Down at the headquarters of HDP, the Kurdish political party, on a half-finished shopping street in Gaziantep (“Hero City”), they had a state-of the art home theatre projector running CNN Turkey, scrolling out the count after voting closed at 5pm. But by seven, there were already too many people arriving to watch the roll call of Turkey’s 81 provinces/seats, historic names flashing by — Ankara: no results yet , Konya: no results yet — and as they put the projector out onto the street and hung a huge white sheet from the second-floor window.
As real numbers started to come in, and as the HDP’s vote looked solid, the street started to choke with people, five hundred, then a thousand. A serious young woman read out the numbers for those who couldn’t see, a cheer went up every three or four seats — Gaziantep: HDP on 16%, and then Diyarbakir: 77% — and the crowd went wild. Women, half in headscarves, half in Real Housewives of Izmir make-up, they ululated, men in tiny moustaches stopped smoking and yelled and started smoking again, silver trays for teas were passed through the crowd, syrup sellers groaning under huge copper urns strapped to their backs banged their lids together, and a drummer took up a muffled thump, which was kinda annoying (“is that a traditional thing?” “No, he’s just an idiot. You see him round everywhere”).
There were tears, there was laughter, as the nationwide result came through: HDP 10.6%, then 11.2%, by 9pm, 11.6%, heading towards 12%. “This is great,” said Mehmet, a dude in neat goatee and smooth-jazz white fedora, who’d been driving us round all day, ”it’s a result too big for them to steal!”. The HDP had cleared the 10% threshold required for a party to get into parliament, an achievement that will take them from having no seats (as an organised party) to having around 80 in the 550-seat parliament. The results said it all: votes of 50%, 60%, 70% from Kurdish dominated provinces in the south-east, where support for the ruling social-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has run strong, to 15% in Istanbul and other cities where the Kurdish vote was supplemented by the Turkish left.
Fresh cheers went up as it became clear that not only had the HDP vote gone up, but the ruling AKP vote had gone down, losing nearly 7% — 3-4% to the HDP, and 3-4% to the MHP, a party to the right of the AKP — leaving it with around 255-260 seats, down from the more than 320 it had held previously, and short of a majority to govern in its own right. As the HDP vote ticked over to 12.6%, a black SUV swept up, the doors whirred open, and Celal Dogan, regional leader of the HDP, stepped out with entourage. Huge, paunchy, white-haired, in a light-blue blazer, former mayor of the city, he was a big man in every sense. Ragamuffin kids swept after him, after staring open-mouthed at the polished-wood interior of his car, as he glad-handed his way to the door.
He paused at the entrance for an impromptu speech: “Don’t celebrate! Don’t celebrate!” he said “This isn’t over yet!” This had been the line all the way through the last days of the campaign. Don’t celebrate. Keep your wits about you. They will do everything to take this victory from us. The crowd quieted a little. “Celebrate tomorrow!” Dogan added, before disappearing in to the HQ. And in the Kurdish districts of this minority Kurdish city, hills a couple of miles up the road, fireworks started, and joyous gunfire. “Ha it’s all right,” Mehmet repeated. “They can’t steal this.” True. The projected count was too large now to suddenly dip below 10% with a few thousand ballot boxes loaded on trucks and never seen again.
There was everything one could want in a victory, except booze. I was hanging for a beer. None to be seen. I thought I better do some work and flipped the notebook out. “So, Mehmet, what does this mean for Kurdish strategy now? What will the policy be?” “The policy, my friend, is we will have 80 seats! Now you must excuse me!” and he cocked his smooth-jazz hat and made a beeline for some of the female electoral observers he’d been driving round all day. He was a big aubergine in the local party, it seemed, and also a Kurdish poet, with a stack of his slim volumes in the back of his car. Andy, our translator, opened one at random. “Your body is like roses,” he read out. Oh god. “I translate also,” he said staring into the eyes of the mixed company through the rear view mirror. “At the moment, Virginia Woolf.” Oh, come on.
The whole party had been working hard for months; he was putting in a double shift today. Suddenly we were all going to a party “at Mehmet’s”, the women announced. “Yes, you’re all invited,” Mehmet drawled through the corner of his mouth with great sincerity. Clearly we were celebrating today. Good to see some election day traditions are universal. The others piled into the van, went to the hills. I made my excuses and went back to the Novotel and watched CNN in the bar, just in time to see a spokesman for the AKP try to explain this disastrous result. He looked, as do all Turkish minor political functionaries, like Blakey from On the Buses or Grahame Morris, and he was making heavy weather of it. “He is saying that this is a victory for the AKP,” a bartender snorted. “That they should now institute Erdogan’s program for the presidency.” In the distance the gunfire continued.
“This has been one of the most significant elections for Turkey in decades.”
