On April 24th in 1915, a sinister and wide scale operation was underway in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Armenian intellectuals and skilled professionals were being rounded up in droves throughout the city by order of Ottoman statesman Talat Paşa. Among the detained Armenians were several elected officials of the Ottoman Parliament. One month later, most of these Armenian intellectuals had been killed.
Fast forward 101 years. On April 21st 2016, an Armenian parliamentary member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Garo Paylan wanted to make a statement on the approaching 101st anniversary of what Armenian communities call the “Armenian genocide.” The term “genocide” is highly disputed between Turkish and Armenian communities for both moral and economic reasons, as it has both psychological consequences for the Turkish nation’s self-identity as well as potential punitive economic consequences as a violation of international law.
In remembrance and perhaps in protest of the largely unacknowledged events of 1915, HDP MP Garo Paylan placed portraits of the murdered Armenian Ottoman Parliamentarians on the desks of present day parliament seats. He shared this powerful and symbolic imagery on his Twitter account with the caption: “The Armenian Parliamentarians who served in the Ottoman Parliament and in 1915 were arrested and later killed; 101 years later, they are back in parliament.”
The portraits were placed on the desks of the HDP seats in parliament, the project being headed up by a HDP member after all. If you follow Turkish politics, you may have heard of the HDP as a party deeply involved in the conflict ongoing in Turkey’s south east against the armed Kurdish nationalist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In fact, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claims that the HDP is merely the political extension of the PKK.
Much of the Turkish public, informed by state-run media, seems to agree.
Considering this common perception of the HDP as the political front for Kurdish militancy, one might wonder; what does this Kurdish nationalist party have to do with a public protest of the Armenian genocide? But I think this puzzling question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of who the HDP actually is.
Whose Party is it anyway?
It would be a mistake to claim that the HDP does not support Kurdish identity, autonomy, and cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurds. It absolutely does. And the majority of HDP supporters and party officials are in fact Kurdish. But the political movement of the HDP has a much broader scope than a singular vision of Kurdish nationalism. And a closer look at the anatomy of the party will reveal that their support for Kurdish rights is part of a larger campaign to advocate for all of Turkey’s marginalized groups.
A number of social groups have been marginalized by the dominant cultural and political narrative of Turkish identity since the founding of the modern nation in 1923. Groups that lie outside of the dominant cultural narrative of Turkishness include religious, sectarian, and ethnic minorities. This dynamic of marginalization has only intensified under the current AKP administration, whose rhetoric has increasingly turned divisive and domineering towards anyone who falls outside of their notion of monolithic Turkishness; essentially, religious, sunni, morally puritanical, and for all intents and purposes, male.
If we look at all the groups that have been historically marginalized by mainstream Turkish society, we see them at the forefront of the HDP. The HDP, formed in 2012, truly represents a historical landmark in terms of the diversity it has brought to the sphere of Turkish politics. Running up to the June 2015 elections, the HDP ballot list drew a good deal of attention for breaking some of the unspoken taboos of candidacy in Turkish politics.
The 2015 HDP ballot list featured a number of religious, ethnic and cultural minorities. For the first time in Turkish history, a Yezidi was elected into the Turkish parliament as a HDP representative. In fact, not one but two Yezidis were elected, Feleknas Uca and Ali Atalan, both Turkish nationals with careers in German and European politics.
Another HDP sponsored breakthrough in the 2015 elections was the presence of several Armenian candidates on the ballot list. The HDP ballot included the Armenian candidates Diren Cevahir Şen, Garo Paylan (the parliamentarian behind the portrait project), Filor Uluk and Murat Mıhçı. In what appeared to be an attempt to compete with HDP for the Armenian vote, the CHP and AKP also put forth a token Armenian candidate to their ballot as well.
The HDP ballot also included a number of religiously underrepresented candidates as well. There were three Alevi candidates, as well as the Syriac Christian Erol Dora, and the Roma Sedat Zımba.
The HDP is by far the most diverse party in Turkey even beyond these ethnic and religious lines. The party also uniquely represents another commonly underrepresented social group in politics; young people. The HDP possesses the youngest median age among all parties with seats in the parliament. 1.6 percent of the Turkish parliament is composed of members in the 25-30 age bracket, or a total of nine MPs. Six of them are HDP MPs. In 2014, the HDP also managed to break yet another political taboo, with the election HDP mayor of Beyoğlu Levent Pişkin, an LGBT activist and lawyer and the first openly gay politician in Turkey.
And then there is of course the HDPs knockout punch, advocating for one of Turkish society’s most marginalized groups, especially from positions of power; women. While Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was strikingly progressive in his support for women in positions of power, even way back in 1923, subsequent governments have by and large backtracked in this regard, especially under the current AKP administration.
The current administration possesses a paternalistic and domestic vision for the role of women in society. President Erdoğan revealed this underlying attitude towards women in 2014 when he declared that “women are not equal to men,” and that their functions must be fundamentally different in society as a result of biological differences.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu has effectively reinforced these comments, like in October 2015 when he spoke at the Working Women’s Gathering. “God has granted women with such an ability, that they can do several things at one time, unlike men. They can be talking on the phone, while cooking dinner, and telling a story to one of their children, all at the same time.”
Davutoğlu’s comments were clearly intended as a joke, but notably absent from his punch line about “cooking dinner” was any mention of “running a business, writing their Ph.D thesis…” At any rate, Davutoğlu’s comments were clearly inappropriate at a working women’s conference, and reveal once again the AKPs paternalistic view on the role of women in society.
In contrast however, the HDP has demonstrated a sustainable commitment to ensuring positions of power are shared by men and women. In perhaps its most widely known policy, the HDPs “eşbaşkan”, or “co-leader” system aims to ensure that both a man and a women are appointed for each candidacy position. As a result, the HDP is by far the most gender-balanced party in the Turkish parliament, and one of the most in the world. The total percentage of women in the Turkish parliament is 15%, whereas in the HDP women make up 41% of the party’s seats. Comparatively, women occupy 11, 17, and 8% of the AKP, CHP, and MHP party seats respectively.
In sum, a reductionist and frankly offensive view of the HDP as simply the political extension of the PKK fails to address the party’s committed and demonstrated efforts to advocate for the marginalized in Turkish society. In fact, some observers believe the HDP may be the crucial life-blood of the already struggling democratic climate in Turkish politics. Journalist Irfan Aktan noted, regarding the 2015 ballot that “If the HDP manages to pass the parliamentary minimum of votes, they will be the only party that represents all of Turkey.”
Not only does the HDP offer a space for marginalized groups to receive representation, it also ups the ante for other parties in terms of striving for a more inclusive political environment. Regarding the 2015 ballot lists, Political Scientist Ayşen Ulusal noted that, with the inclusion of Armenian and other ethnic minorities in their ballot, the HDP pressured other opposition parties into a more inclusive political climate.
This function of HDP as both a direct and indirect diversifying force in Turkish politics makes the recent debate surrounding the lifting of parliamentary immunities all the more alarming. Although presented as a gesture of political accountability, many spectators believe the lifting of parliamentary immunities may be abused by the ruling AKP with its ties to the judiciary, in order to effectively indict the HDP out of parliament. If Turkish politics loses the HDP, they will be losing a much needed democratizing force. You may not agree with the HDPs Kurdish nationalism, but if you aren’t a devout, Sunni, ethnically Turkish, heterosexual, male, you should probably be worried about losing them.