Interview by Ilhan Tanir, Ela Gonca Izmirli, Melike Gul Demir, Ebru Aksay via Washington Hattı:
Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP MP Prof. Mithat Sancar was elected from Mardin, Turkey’s southeastern city. Prof. Sancar is one of the founders of the Ankara-based Human Rights Foundation (TİHV, est. 1990) and the Institute of Human Rights (TİHAK, est. 1999). Since 2007, he has been a columnist for the leftist BirGün newspaper.
Prof. Sancar agreed to answer Washington Hatti’s questions over Skype:
Washington Hatti: The referendum is approaching, and you have about a dozen MPs inside, how many parliamentarians are jailed as of now. How do you campaign under the circumstances?
Mithat Sancar: Including our co-presidents, Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, 13 MPs in total are under arrest. Yuksekdag’s parliamentary membership was illegally revoked, so she is not officially a member of parliament at the moment.
But that is not our only obstacle right now, many of our administrators are detained in many provinces and districts. It is tough to estimate the exact number [of party officials arrested] because it is an ongoing process, there are new arrests every day. We have estimated that about 3,000 party administrators and activists are detained right now.
“Despite all, Kurdish People are not intimated”
Washington Hatti: How are the campaigning conditions in the South East Turkey?
Mithat Sancar: First of all, the fact that so many deputies and administrators are in custody makes our work challenging to some extent. Also, we face police siege in every city we go. They want to intimidate the voters by creating an atmosphere of fear. The government is aiming to paralyze our party and eventually shut it down. But none of this prevented us from campaigning and meeting the people.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended Newroz celebrations in various cities with enthusiasm on March 21, apparently, showing that the Kurdish people are not intimidated. So far, the government’s scare tactics did not work. They were claiming that “HDP lost its base, the people are reacting.” It ‘s evident that that is not the case.
We mostly did small town-hall style meet-and-greets for our referendum campaign until now. Starting March 30, we will intensify our “NO” campaign all over Turkey and start doing rallies all across Turkey.
“No” vote wont fix everything; “Yes” vote will harden the polarization
Washington Hatti: Can you assess the two alternative scenarios for the outcome of the referendum for us?
Mithat Sancar: If “No” vote comes on top, it will surely not fix all the problems Turkey is facing right away; but it might be the first step for normalization. The politics of the President and the government have caused enormous damage to the political and social fabric of Turkey. There is an intense polarization in Turkish society. The “security measures” regarding the Kurdish problem caused a lot of trauma. The cities were burned down, many civilians killed -the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed severe human rights violations during these “operations” on their March 10, 2017, report-. Of course, no one can claim to fix these problems right away if “No” side wins. Furthermore, if “No” vote wins, we might see a turbulence at first, but I think that the instability will be brief and Turkey will quickly move towards normalization.
If “Yes” vote wins; it won’t be the end of everything. I find the sentiments and perceptions that everything will be over to be both unfounded and dangerous because it creates a surrender psychology. Of course, things will be harder for democrats.
If “Yes” vote wins, the polarization and the division will be hardened. Governing such a sharply polarized and divided society is tough. In such a society; political and economic stability and social peace are also very hard to achieve. I believe in a country that is drifting towards the chaos; the alternatives will come forth more powerfully and stop the move towards destruction.
“Erdogan exhausted all possibilities to create tension inside Turkey, now looking for outside”
Washington Hatti: Erdogan recently is more contentious than usual. Especially regarding international politics what is the reason for this falling out with Europe and can he reverse this after the referendum? In other words, can Erdoğan break his policies of total isolation from the Western world after the referendum?
Mithat Sancar: One of the areas that suffered most in the recent period is the international relations of Turkey. Particularly in the last few months, the extent of these damages has expanded.
There is a divide and conquer tactic that Erdogan used in previous elections. He polarizes and creates tension between different elements of the society; so he wants to close ranks with his constituent, on the other hand, he creates a perception of a threat. He is trying to present himself as the savior. Thus, it is a kind of “blackmailing” the society by taking the need for security and stability hostage.
Apparently, for the moment it seems like he has exhausted all the possibilities of creating new tensions inside Turkey. That’s why he started looking to create tensions in the international arena. [He is trying to create the illusion of] a strong external threat and a powerful foreign enemy. Thus, he wants to present himself as an indispensable leader and a great hero to the nationalist/conservative segments of Turkish society and the Islamic world. But this time he seems to have missed the mark.
