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Bringing the Resistance to Parliament

The bombing of a Peoples’ Democratic Party rally in Diyarbakir shows how threatened Turkey’s rulers have become.

Kurdish mourners carry the coffin of Ramazan Yildiz, one of two people killed in blasts at an election rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Osman Orsal / Reuters

On Friday, the election rally of Turkey’s left opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Diyarbakir started out with special promise.

There were witty signs and children with balloons. There were even a few Turkish flags, a rare sight for a demonstration in a city where, until recently, Kurds were rounded up and tortured in a prison flying that red banner.

Here in the heart of the Kurdish base of the HDP, the streets leading away from the square were backed up with people for nearly a kilometer in each direction.

The cheerful, hopeful, rally was soon interrupted. Two cluster bombs, fashioned out of small camping-size gas cylinders packed with shrapnel, wounded upwards of four hundred.

According to the Health Assembly of the Democratic Society Congress, a body affiliated with the Kurdish movement, four people were killed as of yesterday, one of them a teenage boy. The placement of the bombs near street level shredded the legs of many there; twelve would lose limbs in the coming hours. Attendees had to wrap the wounds of the injured in colorful HDP flags and carry them away.

Witnesses said that armored police vehicles arrived with a fusillade of tear gas before a single ambulance was in sight. And even as official sources were still reporting the double bombing as an accidental explosion in an electrical transformer, many in the crowd were chanting a slogan that had gone unspoken throughout the HDP’s buoyant, pluralistic two-month election campaign: “revenge.”

Two days before the bombing in Diyarbakir, the Ankara-based NGO Human Rights Association had announced that the HDP had suffered 168 attacks during the election season, including a simultaneous bomb attack on two party buildings. Party members escaped injury only by chance — activists had headed to the balcony for a tea and cigarette break when the bombs exploded inside.

The attacks on the HDP constituted around 90 percent of all attacks on political parties during the election.

A day after the Human Rights Association’s announcement, thirty-five-year-old Hamdullah Öğe, who drove one of the party’s election vehicles in the poor, mainly Kurdish province of Bingöl, was taken from his car and executed on the side of the road, just two kilometers from his village. He was apparently tortured and then killed by a firing squad.

The following morning, a massive crowd of fascist youth gathered ahead of a HDP rally in Erzurum. The group lit a HDP supporter’s car on fire, along with the driver. Turkish police stood by and watched.

HDP supporters have little doubt about who was behind the string of attacks. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has declared their hatred of the HDP vocally and often. If AKP can manage to drive the HDP’s vote share down in Sunday’s election, it will have massive political ramifications.

Turkey’s elections law, a legacy of the 1980 military coup, denies parties with less than 10 percent of the national vote entry into parliament and provides for the redistribution of those votes to other parties. In the event that the HDP does not reach the electoral threshold, the MP positions in many provinces will end up being awarded to the AKP.

This could give the ruling party enough representatives to form a single-party, majority government. This, in turn, would be the first step in the AKP’s proposed plan to move Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, giving broad executive power to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

As both the attacks and the AKP’s anti-HDP rhetoric have intensified, party leaders repeatedly urged HDP supporters to be calm and to refuse any kind of street clashes or tension. Arrests and clashes with police, they said, can only do harm to their electoral chances.

The most recent poll numbers put the HDP’s vote share at 12.6 percent. This is the highest number ever attained by any party with any association with the Kurdish movement, which includes guerrillas who have been fighting an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984.

Political parties that defended Kurdish rights were brutally repressed during the period of martial law and dirty war in the Kurdish region in the ensuing three decades. The paranoid fantasy of a guerrilla hiding behind every Kurdish politician has granted easy legitimacy to any political cleansing operation against Kurdish activists.

Most recently, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was raided in a massive state operation that put at least ten thousand people behind bars.

Since its founding in 2012, the HDP has strove to reclaim space for Kurdish politics, while at the same time incorporating a wide range of oppressed groups — including women, LGBTQ people, and non-Muslims.

The HDP’s elections manifesto is organized under a number of headings — “we are youth,” “we are women,” “we are the rainbow,” “we are workers.” The proposals include recognizing domestic labor and bringing it into the social security system; mandatory gender education and native language options in schools; and abolishing the security apparatuses erected after the 1980 military coup.

The autonomous elections manifesto issued by the party’s women’s wing is not limited to discussion of bread-and-butter women’s issues like childcare or abortion, but makes gender-based proposals on topics ranging from environmentalism to the peace process.

The appeal to the marginalized has made for a sometimes tense juggling act. Some HDP voters may ultimately base their identity on the oppression of others — for example, the “strategic” nationalist left voters who retain their traditional discriminatory attitude toward Kurds while voting for the HDP in order to stop the AKP’s constitutional reform bid.