The release was earned. It had been a tense day, at the end of a tense campaign. On Friday at a rally in Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkey’s Kurds, the climax of the campaign, two bombs had gone off; the first a smoke decay, the second packed with bolts and ball bearings, killing two people and shredding the limbs of a dozen more. Who set it and for whom remains a mystery and is likely to remain so. They were the fifth and sixth deaths of HDP workers in the campaign — a figure down from the ’90s, when 50 or 60 would be murdered, but a measure of how brutal the contest remains.
At polling stations across the country and the region there’d been reports of harassment and obstruction, of HDP observers refused entry to stations, international observers blocked. Tempers were high, but not always on topic. We piled into one place, a concrete-blocky high school, with no shade and the mandatory gold-leaf bust of Attaturk outside, arriving as where there was shouting from a second-storey window, and someone leaning out and calling for the police, who were lounging around outside smoking, seemingly with two or three on the go at the same time. They ran in as everyone was running out. It sounded suddenly dangerous, but it turned out to be a land dispute between neighbours.
We left and an hour later, the AKP finance minister arrived, made a tour of the joint, was told by some lawyer-observers he couldn’t come in with his bodyguards — who were then beaten by said bodyguards — and left, telling the crowd he would “bring these schools down around your ears”. Nothing really big happened but from across the country, hundreds of reports of minor harassment rolled in through the day and night.
The tension was high because this has been one of the most significant elections for Turkey in decades. For the AKP and its supporters, it represented a push to try to win two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, around 350 seats, which would allow the country’s President, and past prime minister, Recep Erdogan, to change the constitution, strengthening executive power, and creating a more US-style system, rather than the Parliament-dominated one currently in place. Such ratios are a complex issue, but not for the AKP, whose prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, declared parliaments to be “the curse of the world”, so y’know.
To have any chance of achieving this, the AKP had to keep the HDP’s vote below the 10% threshhold. For the HDP, formed as a complex coalition, dominated by the HDP party itself, but with others, such as various socialist parties and the Greens having candidates in its list, getting across the line was vital — since, had they failed, they would never get the chance again. Getting that vote meant drawing a number of Kurds away from the AKP who have long supported its religious conservatism (against the Attaturkist, i.e. nationalist, secular CHP, now down to about 25%, and out of power for decades), and also getting enough votes from Turks wanting to put a halt to Erdogan’s power grab and seeing a switch to the HDP as part of that strategy.
Like most Kurdish groups, the HDP has a progressivism born of struggle, with the party requiring its candidate lists in each region to be 50/50. The Greens have the No. 1 spot in several province/electorates, and one No.1 candidate in the Black Sea area is openly gay, a pretty daring thing in Turkey. But it’s been further infused by the presence of leftist parties, often very left indeed — the party’s co-leader Figen Yuksekdag is a Turk, and she’s a member of a small Marxist socialist party with an armed wing currently fighting Islamic State in Syria. For some Turks, the HDP is simply a representative of the PKK, the armed group that waged ruthless war during the ’80s and ’90s (and got it back from the Turkish army).
But despite the occasional sighting of a flag featuring Ocalan, the PKK leader, now imprisoned on a Turkish island, the HDP is a civil movement started afresh. Bizler Meclise “all of us into parliament together”, its slogan read — more elegantly in the original — positioning itself very much in the civic republican tradition adopted by groups such as Syriza and Sinn Fein, looking to a wider conception of the world. They were helped enormously in this by Erdogan and the AKP, who quite aside from a power grab, started a peace process of sorts and then denied it (“there is no Kurdish question”), ploughed into old Istanbul to throw up shopping malls and faux-Ottoman replica buildings (leading to the Gezi Park protests), told women to stay at home, tried to ban alcohol in Istanbul — in Istanbul! It’s like a giant outdoor bar! — and have brought in hundreds of pettifogging regulations.
In a country where 12-year-olds smoke while driving dad’s van to make deliveries, no movie or TV program can show smoking or drinking — fags and bottles must be shimmied out. Flicking across from CNN to a showing of Goodnight and Good Luck, Clooney’s dumb Ed Murrow flick, it was all blur. God knows what Mad Men looks like here. The revellers straggled back in. Back on CNN, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas was speaking, a man with the same bearing as Tsipras. “This is a victory for all the Turkeys,” Andy translated. I was moved enough not to make a crap joke.
The Kurds had been wary of the Gezi Park movement, but the HDP had become its continuation. It was a long way from government, but it was an equal distance on from a time when the Kurdish language itself could not be spoken. As the dawn rose, the waiters began putting out breakfast, menemen and tahini, candied fruits, cheeses, syrups and juices, all in their dozens, the requisites of a civilisation of filigree and finesse. Erdogan put out a statement acknowledging that no party had a majority. In the distant hills, the gunfire continued.