Democracy in Turkey is under threat

But a congress in Ankara was testament to the power of the democratic ideal, says Natalie Bennett


Attending the second congress of the Peoples’ Democratic Party of Turkey (the HDP) last week was a humbling experience.

There were all the trappings you might expect at a British political conference, the speeches, the rapturous applause, the television cameras and small press pack, the worthy but rather long reports on important administrative matters.

There was, however, more music, more chanting and much more flagwaving.

The sense of genuine passion was stronger, but then this was all conducted, as a visited academic observed to me, under the threat that anyone in this room could be arrested at any time.

For democracy in Turkey is severely under threat, freedom of speech an exercise in bravery, and to the east of this sports hall in Ankara, entire Kurdish communities are under siege.

The word ‘curfew‘ pops up again and again in the speeches – with accounts of horror, a house holding more than 20 civilians hit by a canon shell, with two people bleeding to death within, unable to get to medical aid, of towns in which families have been months without open access to food supplies.

More than 1,000 academics who signed a petition calling for a peaceful settlement to conflict in the east of Turkey are being arrested, sacked and otherwise persecuted – an action that’s brought a high-profile collection of fellow academics to their defence.

There’s a heavy police presence outside the site of the conference, and bag and body searches, but the HDP stewards are conducting their own second searches; there’s no trust that the police are here to protect this gathering.

I decided to accept the invitation to attend because I thought it was important to show that the outside world is paying attention to what’s happening in Turkey, to show support for this determinedly inclusive, progressive and severely besieged political alliance (the Turkish Green Party among the groups included), in a country that’s supporting enormous numbers of Syrian refugees, in a region buffeted by civil and global proxy war.

And I felt that decision to attend was vindicated as the long list of international attendees was read out one by one, and the crowd, by and large, stayed in their seats, listened and applauded each of us.

No doubt it’s not perfect, but I can see that the HDP is trying very hard to be inclusive and democratic. There’s an even gender balance among the delegates and on the stage – more than enough to put many British political gatherings to shame.

There’s certainly a wide range of groups of Turkish society represented in this hall: from some young men and women in the international uniforms of global protest, including bright-coloured hair, to women in traditional white, lace-edged headscarves, to men who are probably of the old left intelligentsia, to farmers and labourers.

I saw a conversation between two weather-beaten middle-aged men showing each other their delegate passes with pride. ‘I never thought I’d be doing this’, was clearly the subject of conversation.

Internal elections were conducted with solemnity and care – there were long queues as each delegate’s name was laboriously ticked off after a check of ID before the ballot paper was handed over, to disappear into curtain booths erected earlier for the process of the secret ballot.

It’s humbling, because this is testament to the power of the democratic ideal, to the passion of people from all ages and backgrounds who are prepared to take risks, to stand up to entrenched political forces, to demand it.

The aim, as one speaker said, is to prevent people being divided, to bring them together while giving them local autonomy to make their own decisions, rather than centralise executive power in one person’s hands. “Where there is not proper politics there will be weapons.”

I left reflecting again that truly democratic politics is indeed a brave and highly worthwhile aim – one that needs to be shared around the region and far beyond.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party. Follow her on Twitter

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