Agonistic Imagination of Podemos in Andalusia and HDP in Anatolia: the Radical Citizenship Project for the European and the Middle-Eastern Demos

Agonistic Imagination of Podemos in Andalusia and HDP in Anatolia: the Radical Citizenship Project for the European and the Middle-Eastern Demos[1]

Abstract

The politically synchronized left-leaning populist parties of Europe and Turkey are trying to create an ‘agonistic pluralism’ and democratic model that radically challenges the neo-liberal order. They also present a momentum for a change in the antagonistic social relations of a transnational political space by establishing a synergy between different forms of counter-hegemonic actors. Meanwhile, in Turkey there has been the emergence of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as a radical democratic political project built on the legacy of pro-Kurdish political parties. With its Gramscian ‘war of position’ strategy that seeks to gain hegemonic power through ‘neutralization’ rather than using a ‘frontal attack’ as part of a counter-hegemonic struggle, it indicates a political shift in the trajectory of the Kurdish national movement. At the same time, the European new radical left parties, such as Syriza and Podemos, have already made a mark on the European public sphere by offering a ‘radical democracy’. As a result, the HDP’s new political imagination and ontology is articulating a new antagonism, one which demands what I call an ‘other Turkey’ and which can be seen an hegemonic struggle involving the rhetoric of the ‘old Turkey’ and the ‘new Turkey’. Moreover, the HDP’s new radical politics is based on the political grammar of ‘Turkeyfication’, ‘new life’, ‘great humanity’, and ‘we are’, as well as a left-leaning populism that fosters and builds the ‘notion of radical citizenship’.

Introduction

The June 2015 general election was an important turning point in Turkey’s political history involving, amongst other things, the issue of whether more power should be transferred from the Turkish Parliament to the President. This question was strategically related to the decision by Turkey’s new radical democrat political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to contest the election as a ‘legitimate’ party rather than as in the past through individual independent candidates. In the latter form it won 36 seats (5.67 per cent) in the previous election held on 12 June 2011. This was a brave move for the HDP due to the high threshold required under the current system to win seats in the parliament. This political initiative required the HDP to overcome the country’s 10 per cent election threshold required to gain parliamentary representation, which is the highest in Europe and compares unfavourably with the European Union (EU) recommendation that its members and candidate countries have a threshold no higher than 3 per cent to 5 per cent for democratic elections.

However, the election has resulted in an enormous success for the HDP, with the party exceeding the compulsory 10 per cent threshold for representation and gaining 13.1 per cent of the votes and 82 MPs elected. This is almost a threefold increase in their share of the vote compared to the last general election in 2011. It has created a new political landscape that has forced the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to look for coalition partners after 13 years of majority rule. It was also a huge disappointment for the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had wanted to change the constitution and extend his presidential powers.

Moreover, the HDP’s victory shows that the Party’s new political language and discourse have gained creditability amongst wide sections of the society by offering a multi-identity and ‘agonistic pluralist’ account in the country’s so-called post-democratic era (see Wittgenstein, 2009; Mouffe, 2013). This is not dissimilar to the AKP’s achievement in the 2002 election when it had presented a new identity beyond the traditional and ‘rigorous’ Islamic approach of the Refah Parti (Welfare Party) and Islamic Milli Görüş (National Outlook) tradition. The AKP, as a new neoliberal and ‘conservative democrat’ rather than an Islamist political actor, gained the support of various groups in society, for example the Kurds, liberals, big capital (e.g. TUSIAD), small and medium scale retailers in Anatolia, nationalists, and religious minorities. However, when the AKP leadership started to concentrate on their neoliberal economic agenda and claim that Turkey was essentially a homogenous Muslim (Sunni) society, whilst at the same time gaining more power through subsequent elections, the liberal approach that the party once had changed to a far more conservative one.

This ‘anti-democratic’ approach created an organic crisis in the political life of the country as a so-called ‘post-political’ (Mouffe, 2000) situation, where politics had become more shaped by religious rather than political values and were not open to democratic negotiation, also led to the emergence of resistance against the hegemony of the AKP government. This took the form of the civil (occupy) movements (for example, the Gezi Park protests) and as well as resistance from other political parties. These anti-AKP agents created new antagonistic relations and a counter-hegemonic culture through its ‘organic intellectuals’ (Gramsci, 2003). Furthermore, during the AKP’s time in government, the country witnessed many disturbing socio-political events: for example, the Roboski massacres where 34 unarmed Kurdish civilians, many of them children, were slaughtered by a Turkish military airstrike; the Gezi Park protests where 11 people were killed, including a 15-year-old child; the Soma mining disaster in which more than 300 workers were killed; and the 17 December corruption scandals involving the government when bribery investigations were instigated against ministers of the AKP government. These issues, in relation to the AKP’s hegemonic power, tipped the balance between consent and coercion towards coercion, thus creating a problem of the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of some citizens and a gap in AKP’s hegemonic power. Furthermore the AKP has significantly lost the support of the Kurds, particularly in the Kurdish dominated region. This balance of power has also happened analogously in the United Kingdom between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May 2015 election.

