Supporters of the ruling AK Party wave Turkish national and party flags at an election rally for Turkey's June 7 parliamentary election, in Antalya, Turkey, June 6, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the United States and Turkey negotiate over the status of Syria and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system, Turkey’s upcoming local elections might seem to be far from the forefront of the international agenda. Yet the millions of voters preparing to win back the democratic representation that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) government’s crackdown stole from them are taking the first step toward changing the country’s future.
Today, 94 of the 103 Turkish municipalities that my party, The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), won in the last round of local elections have been taken over by the state. Our elected officials have been deposed, jailed and replaced by government-appointed trustees. Several of our cities have been razed to the ground and thousands of people have been displaced. All this was done in the name of fighting “terrorism” – but has proven in reality to be a war against democracy. Now, after four years, supporters of democracy have a chance to fight back.
Right now, more than 6,000 HDP members are jailed simply for their political activity – a point the US State Department’s most recent report on human rights in Turkey emphasized. Whether local party activists or members of Parliament, these brave women and men were willing to risk their freedom and safety to advocate for their beliefs and work for the betterment of their communities. Such an unwavering commitment to democracy and human rights is essential to move past dictatorship and build a just future. The democracy-oriented forces of the world must stand in solidarity and make it clear that these individuals belong in the political process – not in prison.
We have no illusions about the difficulty of our circumstances in Turkey’s current political landscape. The AKP’s campaign has been marked by name-calling, threats and scare tactics. President Erdogan referred to the HDP – supported by six million citizens – as a terrorist organization. He dismissed criticism of rising food prices by asking if his followers understood the cost of his foreign wars.
And in what may well be remembered as one of the most shocking, tasteless and offensive acts ever undertaken as part of an electoral campaign, he showed the horrific video from the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, at several rallies, calling on his followers to take revenge. This is not how democratically elected leaders make the case for their vision and values. It is instead a prime example of how autocrats use fear and violence to keep control.
In spite of this, the HDP remains optimistic. Polls suggest that, if the elections are fair, we will win back every municipality that we won in 2014 – some by greater margins than before. The AKP, in turn, might lose major cities to other opposition parties, an outcome that could be the first step in breaking its ultra-nationalist alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The people of Turkey are tired of economic mismanagement and political repression, just as the international community is tired of the current government’s insult-ridden diplomacy and destabilizing foreign policy. We are doing our part to turn the authoritarian tide. Turkey is too big a country to lose on an authoritarian whim – for us and the world.
The Western world must take responsibility for its part in where Turkey is today. For too long, human rights abuses in our country were disregarded in efforts to appease the government. It must be made clear to Erdogan and his government that his threats against the democratic process are unacceptable. His characterization of the HDP as a “terrorist organization” and threats to remove democratically elected HDP mayors must be condemned in the strongest terms.
For too long, many governments have called out Turkey’s authoritarian turn without naming those most heavily and directly impacted by it. Because of this, the systemic destruction of democracy – especially in Kurdish-majority areas – has never been named and condemned for what it is. If the international community is sincere about its commitment to uphold its values, it must support the people of Turkey in their struggle for a more peaceful and democratic country. The silence must end.
This month’s vote will mark the end of a tumultuous six years in which six different elections have taken place. Voters in Turkey will not go to the polls again until 2023 – giving leaders an opportunity to trade cheap and destructive political rhetoric for real change. With strategic international engagement and support for the progressive and democratic forces pushing for peace and justice on the ground, these elections could be a powerful turning point and the beginning of a new era in Turkey. This time the opportunity should not be missed.
The writer is US Representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
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