UK and the West must stop ignoring the plight of the Kurds

Thinking about your holidays? Turkey seems nice.

You’ll have seen the adverts on the telly. Happy healthy young people enjoying themselves on the Aegean coast. Looking like a cross between the casts of The Apprentice and Love Island, they soak up the sun, demonstrate prowess at water sports, and dine in Michelin restaurants and dance the night away. Capricious and carefree, everything is wonderful. Yes, Turkey seems nice.

If you live there, not so much.

Even more so if you are one of the minority Kurdish population.

Two weeks ago, there were municipal elections all over Turkey. Pro-Kurdish parties were expected to do well, not only in Eastern areas where they are the majority population, but in major cities where they represent the principal opposition to President Erdogan’s ruling AKP party.

One such area is the historic city of Van in Eastern Turkey – a place about the same size as Edinburgh. Abdullah Zeydan was the candidate for mayor for the Kurdish leftwing DEM party. He is no stranger to political repression having previously spent six years in prison for criticising the Erdogan government – an offence under the Turkish penal code. Released in 2022 he had his candidacy approved by the Supreme Election Board. On Sunday 31st March he got 55% of the votes cast in Van’s mayoral election.

No sooner were the votes counted than the Ministry of Justice demanded the local court disbar Zeydan and replace him with Erdogan’s candidate who had received just 27% of the vote. It’s hard to imagine any government so blatantly overturning an election result in this way.

The decision sparked mass protests not just in Van but all over Turkey and drew international condemnation. On this occasion there was a happy ending. Three days later on April 3rd, the Supreme Election Council overturned the local court and re-instated the elected mayor. This most egregious attempt to subvert a local election has been thwarted, but this is but one example amongst many in a systematic campaign by the Turkish government to silence its opposition.

The DEM party had been expected to do well and indeed they did. But they still had to overcome serial unlawful attempts to undermine the elections. Earlier in the year DEM released a summary of illegal voter registration in 21 constituencies where their support was strong. These are blatant attempts at major fraud to tip the balance against them.

An example is in Siirt city centre which DEM’s predecessor the HDP won narrowly in 2019 against Erdogan’s AKP.  Since last May’s general election registered voters at one address increased from 10 to more than 2,000 and at another building – owned by the police – from 7 to 1,996. At a third address which hadn’t previously existed, 2,555 men who have never voted before in Siirt now appeared on the register.

These are the ones that were spotted. It seems reasonable to think that with ballot stuffing on this scale, some of it has bound to have been undetected.

But fraudulent voter registration is very much the soft end of a campaign of political repression against Kurdish representation which has being going on for decades. The HDP, now DEM, can testify to being on the receiving end of political violence for a very long time. Their leaders, including MPs, have been jailed, their offices ransacked by mobs and their organisation demonised as terrorists by a media which is pretty much in the pocket of the president.

Modern Turkey has always had a built-in tension with that part of Kurdistan which it incorporated early in the last century, but it has been turbocharged since the military coup of 1980. Until 1991 the very existence of Kurds was denied, the Turkish government referring to them as “mountain Turks”. The Kurdish language was banned, and those who spoke or sung in it were imprisoned. Still today, it is illegal for schools to teach in the Kurdish language, even in places where that is the language spoken by most of their pupils.

Parties which tried to represent a Kurdish interest were banned in the 1990s and still play a cat and mouse game with the central state even today. This official denial of all things Kurdish led to resistance movements like the PKK and a guerrilla war fought with the government. Turkey proscribed the PKK as a terrorist organisation and set about enlisting the support of the US, EU and others to do the same. Keen to keep Turkey as a NATO ally, most of them obliged, although international courts have ruled that this did not follow international standards of due process.