In this respect, the HDP, with its policy of inclusion, brought a more humane, ethical and sincere quality to the centre of politics, aided by its young, charismatic and sympathetic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, to fill the hegemonic power gap, as the recent election results have shown. At the same time, the emergence of the HDP, as a radical democratic political project built on the legacy of pro-Kurdish political parties (for example, HEP, ÖZEP, ÖZDEP, DEP, HADEP, DEHAP, DTP and BDP)[2], has politically shifted the trajectory of the Kurdish national movement. The HDP adopts the Gramscian ‘war of position’ strategy, that is the gaining of hegemonic power through ‘neutralization’ rather than using a ‘frontal attack’ (Gramsci, 2003), the latter having been used until recently by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This new ‘political’ trajectory of the Kurdish movement, as found in the HDP, has developed and changed from demanding a separate ‘free Kurdistan’ to promoting a radical democracy for the entire country within a rhetoric of ‘Turkeyfication’. This is despite the fact that until the recent ‘conflict resolution’ and so-called peace process, the PKK had been fighting against the Turkish armed forces for more than 30 years, resulting in 40,000 deaths and the displacement of three million people.[3]

Elsewhere, new European radical left parties, such as Syriza and Podemos, have already been gaining influence in the European public sphere by offering a ‘radical citizenship’ through a new EU project to the people of the EU (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001; Tekdemir, June 5, 2015).[4] Podemos’ leader Pablo Iglesias has congratulated the HDP on its success in his tweet of June 7, 2015 saying that ‘the wind of change keeps blowing. Congratulations. Venceremos!’, and a while ago Demirtaş was the first politician in Turkey to congratulate his Greek ‘brother’ Tsipras via twitter ‘wishing him good luck on the way to liberty for the proletarian and oppressed people’. (Tekdemir, February 26, 2015). It was followed by the co-chairs of the HDP, Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdağ, issuing a statement congratulating Syriza on their election triumph and saying that ‘we [the HDP] congratulate you and the whole Greek nation on the victory that you won in the general elections held on January 25. We believe that the principles of justice, equality and freedom that you adopted will lift the oppression imposed on the Greek nation by the neoliberal troika’. [5]

From a Century of Kurdish Discontent to Simultaneous Kurdish Seasons

On the other side of the coin, in the Middle-East Kurdish ‘restoration’, the Kurds have started to offer a radical version of democracy to the politics of that area. This also, perhaps, extends to Europe too through its association with European left-wing populist parties, as well as, to some extent, questioning what is the nature of ‘agonistic pluralism’. This is particularly the case after they became an important player in the Middle East through the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, by their successful victories in Kobanê against the brutal so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS), and the establishment of Kurdish Autonomous Cantons in Rojava in northern Syria where they are injecting a radical democracy into everyday life. The Kurds are also in an on-going discussion directly with the government of the AKP to end the armed conflict and to found a peace process so as to coexist in a democratic Turkey.

In this context, one may argue that after such progress, the Kurds have started to have four seasons, all existing at the same time, in the four different countries into which the Kurds were divided after the First World War (1918), namely Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Recently, we have seen the Kurdish summer in Iraq, spring in Syria, autumn in Turkey and winter in Iran from where there had been a deep silence, at least until recently when on 7 May 2015 there was a clash with Iranian security forces in the provincial Kurdish capital of Mahabad over the death of a Kurdish girl who had jumped from the fourth floor of the hotel, where she worked, to escape being raped by an Iranian official. The city had been the capital of a short-lived state, the Republic of Mahabad, in 1945.

Increasingly, the Kurds have won the sympathy of the international community through their promotion of secularism, democracy, liberty and diversity, as well as the championing of women’s rights, particularly during Syria’s civil war but also in the Middle East generally. It is interesting to note that women have always taken an effective role in fighting against the Turkish (within the PKK), Iraqi (in the KDP-Kurdistan Democratic Party), and Iranian (with the PJAK-Free Life Party of Kurdistan an offshoot of the PKK) armed forces and more recently they have been soldiers in Kobanê’s dangerous war zone fighting IS. Significant numbers of Kurdish fighters are women, who have been presented by the western mainstream media as important figures in the cause of Kurdish liberation.

