Istanbul—To reach the Istanbul headquarters of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), you have to find a place to cross a chaotic six-lane highway lined with a jumble of buildings that look as if they’re waiting to die. On its north side, a trompe l’oeil construction fence interrupts the narrow pavement to present the future facade of Tarlabasi 360, a pricey business and residential complex being built by Calik Holdings, whose CEO—the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—recently stepped down to run for Parliament. The road, widened in 1986 with the destruction of many grand Ottoman-era Greek and Armenian buildings, cuts off the decaying neighborhood of Tarlabasi from Beyoglu’s thriving cultural and commercial center. A five-minute walk from the modern stores and cafes of Istiklal Avenue, families live in a single room in half-ruined houses. Kurdish women in lace-edged head scarves squat over basins of mussels to scrape for the tourist trade. A man in a leather jacket minds a small flock of sheep parked on a concrete corner. Barefoot children—some of them Syrian refugees—play under lines of laundry strung across narrow streets, or click toy pistols, or rush past gleefully with spray bottles and squeegees to risk their lives cleaning windshields on the growling highway.
Now, in the run-up to Turkey’s June 7 vote—”a life-and-death election,” says Bilgi University professor Ayhan Aktar—the laundry is joined by the white, yellow, purple, red, and green bunting of the HDP, frothing overhead like the flounces of some celestial petticoat. Founded two years ago by members of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party and various left, green, feminist, LGBT, and ethnic-minority groups, the HDP has become the last, best hope for Turkey’s liberals and leftists of blocking Erdogan’s drive to rewrite the Constitution and concentrate yet more power in his own hands. If his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins a large enough majority, Erdogan plans to establish an executive presidency to “strengthen the national will,” removing what he calls the “obstruction” of a “multiheaded” Parliament and allowing Turkey to “leap forward and beyond the level of contemporary civilizations.” To stop him, the HDP has to win at least 10 percent of the vote. If it fails to pass that threshold, Turkey’s electoral system gives all its ballots to the next party in each district, which in most cases will be the AKP.
In addition to its headquarters—an old terraced house where I’m given tea in a room furnished with red leatherette armchairs and posters of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan—the HDP has an election bureau in Tarlabasi. A cheerful Kurdish woman is mopping the pristine floor while a man with a purple kerchief round his neck looks on; sadly, we have no shared language. “Rûm,” I offer—the Turkish word denoting Greeks of the Ottoman Empire—and he beams back, “Syriza!”
The HDP sees Syriza as a fraternal party: On paper, at least, they’re both upstart left coalitions with links to direct democracy and commitments to civil rights, standing against neoliberalism and corruption. But the HDP has a far wider internal gulf to straddle between its socially conservative Kurdish base and the radicals, liberals, feminists, and gay activists energized by the Gezi Park protests of two years ago. Many of them mistrust the Kurdish nationalists, concerned that the wily Öcalan might cut a deal with Erdogan, swapping more Kurdish autonomy for increased presidential powers. (Öcalan, leader of the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, is serving a life sentence for his part in a guerrilla war that has killed some 40,000 Kurdish and Turkish soldiers and civilians; for the last two years, he’s been negotiating with the AKP from his island prison.) And though equal representation for women is built into Kurdish politics, for most rural voters, the Gezi crowd and its sympathizers may as well have come from Mars.