Turkey Pulse

How a tea kettle came to symbolize Turkish election opposition

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Article Summary
The Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and their imprisoned leader and candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, are running a positive and creative election campaign, rattling the nerves of an increasingly anxious Justice and Development Party and government.

On June 5, Turkish authorities arrested two high school students for spray painting a kettle on the wall of a house in Istanbul. Next to the kettle they wrote, “There is a message coming from the kettle.” The reason for their arrest was reported as creating propaganda for terror organizations. Next to and beneath the kettle were acronyms for banned organizations. The owner of the house, rather than filing a complaint against the young men, came to their defense, explaining, “They only drew the kettle image. The names of organizations were already there.”

The kettle has become a political symbol thanks to Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) also known as the “Kurdish Obama.” Demirtas, who was arrested in November 2016, had in September 2017 allowed his attorney to send tweets from his Twitter account. After the tweets, guards thoroughly searched his space to figure out how he was able to tweet. Demirtas had to publicly state through Twitter that he was not actually typing and sending the messages. “Naturally they could not find any tweets in the rooms,” he joked. “There was a tea kettle in the room, but they concluded it is not able to send tweets.”

The popularity of the unassuming kettle took off in Turkish politics in early May. At that time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had accidentally provided the opposition with the resonating motto “TAMAM” (Enough), signifying how some might feel toward him. Each opposition figure stepped forward to join the Enough movement, but Demirtas, due to his incarceration, lagged behind in joining them. He eventually tweeted, “There was a complication with the kettle, that is why I am late. TAMAM.” In some 40 days, his message was retweeted in excess of 23,000 times and received 92,000 likes. In the meantime, kettle images began appearing in public, symbolizing the hope of an imprisoned politician. Demirtas’ kettle is now one of the strongest images on Turkey's political scene and surprisingly pleasant.

The HDP and Demirtas deserve praise for how they have handled legal and situational challenges in the run-up to presidential and legislative elections scheduled for June 24. The party published a study documenting attacks and arrests on party members and property from April 18 to June 10. They tallied 57 attacks on HDP campaigners, offices, cars and buses, and 208 members detained. Prior to that, hundreds of HDP members, including dozens of elected municipal leaders and lawmakers were arrested. The government filled the vacant municipal posts with its own people.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are concerned that the HDP will succeed in entering parliament. The HDP has not joined a coalition and must pass the 10% voter threshold in order to do so. If it fails to surpass the threshold, the AKP is expected to benefit and garner a majority in the legislature. A video recording of Erdogan emerged on social media on June 13 illustrating the depth of Erdogan’s concern. Most likely recorded by cell phone at a gathering in Istanbul, Erdogan is shown and heard addressing local AKP representatives who will be counting votes.

He advises them to arrive early at the polling stations before others so that, he said, “This business will end before it begins.” More important, he advises them to obtain voter registration lists and examine them, one by one, and work on potential HDP voters. He warns, “Friends, our party organization needs to do a different kind of study on the HDP. I will not say this outside.”

Having delivered these seemingly cryptic instructions, he then goes on to explain how beneficial it will be to them if the HDP fails to pass the threshold. With all this, HDP officials believe that Erdogan is encouraging election fraud.

Giran Ozcan, the HDP's US representative, told Al-Monitor, “Turkey is being led by a man who believes his life depends on his ability to maintain and tighten his grasp on every single iota of power in the country. To do this, he has extensively polarized the country and raised tensions on the social level to unprecedented levels. The HDP has been subjected to the severest criminalization by Erdogan, ordering the courts, which are effectively under his control, to clamp down on many of our members, elected officials and even our former co-chairs, Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas.”

About the video, Ozcan emphasized, “Erdogan is heard ordering his party officials to work specifically on ensuring that the HDP does not pass the election threshold, even going as far as profiling HDP voters. Erdogan’s reign depends on the HDP falling short of the threshold, and for this, he is willing to sacrifice not only the democratic institutions of the country, but even the whole social fabric of Turkey.”

Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu added, “The public is rarely able to see HDP representatives in mainstream media reaching out to voters to deliver their messages.” Yet, HDP members are rallying with a nice photo of Demirtas and with broad smiles. “Demirtas is imprisoned, but his [creative] appeal is there. He writes [fiction] books, sends handwritten notes, sings and draws. He is smart and creative to use every little opportunity to reach the public,” Civiroglu told Al-Monitor.

Each week Demirtas is allotted 10 minutes of phone time to speak to his wife, and as he turns each call into a rally streamed from their living room or into messages on WhatsApp, Turkish authorities work tirelessly to contain the HDP's campaign. For example, on June 12, an image was widely shared on social media showing an HDP campaign bus, with Demirtas’ photo on the side, being seized with two HDP campaigners inside.

Hatice Altinisik, chair of the Alevi Bektasi Institute, believes that the messages from Demirtas’ kettle are being heard. She said that a big crowd turned out in Diyarbakir at a Republican People’s Party rally for presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. She noted that while Erdogan constantly refers to Demirtas as a terrorist, Ince, who had visited Demirtas in prison, spoke sensibly about the struggles of the Kurds in Turkey.

Al-Monitor conducted focus group interviews June 1-12 with HDP volunteers and sympathizers in Diyarbakir, Agri and Hakkari, cities in the east and southeast with majority-Kurdish populations. Those interviewed expressed confidence that the HDP’s share of the vote has increased since the last election.

According to one person, “Demirtas is a hero campaigning from prison. That unites the people here.” There was concern, however, about election fraud. A farmer from Hakkari said, “We thought Erdogan was different, but there is no difference. Kurds are destined for three places in this country — prison, exile or the grave.”

The struggle for Kurdish votes took a deadly turn on June 14, when a fight broke out as an AKP parliamentary candidate campaigned in the border town of Suruc. Four people died and 10 were injured in a still-murky incident involving an exchange between the armed entourage of the AKP lawmaker and an HDP shopkeeper and his staff.

So far, HDP members and Demirtas have campaigned in an upbeat manner employing a witty sense of humor. Given that most credible polls show that Erdogan’s vote share increases as terror concerns increase, and it decreases when economic challenges arise, there is good reason to fear more violence.

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Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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