On the non-fighting side, it was the pro-Kurdish parties, such as the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and its brand new radical democratic version, the HDP, that instituted the co-chair system in their political parties and in local government (one female and one male chair), and recognized for the first time in Turkey’s political life the quota system in favour of women. In the recent 2015 election 31 women are elected as MPs under the HDP, which has more than doubled its women MPs since the 2011 election.

As a result, the progress of Kurdish politics in its different locations highlights that the political struggles of the Kurds for an ‘Independent Kurdistan’ have been replaced by a new politics that goes beyond the nation state, and one that promotes self-autonomy, diversity, equality, liberty and democracy in the Middle East.

Movements and Parties: Indignados, Aganaktisménos and Serhıldans

Returning to Europe, Syriza’s recent triumph in the Greek general elections in February 2015 led to its populist leader, Alexis Tsipras, establishing a radical left government. This has already created a hope for Greeks, and in the rest of Europe, that change is possible. In addition, Syriza’s notable appearance in the European political realm has also given an impetus to other left-wing populist parties in Europe; and its ripples can be seen in the success of Pablo Iglesisas’s Podemos in Spain (although its influence is not only limited to member countries of the EU). Podemos’s anti-austerity left-wing populist politics has enabled the party to become an alternative actor in the political life of the country, and in March 2015 it won fifteen seats in Andalusia’s regional parliament. This was its first serious election wins since it achieved five seats in the European parliament elections and joined the European ‘new left’. It also gives a significant indication of the party’s likely success in the forthcoming Spanish general election. As the Podemos candidate Teresa Rodriguez says: ‘the change has begun and will continue’.

Podemos has its roots in the M15 and Indignados protest movements, after which it became connected to the anti-austerity, occupy social movements; while Syriza also has strong ties with the anti-austerity occupy social movement, aganaktisménos. Both these new left groupings have given a ‘voice to the voiceless’. Recently on 24 May 2015, the anti-poverty and anti-eviction activist, Ada Colau, who was supported by Barcelona en Comú (an Indignados grassroots movement) and several radical leftist parties including Podemos, was elected as the first woman mayor of the Catalan city of Barcelona. This left bloc has even challenged Catalan nationalism while at the same time won the election for mayor of Valencia under the left-coalition election bloc, Compromíse. In Madrid the coalition is called Ahora Madrid and has become the second largest party in the city council after the conservative ruling People’s Party (PP), who got their worst local election results for 20 years. Indeed, Ahora Madrid could form a coalition with the Socialists, who came third after the PP. These new Spanish political agents have defeated the establishment and central, both rightist and leftist, parties by creating hope in the struggle against austerity and against the economic crisis of the neo-liberal system. However, this radical leftist political imagination also creates right-wing populist movements and we can see this ‘double movement’ as a hegemonic struggle between two EU projects: on the one hand, the neo-liberal EU model and, on the other, an alternative socialist EU project.

Correspondingly, this transnational political synergy has found its way into Turkey (at the so-called periphery of Europe) through the left-leaning and radical democratic political party, the HDP. The HDP has social and political links with the European left-wing populist parties, such as Syriza and Podemos, through its charismatic co-chair Demirtaş. For example, Yiannas Bournous, a member of Syriza’s central committee, came to Izmir on 23 May 2015 to express solidarity at the HDP’s election rally, while sometime ago Syriza sent a delegation to the Kobanê canton to support the Kurdish resistance against the ‘barbaric’ IS.

As mentioned earlier, the HDP was established on the legacy of pro-Kurdish political parties and the serhıldan (the Kurdish intifada) street liberation movement. In addition, the HDP has organic ties with the recent Gezi social movement, which has enabled the party to establish a synergy between a plurality of actors with the aim of gaining power in parliament in order to transform the existing ‘conservative democratic politics’ but to do it within the existing institutional framework.

Demirtaş’s populism is also an important element in the HDP’s success as he provides an image of a ‘national leader’ representing a positive and inclusive approach. Demirtaş personally obtained 9.8 per cent of the votes cast in the country’s previous presidential election (10 August 2014), although his own party only gained between 6 per cent and 7 per cent. He has even gained support from members of the centre-left and right political parties, along with ‘otherised’ and ostracised citizens of the country: for example, religious groups such Christians (Armenian, Greeks, Assyrians, etc.), Jews, Alevis, Êzidis; ethnic groups such as Georgians, Arabs, Turkmens, Albanians, Lazs; and far leftists, feminists, ecologists, anti-capitalist Muslims, Kurdish Islamists and the LGBT community.

