Tue, 26 Sep 2023

From our special correspondent in Diyarbakir, Turkey - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's alliance with Huda-Par, a hardline Kurdish Islamist party with a shadowy past, for the 2023 vote sparked howls of condemnations. It was part of a strategy to win the Kurdish vote, but women fear that they will pay the price.

As the sun dipped into the Bosphorus Strait dividing Istanbul's European and Asian sides just days before Turkey held a presidential runoff, Zainab Bilgin explained what was at stake for women in the 2023 vote.

"Religion is dominating politics in this country and this election can change women's lives and rights," she declared. "Huda-Par is making public statements that women should not vote, that all women should be married before the age of 30 years. Huda-Par is very powerful and I am very worried," she said, referring to a fringe Turkish Islamist party.

Bilgin was so afraid of publicly voicing her fears, she asked for her name to be changed and only agreed to be filmed with her back to the camera.

Zainab Bilgin (name changed) waits for the boat at Istanbul's Kadikoy ferry port.

Days later, in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, a woman approached FRANCE 24 at a polling station after casting her vote in the May 28 runoff between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his secular rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

"This is the women's last vote," she said slowly and emphatically in English. "Maybe we will lose our voting rights. They will change everything. We will be like Iran because of Huda-Par."

That night, not long after Erdogan vowed in his victory speech "to be here until I'm in my grave", the middle-aged woman at the polling station kept calling and texting to ensure she was not quoted or identified. Her fears over the stakes of the election for Turkish women was as strong as her certainty that retribution against opposition supporters, especially Kurds, would be severe.

From north to south, and east to west in a deeply divided country, many women who voted for the opposition appeared convinced that the new Erdogan term would not mean more-of-the-same for them. This time, they explained, it would be worse.

One of the main reasons given for the fatalism was a fringe Kurdish Islamist party from the country's periphery that was barely known on the national stage before the 2023 campaign.

Huda-Par is the acronym for the Hur Dava Partisi (Free Cause Party). The acronym can also be literally translated in Turkish as "party of God" - which appears to instil the fear of God into some secular Turks.

Huda-Par offices in DIyarbakir, southeastern Turkey.

A political party that emerged from the brutality of the 1990s dirty war between shadowy branches of the state's security apparatus against an armed Kurdish group, Huda-Par was largely overlooked by Turks in the major cities. Its rise to prominence exposes the dangers of ignoring the periphery in a rigidly centralised nation that has long overlooked the injustices committed against minorities.

That changed this year, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced it had struck an alliance with Huda-Par that would see the Kurdish Islamist party running on the ruling party's list.

The condemnations from critics were swift and strong - and mounted to alarm when the May 14 legislative election saw four Huda-Par members elected to the 600-seat national parliament.

The alliance has raised questions in Turkey over how far the government intends to push its Islamist agenda as Erdogan enters his third decade in power.

Kurds killing Kurds in state-directed fratricidal war

Much of the consternation over Huda-Par's entry into parliament stems from its shadowy past, which has never been adequately acknowledged or addressed by the Turkish state.

Huda-Par's roots can be traced back to the now-defunct Hezbollah, a Kurdish Sunni Muslim group that has no connection to its Lebanese namesake.

Experts say that in the bloody 1990s, Hezbollah was used by the Turkish security services to murder members and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers's Party (PKK). It then turned into a takfiri jihadist group killing anyone - particularly women's rights activists - who disagreed with the group's hardline interpretation of Islam.

"Hezbollah was infiltrated by the security services and encouraged to conduct attacks against Kurdish activists and civilians. There were many unsolved murders, persecutions, tortures, especially of women, religious leaders and activists," explained Mashuq Kurt, a leading expert on Hezbollah at Royal Holloway, University of London.

But when Hezbollah turned its sights on the police, killing the Diyarbakir police chief, the state finally cracked down on the group it had once used as an attack dog against leftist Kurdish groups in a fratricidal war. Hezbollah was crushed in 2000, with thousands of members arrested in the security operation.

The crackdown was followed by a "silent period", according to Kurt, until 2004, when the movement reappeared in the public space in the form of civil society organisations soon after the AKP came to power.

The AKP's liberalisation measures opened the space for Islamist groups operating underground, enabling Huda-Par to emerge as a legal entity, establishing offices in Diyarbakir.

"They reappeared in the public space via legal entities, I definitely see a continuation in ideology; their social base draws from the same support. But I don't see an organic link. What has changed is the implementation of these ideals; their methods have changed. Previously, they were very secretive, underground, and reliant on a core group ready to engage in violence. Now they are a legal entity," said Kurt.

As a political party, Huda-Par routinely denies links to Hezbollah, but it does admit that some of its members belonged to the armed group in the past.