Erdogan also holds the belief that he can reverse what he destroyed. He did this for the crises with Israel and Russia. It is very doubtful that he will succeed this time, but at least he apparently achieved some sort of normalization and rapprochement with these two countries. This time, however, the level of confrontation, especially the European countries, the European Union and the Council of Europe, is very high. Rapprochement may be harder because the divide this time around is very broad. Turkey will continue to be a risky and unreliable country under the Erdogan administration.
“Yes” will not bring any stability
Washington Hatti: So, you don’t agree with those who say “Yes” vote, will bring stability’?
Mithat Sancar: Without question. Turkey is already experiencing a significant amount of instability in social, political and economic arenas. There is a severe financial crisis, a great polarization and tension in the social sphere in Turkey, and an unmanageable crisis in the political scene. Erdogan’s being an “executive president” does not mitigate any of these problems.
As a matter of fact, he created all this. He has almost unlimited authority at the moment, and there is no mechanism to control it. What will change if “yes” vote wins? As a matter of fact, the mindset that created these problems will grow stronger, and the problems will be more and more chronic.
Washington Hatti: It is my understanding that for the first time in this election, many well-known names like Abdullah Gul, Ahmet Davutoglu are not campaigning and there is also a bigger divide within the AKP.
Mithat Sancar: Yes, there is a lot of data supporting the argument that there is an unrest within AKP. Of course, there are those who think that Erdogan’s policies can be damaging [within AKP]. There are also those who are currently suffering [within AKP] but prefer to remain silent for the time being. But the names you just mentioned, are openly expressing their discomfort. As a matter of fact, during the Constitutional Amendment discussion in the Parliament, an opposition wing inside the party debated about making a move. It is my understanding that they postponed the debate until after the referendum. So, if ‘No’ vote wins, the showdown in the AKP will be accelerated, and it seems very likely that the opposition will become much more visible.
If the ‘no’ vote wins, MHP will have a lot more problems. They might be secessions from the party. If that happens, these breakdowns might constitute a concrete base for the search for a new center-right party in Turkey. If ‘yes’ vote wins, Erdogan is likely to start a liquidation within the party immediately. In short, I don’t think a win for “yes” vote will bring stability to AKP.
Washington Hatti: How are your relations with the CHP? As far as I can tell, CHP has been trying to distance themselves from HDP.
Mithat Sancar: It is true that the CHP is trying to distance themselves from us, but we are not too worried about that. We have our own policies, our own program, our own discourses. After we started the referendum process, we have decided on the slogan “Everyone’s ‘no’ is for themselves, all the ‘no’s are for the country!” We are determined not to engage in public polemics and/or controversies with anyone in the ‘no’ front.
Washington Hatti: This referendum is held during the State of Emergency. Do you think this might affect the fairness of the referendum? Do you see signs in this direction?
Mithat Sancar: It is not possible to have fair elections or a fair referendum process under the State of Emergency rules. The government and the president have very broad powers. Already there is severe oppression and intimidation against the opposition.
Turkey is the worst country for media freedom. The government and Erdogan control a significant part of the press, so there is a vast injustice between the “yes” opponents and the opposition.
Another critical issue is the implementation of these oppression and intimidation methods in the Kurdish regions of the country. In particular, state officials, police commanders, and district governors are campaigning for “yes” through intimidation or promises they make. Because of this, we have growing worries about the security and transparency of this referendum. Despite all these “no” votes are ahead of the “yes” votes on many public opinion polls. If “Yes” wins, the legitimacy of this election will always be controversial.
“The world needs to return to the axis of democracy and liberties, not a new right-wing wave.”
Washington Hatti: Any messages for the International community?
Mithat Sancar: Our approach to the international relations has been and will be, International relations must focus on values and principles such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law. The departure of a country from the democratic principles and/or increased possibility of an internal conflict affects the entire international system.
It is clear that Turkey is in an unusual position in this respect. We are calling on international institutions and the public to support democracy, peace and freedom demands in Turkey. We think that the rise of the populist right will lead to severe problems in this respect. Erdogan is a good representative of the ‘populist right.’ Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, Petry in Germany is not much different than Erdogan. The world needs to return to the axis of democracy and liberties, not a new right-wing wave.
30 March 2017