Yüksekdag: The Labour and Freedom Alliance is a historical coalition

Artı Gerçek’s interview with former HDP co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ:

Responding to our questions from prison, Figen Yuksekdag said that it was a mistake to choose nationalism to challenge the government.

Former HDP co-chair Figen Yuksekdag, who has been incarcerated in Kandira F-type prison for more than six years, answered our questions from prison. Yuksekdag commented on the agenda and clarified many issues, from the condition of Aysel Tugluk, with whom she has been in the same cell for almost three months, to the Nation Alliance, from Gursel Tekin’s statement on the ministries to the Labour and Freedom Alliance, from the creation of a separate alliance by the Union of Socialist Forces to her banned book of poetry.

You have been in prison for more than six years. How is your state of health, how do you spend your days in prison?

I have no serious problems with my health. Long-term incarceration brings with it various problems. There can be complications, but they are nothing compared to my friends with health problems. We have a certain space, circumstances and facilities, and we make the best of these conditions to improve our day and life. After two years of isolation because of the pandemic, our communication is starting to improve. We are able to meet with friends in other rooms for five hours a week because we have the right to socialize and move around. The norm is 10 hours, but for reasons you can imagine, we are allowed five hours.

Besides the routine activities of reading, writing, sports and chatting, we also deal with endless trials, hearings and investigations. I, Chairman Gulten and MP Gulser spend half of the month in the hearings via CCTV. If we are not at the hearings, someone is at the door. We’ve been handed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, and it’s getting more and more. I don’t think there is any other example of this kind of a filing than the HDP (Kobane) case.

As you can see, the traffic is intense in every way. That is both a problem and a blessing for us. It keeps us going, even though it’s a challenge.


Can you follow the agenda in Turkey, and are there any obstacles to accessing the media?

We have limited access to the agenda. We try to follow what is happening through the TV channels allowed by the administration. Most of them are already affiliated with the “Palace news agency.” Those that go further, under the pressure of censorship, punishment and self-censorship, sift the agenda or report limited news.

The restriction on books is still in effect. We are prevented from buying the weekly newspapers and magazines or daily newspapers we want. The newspaper Yeni Yasam has not been available in the prison for three years. We have also been unable to get the Evrensel newspaper for more than a year. The bans on publications have become a routine practice. Considering the excessive pressure and bans on the press and social media in general, we don’t really have a gap between inside and outside. The government is turning the whole country into a prison in terms of the public’s right to information and media freedom.


Before we move on to the issues on the agenda, I would like to ask you about the decision to ban your book. Did you expect such a decision? What would you like to say about this ban?

I did not expect it, because it has been two years since the book came out, and it is still confusing which pot has fallen on which head to ban it. Although the political and judicial powers no longer have a timetable, a clock, a rule, a criterion, nothing predictable. But it is significant that they go beyond their hatred of the products of our political activity and approach the products of our literary work with the same hatred. At the same time, it is also vicious and incompetent. I am being tried with 38 years of aggravated life imprisonment because of my political identity and my words, and I have been detained for 6 years, but this is the first time that I would say “this is the height of disgrace!” They are turning our identity, our political activity, our thoughts, and even a single line of poetry into enemies.


The decision to ban and destroy books is an overtly fascist practice befitting the times of coups d’état. This country has witnessed the banning and burning of many books. The burners left, and the books were reborn from their ashes. Those who are still issuing bans along with confiscation and destruction orders with unquenchable passion are paving the way for their own departure. What will remain will only be a source of inspiration for those who are interested in art, literature and free intellectual production.


Even if the elections are held according to the regular schedule, they are due in less than a year. The Nation Alliance, which includes six different political parties, has its own internal disagreements from time to time. How do you view the policies of the Nation Alliance? Do you think they have an inclusive policy? What do you think the chances are that they can prevail against the People’s Alliance with this sort of politics?