Huda-Par's chief, Zekeriya Yapicioglu, however has publicly said he does not believe Hezbollah is a terrorist group. Yapicioglu's comments were highlighted by the opposition and the media ahead of the runoff, sparking scenes of football fans in stadiums chanting, "We don't want Hezbollah in parliament."

Criminalising adultery, scrapping domestic violence laws

The football fans were too late. With four Huda-Par members already elected to parliament, the party began its first-ever national legislative chapter on a disruptive note.

Nearly two weeks after the legislative polls, the new MPs had still not been sworn in since Huda-Par refused to accept the oath of office taken by Turkish parliamentarians, Turkish media reported. The Islamist party was also objecting to female employees in parliament, according to the secular opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

Women's rights have been in the crosshairs of Huda-Par, along with another hardline Islamist party allied to the AKP, the New Welfare party (YRP). Huda-Par and the YRP have called for a re-evaluation of laws to "protect the integrity of the family", which translate into rollbacks on personal as well as domestic violence laws protecting women.

"The two parties share the same views on gender and bringing the family into a patriarchal structure. Their positions are homophobic, xenophobic - they are very anti-Western and anti-Israel - and quite controversial especially when it comes to women's rights and LGBTs," said Kurt.

Huda-Par has proposed criminalising extra-marital sex and adultery, getting rid of alimony rights for women, and scrapping Turkey's Law 6284, which protects domestic abuse victims.

'Axis of conservatism' in Kurdish areas

Huda-Par's extreme positions have led many Turks to surmise that Erdogan's position in the lead-up to the May 14 elections was so weak, he was forced into an embarrassing embrace of the discredited fringe party.

But Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu provided some insight into the ruling party's strategy when he called the AKP alliance with Huda-Par "the most important step taken by the Turkish Republic and Turkish politics in recent years".

In an interview with CNN Turk, Soylu noted that the "strategic significance" of the alliance will be seen in ten years when "the axis of conservatism in eastern and southeastern politics will be reactivated with this step in Turkey".

The AKP's strategic process of spreading the "axis of conservativism" is well under way in the Kurdish southeast, where the secular, progressive HDP remains the most popular party.

The HDP's sway over the Kurdish vote - a largely cohesive and important component of opposition's vote base - has held despite Erdogan's severe crackdown on the party.

>> Read more: Turkey's Kurdish areas are a petri dish for illiberal democracy

Over the past few years, "the AKP has been struggling with gaining support from the Kurdish people," noted Kurt. "Huda-Par provides the AKP with a footing to work on those policies."

Targeting Kurdish mayors, women's rights activists

Gulcihan Simsek, a former mayor of the Bostanici district in the southeastern Van province, was arrested in April 2009 and jailed for five years without charges in the notorious Diyarbakir Military Prison No. 5 in the heart of Turkey's largest Kurdish city.

Gulchihan Simsek says attacking the Kurdish women's movement is an important part of the AKP strategy to win Kurdish votes.

Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has dismissed and jailed dozens of democratically elected HDP mayors, accusing them of "supporting an illegal organisation", referring to the banned PKK. Human rights groups however say the Turkish president merely labels anyone opposing him as "terrorists".

Once dismissed, the mayors' positions are then occupied by AKP-appointed trustees.

"The AKP is now intending to replace the HDP with Huda-Par as the legal representative of the Kurdish people and promote an Islamic fraternity to divert Kurdish people from national aspirations," said Kurt. "After the state appoints trustees to replace mayors, many facilities are provided to Huda-Par supporters and civil society organisations."

In Turkish politics, the secular CHP has not competed for Kurdish votes, leaving the terrain open to Kurdish parties. In turn, the Kurdish parties have solidly stood by the CHP over the past few elections.

The AKP, however, competes fiercely for Kurdish votes. The ruling party's strategy in the southeast is to promote traditional, family roles for women in a bid to enlarge and capture the conservative Kurdish vote.

That means actively targeting the women's movement, according to Simsek.

Since her release from Diyarbakir Military Prison No. 5 in 2014, the former mayor has been active in the Kurdish women's movement, which has led the way in the Turkish women's movement. But that has not saved her from frequent arrests, detentions, releases, and overlapping trials that drag on for so long, the 51-year-old dismissively waves her hand rather than go into the details of her legal battles.

"This government is restricting our freedom, they're trying to make women stay at home. It's a state policy to divide Kurdish people. These Huda-Par people owe the Kurdish people an apology for what they did in the 1990s. That's the reason the Kurdish people are outraged by them," said Simsek. "Now suddenly they've become friends with the AKP. But the Kurdish people will not be fooled. We will continue our struggle."

Originally published on France24

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