party, Podemos.

“And of course you will about Podemos, having been to Spain.”

Sadly, I never met a member of Podemos during my brief time in Spain. When I told her I was working out plans to take a trip to Athens she turned to her comrades and said something that made them all smile and nod. Supposedly this party is very provincial. They’re never described as anything other than “pro-Kurdish” in the press.

“Yes, many Turks take issue with this part of HDP but I ask them: ‘Have you ever been to Diyarbakır? Do you own land or have a family there? Then why do you care whether it’s part of Turkey?'”

She makes it a point to explain that she’s not Kurdish and neither are half the people standing there, and neither are many of the new members of the party. It matters to her that a white Turk is seen as a member of the party which is “pro-Kurdish” because one can be such even if one isn’t Kurdish. Besides, there’s more to the HDP than this one question. They’re a democratic-socialist, feminist, environmentalist party, and they’re increasingly popular with working class people of all ethnicities.

They want to make Turkey more equal, more democratic, more representative, and more peaceful than it’s ever been. That’s what makes them attractive to increasing numbers of people, whether Kurdish or Turkish (or Armenian or Greek).

“During the presidential election, maybe 14 people came to visit this table. Now we have 40 members of the party just in this neighborhood.”

She’s justifiably proud of the party’s recent achievements. Not long ago they were lambasted by the primary opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for running at all, since Turkish law requires more than 10% of the vote to even enter the parliament and a party which gets less than 10% loses its votes to the that with the largest share. The HDP, it was argued, was going to help the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) win a huge majority. Now that it’s fairly obvious that the HDP will pass the threshold, CHP leaders are saying it’s “good for democracy” that smaller parties will be represented in the legislature.

I wanted to ask about the attacks, the demonization of the party, their underdog status, but Fusan just seemed so enthusiastic to talk about the minimum wage, the role of women, the representation of Armenians and other minorities in the party. She also was quite proud of the fact that the HDP was full of young people and new ideas, and that the party itself was a new formation which brought together experienced and fresh-faced radicals of all kinds.

“So much of the Left here in Turkey, and around the world, is just stuck in its own little traditions and histories as if things don’t move forward. Look at where we’re doing things, it’s where we’re open to develop new ideas, to be concerned with now.”

Apparently, the HDP allows anyone to join so long as they agree with the party program. All sorts of ideological and political questions are to be debated inside the party and it aims to be broadly representative along the model of several new parties in Europe.

There was a demonstration about to take place wherein scientists, authors, and other professionals were to do a short march and hold a press conference designed to counter president Erdoğan’s claims that the HDP is an anti-intellectual force. I wanted to catch it so I big a hasty exit, though not before we swapped emails and Fusan gave me a lapel pin.

Along the way I stopped at another HDP table and had a similar experience. This time a man gave me a sticker.

– Jason

PS: If you’d like to get a sense of what hanging out with the HDP is like, watch this campaign video. It’s pretty much like this…