Still, there is excitement around the program. Party co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş has called the two manifestos balm for Turkey’s wounds, from economic inequality to the country’s growing number of femicides to a history of genocide and dirty war against non-Turks.

As a result of its broad tent approach to organizing, the HDP is not primarily based in the Kurdish region. It is a national party with candidates from a range of ethnicities. The party has a full gender parity policy and a quota for LGBTQ representation. Its election propaganda has placed a strong emphasis on peace, fraternity, and social reconciliation, without distancing the party from revolutionary groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Meanwhile, the Turkish state has continued a long-term increasing military build-up in the Kurdish region, betraying the AKP’s main promise to the Kurds: peace. In April, the state launched a military operation on Mount Tendürek, a guerrilla-held area in the Kurdish Ağrı province, in violation of the ceasefire.

A group of local HDP supporters, getting wind of the soldiers’ mobilization, headed up the mountain. Their goal was to move between the two sides and prevent clashes from starting and potentially derailing the peace process.

Military helicopters opened fire, killing one HDP activist. Two PKK guerrillas died as the fighting continued. However, the crowd of civilians was able to evacuate wounded Turkish soldiers. In a cell phone video from that moment, one of the them can be heard saying, “we’ll teach humanity to you” as he helps a wounded Turkish soldier down the mountain. “Great humanity” has been one of the key HDP slogans in the elections campaign.

The occasional Turkish flag bobbing among the crowd on Friday, then, was part of the HDP’s general elections campaign strategy. The crescent and star did wave a bit awkwardly in a Diyarbakir crowd more accustomed to the flags of the PKK and the YPG/YPJ — the fighters in Rojava, in whose ranks hundreds of Turkish Kurds have died in Islamic State attacks more or less openly supported by the Turkish state.

Many of the HDP’s Turkish and Kurdish candidates who took the stage on Friday used two languages, but the main speaker was Selahattin Demirtaş, a politician who started his career in Diyarbakir and is one of the party’s two co-leaders (along with Figen Yüksekdağ, who comes from a socialist party and a largely non-Kurdish province). Demirtaş was preparing to speak when the explosions happened.

Announcers called for calm over the sound system and Demirtaş quickly phoned into the national television station, imploring the people of Diyarbakir to disperse and head to the party’s provincial building for an announcement about the explosion. “Don’t engage any provocations,” was the urgent request from party leaders, issued repeatedly over the next twenty-four hours.

Demirtaş also addressed the angry crowd from the roof of a party bus, enjoining the people of Diyarbakir to give their response to the bombing at the polls rather than in the streets. His words were frequently buried in microphone static and the crowd’s chants of “killer Erdoğan.” He ended with an assurance: “Peace will win; freedom will win.”

As night fell on Diyarbakir, cars diffused throughout the city with HDP flags waving from their windows and horns blaring. The sound of pots and pans protests from balconies rang out for hours. Several other cities joined in the noise protests. But given the magnitude of the attack, the streets were relatively calm.

In Diyarbakir, huge crowds had gathered at the entrances to the city’s hospitals, hoping to give blood. At the research and teaching hospital, staff turned crowds away, announcing from megaphones that they could not store any more blood.

The next day, Diyarbakir residents flocked to immense funeral ceremonies for the bombing victims. Many marched behind a banner that echoed Demirtaş’ call for peace and left flowers at the site of the electrical transformer where one of the bombs had gone off.

While many groups kept moving up and down the streets of the city, a group of children and teenagers took up a position on top of the transformer. Few of them were older than sixteen-year-old bombing victim Ramazan Yıldız.

This act of defiance by Kurdish youth is mirrored in a common slogan heard after the bombing, a twist on the HDP’s election tagline of “we’re the HDP; us to parliament.” The new slogan is “we’re the PKK; us to parliament.” Even if the slogan is an impossible demand in Turkey’s current political climate, it represents the possibility that youth left with no choice for generations but to take up arms in the mountains will grow up in a different political world.

Yesterday, police rounded up and arrested dozens of HDP election observers in Istanbul. Towards evening, gunmen raked a Diyarbakır café with bullets. It was flying HDP flags. Party leaders repeated the call for calm increasingly frequently, but crowds were loth to go home for hours.

Depending on the results at the polls today, they may not be able to keep the masses smiling much longer. If the HDP falls beneath the electoral threshold, the country can likely expect clashes. If the planned electoral reforms pass, Turkey will start a new political conversation. The HDP campaign’s smiling attempt to overcome the structure of state violence and marginalization will shift to other discussions.

A system that thrives on the exclusion and devaluation of the lives of children who shout, “we’re the PKK” may gets its lesson in humanity after all.