Since Erdogan’s election as president in 2014 he has doubled down on demonisation of the Kurds. Following the failed 2016 coup, Kurdish parties who had opposed the coup were nonetheless blamed for it and their repression intensified. Erdogan unashamedly nurtured and galvanised a right-wing Turkish nationalism in which minorities like the Kurds were the enemy. Speaking Kurdish, or engaging in Kurdish cultural activities was likened to terrorist activity. And it worked. Last year, despite widespread and coordinated centre-left opposition in the urban areas, Erdogan achieved a majority in the general election and was returned for another term.

Article 299 of the Turkish penal code makes it an offence to insult the President. It is punishable by four years in prison. And what constitutes an insult appears to be in the ear of the person receiving it. Since Erdogan became president the number of prosecutions under this provision have risen exponentially. The president, it seems, has something of a thin skin. This is an exercise in power, not vanity; the articles are used to suppress and outlaw political criticism and dissenting views.

It’s not just the Kurds who are on the receiving end of political repression in contemporary Turkey. Many human rights activists have fallen foul of the state authorities too. The most prominent in recent years being Osman Kavala, sentenced to life in 2022 on flimsy evidence which has been condemned by the Council of Europe and many Western governments (though not the UK).

It is, however, the Kurdish question which is the running sore that divides Turkey against itself, discriminating against its minority population, and preventing it becoming a modern democratic country at ease with itself. From demonising their culture to razing their villages the ground, the attacks by the Turkish state have driven many Kurds to leave. Many are here. The next time you go to a “Turkish” restaurant, you will most likely be served by Kurds. There is a “Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan” group on Facebook who keep people up to date and coordinate support.

Kurdish people need, and deserve, our solidarity. We should begin by insisting that the Erdogan government ends it war on its own people and restarts the abandoned peace process with the PKK. Central to this will be the release of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The man who founded the PKK long ago turned away from the armed struggle and for decades he has been advocating peaceful transition and co-existence. He has led the Kurds away from the notion of an independent state and towards the idea of respect and autonomy with the existing states of the near East. His writings on bottom-up community cooperation have inspired social movements throughout Kurdistan. 

And he has done this for the last 25 years from a prison cell. Since being abducted by Turkish intelligence in 1999 he has spent his time incarcerated in a prison on Imrali island which the government built just for him. Ocalan is the key not just to justice for the Kurds, but for a brighter future for all of Turkey. Our government should join the calls for his release and stop turning a blind eye to the serial human rights abuses in Erdogan’s Turkey. 

This illustrates how crazy our election voting system is

THE clocks have changed. It’ll be brighter tonight. The year moves inexorably forward towards the coming General Election.

Elections ought to be moments of change. A point in history where power transfers from one group to another, where ideas are won and the direction of a country changes. Exciting even.

But looking south across the Border to the contest between the main Westminster parties, it seems anything but exciting. It is almost impossible for Labour not to win in England. Yet you would be hard-placed to find too many citizens animated or enthusiastic about it.

In part, this is down to a deliberate ploy by the Labour leadership to promise nothing and say less. The main opposition party are seeking election precisely on the basis of not changing the incumbent Tory Party’s overall economic framework. That can only mean that the people who are being excluded and denied by the current system will continue to lose out.

For them, the election will change nothing. Indeed, that will be the case for most of us. It is hard to detect any serious difference between the two main parties.

Now, many people – and I probably include myself – believe through instinct or hope that Labour have to be better than the Tories. But in truth ,when you compare the stated policies of the parties, it is hard to make that claim. In areas such as pensions, the Tories even appear to be rather more committed to the welfare state than their opposition.

This grubby, uninspiring contest we have to look forward to is the product of wilful actions by political leaders, but their approach is enabled – even perhaps necessitated – by a ridiculous electoral system designed to ignore rather than resolve political differences.

First-past-the-post might be okay where a binary choice is to be made, but in any other context is simply not fit for purpose. It is deliberately designed to ensure that those elected are required neither to have majority support nor to represent a plurality of opinion. In the great majority of parliamentary seats, the winner represents only a minority of the voters who cast their vote.

