The past two weeks have witnessed an escalating animosity between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the minority pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP), and it can all be traced back to contraband tea; or rather, a running joke about contraband tea.
On December 26, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement revealing that the planned meeting with HDP party leaders had been cancelled. Scheduled for December 31st, the meeting agenda was to discuss the drafting of the new constitution and to invite the input of HDP leaders in this process. The adoption of a new constitution and a presidential system of government has been among the chief aims of the AKP during the past few years; an aim that was threatened after the June elections in which HDP votes upset the parliamentary majority held by AKP. The AKP regained their parliamentary majority after the early elections held in November, and HDP and AKP relations have been strained ever since, explaining AKPs attempts at excluding the HDP from constitutional negotiations.
In the statement released by the Prime Minister’s office revealing the cancellation of meeting with HDP leaders; “Statements made by HDP leaders intent on polarizing the nation and completely out-of-line with our culture of peaceful coexistence”, were cited as the reasons behind the cancellation of the meeting. “There is no longer any point to meeting with and sitting at the negotiating table with this distasteful approach.”
The cited “statements by HDP leaders” seems to have been referencing the comments made by HDP Ankara representative Sirri Süreyya Önder concerning the scheduled meeting between HDP party leaders and Prime Minister Davutoglu. “Given the current situation of violent conflict, if the Prime Minister meets with us without securing our basic human rights to life, he may as well drink our contraband tea and be on his way,” stated Önder, referencing violent clashes between state forces and PKK militants in Turkey’s Southeast, clashes which have claimed the lives of many civilians.
Önder’s reference to contraband tea may have been a mocking jab at stereotypes held by those in the west of Turkey regarding contraband markets and illegal activity in Kurdish provinces. Featured on a political commentary TV program later that week through a phone call, Önder elaborated that his comments were not intended to be funny but “point to a painful reality,” indicating a possible reference to the Roboski Massacre of 2011 in which 34 Kurdish civilians, mostly teenagers, were killed in a Turkish airstrike while smuggling contraband products along the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Directly referencing Önder’s comments, the statement released by the Prime Minister’s office noted “Our position against terrorism and our efforts to combat terrorism for the safety and welfare of the public is absolutely non-negotiable… The Prime Minister has never declined an offer for tea in any of the cities and provinces during his visits extended as a symbol of hospitality. However, there is no meaningful dialogue to be had in the company of those who have completely deserted this hospitable culture.”
The cancellation of the meeting with HDP party leaders came during an already tense moment in HDP-AKP relations, with the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) General Committee Meeting set to be held on the same day. Hosted in the Southeastern Province of Diyarbakir, the DTK General Committee met between December 26 and 27, with participation from party members of the HDP, the Labour Party (EMEP), The Persecuted Socialists Party (ESP) and the Peoples Democratic Congress (HDK).
Speaking at the Congress, HDP co-chair Demirtas supported a push towards the establishment of autonomous regions across the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Southeast Turkey. Demirtas stated that “For those who say ‘I will destroy you’ simply for thinking about of the notion of self-government, trenches and barricades are not an exaggerated response. What else should they do?” He further argued; “They say we should solve our issues through political means. But the notion of self-government has never been seriously brought to the negotiating table in Ankara… Is it a sin to debate the model of administration in Turkey?”
The General Committee resulted in the drafting of a “Declaration Concerning Self-Government as a Political Solution.” The Declaration recommended: the creation of city wide self-autonomous regions, the institutionalization of regionally based public security forces working in coordination with the central public security forces, reform of the education system to include regional languages in the curriculum and their acceptance as official languages, the equal participation of women in all decision-making bodies, and finally, regional control and administration over natural resources.
Demirtas’s statements and the controversial Declaration at the Committee meeting drew widespread criticism from mainstream media outlets and politicians. Days after the DTK General Committee meeting, the Ankara Republic Attorney General began an investigation of Demirtas’s statements as potentially constituting “Crimes against the constitutional design and the administration of the constitution” according to Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code. Speaking to journalist on his way back from Saudi Arabia, President Erdogan controversially called for the parliamentary immunity of HDP co-chairs Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag to be suspended so they can be prosecuted for their alleged crimes against the constitution.
In the latest development in this rapidly deteriorating political atmosphere, the AKP-backed Today newspaper released an article on January 3 claiming Demirtas requested anti-tank missiles from the Russian foreign Minister during his recent visit to Moscow. The HDP Press Office responded by stating that the claims made in the article are “‘incomprehensible, delusional, and false…We strongly oppose this latest product of the AKP backed, mud-media Today newspaper whose lies and shamelessness knows no boundaries, and we leave them and their falsity to their own devices.”
Underlying these blame-game exchanges is what may be a pivotal moment in Turkey’s political history with the developing efforts to draft a new constitution. As a significant minority party, the HDP has a unique opportunity to be a part of the discussion and the debate surrounding the new constitution, and to make some inroads for the cause of greater autonomy in the Kurdish provinces.
The cruel irony of course is that Demirtas and Yüksekdag are being accused of “crimes against the constitutional design and the administration of the constitution” by the very same administration pushing to draft a new constitution. As Demirtas expressed during the DTK General Committee, there seems to be double-standard applied when discussing the constitution. “Everyone is allowed to have their own ideas about the model government, they want a Presidential system, but to us they say ‘we will never debate the notion of having self-autonomous regions’…Everyone is allowed to talk about the status of the Kurds except for the Kurds themselves!”
The double standards surrounding the dialogue of the “Kurdish problem” in mainstream Turkish society and the acts of state violence committed against Kurdish civilians, as expressed by Sirri Sürreya Önder in his ‘contraband tea’ remarks, are legitimate grievances of the Kurdish community in Turkey. However, given the political fallout of these kind of rhetorically aggressive remarks, one has to question whether this stance is furthering or hindering the legitimate Kurdish cause for greater justice.
The AKP sees HDP as a dangerous political rival, given the surprise upset of the parliamentary balance last June ousting AKP from its position as the majority party. And AKP’s greatest potential weapon against HDP is their mainstream perception as representing the dangerous “Other,” the traitor, the wolf in sheep’s clothing conspiring against the Turkish state in cahoots with dark, foreign imperial powers (echoing the mainstream meta-narrative of Turkish-Kurdish history).
The recent article in Today concerning Demirtas’s alleged alliance with the Russian foreign minister was a carefully calculated exercise in tapping into the mainstream fears of the Kurds as the “Other,” simultaneously capitalizing on current Turkish animosity towards Russia after the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet in late November. Unfortunately, over the course of the past few weeks HDP leaders have played directly into AKP hands by engaging in aggressive political rhetoric. The resulting political climate has only further alienated the HDP from the mainstream Turkish public, making prospects for a more inclusive political future not completely beyond hope, but significantly dimmer.