In this respect, the HDP’s new political grammar, with such concepts as the ‘new life’, ‘great humanity’ and ‘we are’, are gaining the support of different members of society (see Wittgenstein, 2009). In contrast, the country’s political structure, which is dominated by the centre-right and centre-left parties, is in an ‘organic crisis’ that has created a post-democracy moment. This is because the so-called ‘otherised’ citizens and their identities, those who are usually the most excluded and alienated members of society, are unable to find a place in Turkey’s ‘new’ neoliberal society (of which the EU is supposed to be the model) and its conservative understanding of democracy (or perhaps meritocracy). They therefore appear to have little or no direct representation in the public sphere via the mainstream political parties as ‘they have a vote, but do not have a voice’, and as a result search for alternative political channels.

Concluding Remarks: The HDP’s ‘Other Turkey’ in the Three Dimensional Politics

To sum up, the HDP in Turkey, a country that is a long-term candidate for EU membership, conducts its political strategy in a different space within the social and political structure compared to the more established political parties. In this respect the HDP is a ‘modern Prince’ (in the Gramscian sense) whose strategy lies in building an allegiance between the Kurdish movement and other social and political democratic forces that struggle against the political homogeneity and limited citizenship offered by the more established parties. In short, it offers an alternative model of radical pluralism.

The Kurdish political movement has realized that their national demands could not be met without also taking into account the democratic demands of ‘other’ groups. This collective will, as a new political identity and ‘radical citizenship’ that seeks ‘equality and liberty for all’, is a new articulation of hegemony (Mouffe, 1992). Likewise the European left-wing populist parties have also started to challenge the existing neo-liberal democratic institutions. They are articulating different levels of democratic struggle in order to create a ‘collective identity’ within a (historical) bloc, and envisage a counter-hegemonic culture against the existing hegemonic order of the EU, IMF, World Bank, etc.

After all, these politically synchronized, left-leaning populist parties of Europe and Turkey are willing to create an ‘agonistic pluralism’ and democratic model, a model which will radically challenge the neo-liberal order. They also present a momentum for a change in the antagonistic social relations of a transnational political space by establishing a synergy between different forms of counter-hegemonic actors (Mouffe, 2013). The HDP’s new political imagination and ontology articulates a new antagonism by offering a ‘radical citizenship’ and radical democratic project which demands what I call an ‘other Turkey’ (I have also described it as a ‘non-otherising democracy’). In this light, the HDP is engaged in a hegemonic struggle between the rhetoric of the ‘old Turkey’ (the Kemalist, modernist, nationalist and Jacobin secular approach) and the ‘new Turkey’ (the AKP’s neo-liberal economics set alongside traditionalist and political Islamic principles) as a new actor. Hence, the HDP’s new radical politics is based on the discourses of ‘Turkeyfication’, ‘new life’, ‘great humanity’ and ‘we are’, as well as a left-leaning populism that embodies the notion of a radical democratic political project. Therefore, the HDP, and what it represents, has become both a ‘hope’ and a very important tool in transforming Turkey’s democratic institutions and in fostering and building the notion of ‘radical citizenship’ in Turkey, and perhaps not just in Turkey but in the Middle East too.

Dr. Ömer Tekdemir, Visiting Research Fellow, Coventry Üniversity

Please cite this publication as follows:

Tekdemir, Ö. (July, 2015), “Agonistic Imagination of Podemos in Andalusia and HDP in Anatolia: the Radical Citizenship Project for the European and the Middle-Eastern Demos”, Vol. IV, Issue 7, pp.6-18, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9193)

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Endnotes

[1] * First author wants to convey his special thanks to Ümit Sönmez, Editor-in-Chief and two anonymous referees of the Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) for their critical reading and feedback. The author is also grateful Derrick Wright for his revision and valued criticism.

[2] Apart from the BDP, which was the party before the HDP, all of these pro-Kurdish political parties were closed by the Constitutional Courts under anti-terror legislation.

[3] See the TESEV’s Report by Deniz Yükseker and Dilek Kurban (2009) on the displacement:http://www.tesev.org.tr/assets/publications/file/TESEV_VanActionPlanReport%2005%202009.pdf

[4] For more discussion on our theoretical approach about the ‘new radical left’ of Europe see, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/09/ernesto-laclau-intellectual-figurehead-syriza-podemos

[5] See, http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_hdp-congratulates-syriza-over-election-triumph_370875.html

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