When these results are aggregated to a state level, the distortion exaggerates. The first dislocation of results from the electorate allows political parties to form majority governments with the support of much less than half of the electorate – or at least those in the electorate who can be bothered voting.

In 2015, David Cameron won a majority of seats in the House of Commons with just under 37% of the vote. On that basis, he gave us Brexit. Shocking? Undemocratic? For sure, but nothing new.

Ten years previously, one Tony Blair got an even bigger majority with close to 35% of the votes cast.

Perhaps the most grotesque distortion of first-past-the-post is in what happens when third or fourth parties do well. Far from seeing smaller parties get some minimal increase in their representation, the system just inflicts lethal damage on the party they have taken support from. This is because the winner doesn’t need a majority; just more than the person who comes second.

The are various websites where you can play til your heart’s content by predicting the outcome of the election assuming varying levels of support for each party. You plop in the vote share and press a button.

I try not to spend too much time on this but for the current purposes and to illustrate how crazy the system is, I ran this little exercise (It’s just for England and Wales).

Let’s assume Labour can get about 43% of the votes cast at the next election, the Tories 10 points behind on 33%, LibDems on just under 10% and Reform and Greens on five each.

That’s assuming a much smaller gap between Labour and Tory than has been the case for over two years now. But it sounds sort of plausible, I think. That split would produce a Labour government with an 120-seat majority.

Now, what happens if Labour support stays exactly as it is, but some Tories switch to Reform UK – which they are currently telling pollsters they will do in their legions? If 5% switch and the Reform UK vote goes up to 10%, the Labour majority rises to 188. If a further 5% switch, then the Labour majority goes up to 274 and the Tories are left with 100 seats.

There’s a point at which the changes become almost exponential, and seats start changing hands in droves without the winning party having to do anything at all. This is the sort of thing that gives democracy a bad name.

But if the distorted results weren’t already sufficient corruption of the electorate’s will, the first past-the-post-system conspires in other ways to undermine the expression and resolution of political differences. By its nature, the system requires the winner not to have majority support but to be the biggest minority.

That means it requires parties to form broad alliances of opinion to get levels of support above a third. In itself, this means that differences are resolved within parties rather than being matters for the general citizenry. Sometimes this leaves a party completely at odds with its own supporters, never mind the electorate as a whole.

Such is the case with Labour and Brexit where the party will not even contemplate returning to Europe even though this is the expressed wish of the overwhelming majority of their own supporters.

It cannot be healthy for democracy that not a single major UK party will commit to reviewing and reversing Brexit when this is what half of the population wants.

The toxicity of first-past-the-post for democracy intensifies as parties rooted in the centre-right or centre-left fight for the support of the same bunch of voters in the middle.

By definition, these voters will be paid more attention than those whose support is already in the bag, and by definition, this group of voters will desire a lesser degree of change than the rest.

he result is a set of less than inspiring polices and a whole lot of people well upset about that but unable to do anything about it. It’s little wonder many people will tell you: “They’re all the same.”

This frustration, the feeling of being unrepresented, festers and is destroying what passes for democracy. In England, Labour will win the next election, I’m sure. But it will be won by promising Tories they are in safe hands, by seriously alienating many traditional Labour voters, and with a huge level of frustrated abstainers.

It’s a weak base for governing and could end in disaster in a very small number of years.

Now, of course, we should note that the Labour Party at their last two conferences made commitments – by very big margins – to change the current electorate system.

But as if to illustrate exactly the problem, no sooner had these votes been called than Sir Keir and his entourage were insisting there would be no change.

The SNP support a proportional voting system where the results reflect the votes cast by the people. Given a chance, that’s what we will vote for, but in truth, the condition of parliamentary democracy in England is hardly our bailiwick and nothing is going to change until Labour say so.

Sadly, I can’t see that happening any time soon.

And in this – as in so much else – the aspirations of people who live here will be better served by Scotland becoming a new independent state with a proper functioning democracy enshrined in a written constitution.