Turkey’s biggest political problem is that the most important parts of the opposition lag behind society and reality. There is no way to break the cycle in which the opposition reproduces the government’s codes by adapting them to themselves. Overwhelmed by the pressure of the society that is distressed under 20 years of AKP rule, the six wings of the opposition have united. The pressure cooker would either explode or be gassed. The alliance was already forced by the electoral system, and its composition was broadened by grassroots influence. However, we have seen through several examples that this expansion and pretense of inclusion only lasted until it reached the HDP. For these reasons, the establishment and development of the Table of Six is not a special achievement of political leadership. If there is to be a success, it will be achieved from now on.


First, they must overcome their weakness of being guided by their dream of being in power. They are still thwarted by the HDP and the Kurds, or more precisely by the backward codes in the name of nationalism. This is the trial of the Nation Alliance with nationalism! Those who strive for a more nationalistic approach than the AKP-MHP alliance will no doubt lose. An opposition that claims to be in power can only make a difference and outdistance the current government if it is more democratic than it.

They have not presented society with an inclusive, comprehensive, and unifying democratic program. They are unable to provide a sharp understanding and novelty in terms of social trends, basic expectations and needs. In this respect, their vision is worse than that of the AKP in the past. The AKP received strong support from voters because it recognized the trend toward democratic renewal in society and exploited it for a (temporary) period. Thus the support for the resolution process with the Kurdish reached 80 percent. In other words, the Turkish right is not obsessed with nationalism. It is obsessed with its government’s and the opposition’s policies for the status quo, and it applies this obsession to society. It reproduces the status quo so that its own interests as well as ideological patterns are not undermined.


Ultimately, even though the Nation Alliance appears to be ahead of the People’s Alliance, it cannot build confidence without strengthening its serious vulnerabilities. It would be a big mistake for them to believe that victory is already in the bag. For voters suffocating from AKP-MHP oppression and the economic crisis, it may be misleading to cling to the Nation Alliance as a lifeline; it is imperative to bring them ashore and explain what kind of shore they have built.


The third alliance, the ” Labour and Freedom Alliance” led by the HDP, is also taking shape. What will be the function and significance of the Labour and Freedom Alliance during and after the elections? What role will it play in Turkey’s future? Do you have any criticism of the Labour and Freedom Alliance?

The Labour and Freedom Alliance announced its founding with a large and energetic gathering. As far as we could observe from afar, the formation is full of hope and excitement. It is clear that it will create serious synergies in the period before the elections. It is the historic alliance that will meet the need for direct democracy in Turkey without any “buts” and “thoughs,” rally large masses around it and open the door for progressive political change. Above all, it is an alternative to the alliances loyal to the system, which are on the better or worse side of the worst as far as democracy is concerned. Since the June 7 elections, we know what brilliant results the confidence, energy and tireless effort of being an independent alternative can bring. In 2022, it is very important to focus on victory and to recognize that the social base has reached a similar level of accumulation and transformation as in June 2015. From the scope of the formation of the Alliance and the political framework presented in the first phase, I understand that there is such foresight and preparation.


We also know that efforts to not be satisfied with the current situation and to expand will continue. The women’s aspect and the Women’s Alliance as a main body in the Alliance are not yet well developed, but will definitely be central; the will of women will be effective in determining the direction of the process.

The Labour and Freedom Alliance is characterized above all by the fact that it comes directly from the people, the women and the working people. For this reason, the work it will do in the midst of life, in the streets and in the production areas, will play a special role in the participation of society in politics. The goal and the call “We will transform together” already have the meaning of making politics together with the people, overcoming the centralist-dominant style of politics and preventing the emergence of other forms of power. The Labour and Freedom Alliance has taken on a historic responsibility to put people at the center of politics and to organize their transformative power.


Apart from the two existing alliances, it will build trust by giving no space to internal conflicts, struggles over political shares, and other tendencies that are irrelevant to the people’s agenda. In other words, with its features such as non-partisanship and a broad mass base, Turkey’s third alliance has been shaping itself around a mission. It has become a focal point of hope that will change and restore the existing political balances.

In the future, we will be able to see the shortcomings with greater clarity and objectivity. But a firm attitude is necessary so that no momentary situation can affect the perspective of “building tomorrow from today.” During the election process, the will to be decisive and to achieve results must be broad, from the presidential candidate to the neighbourhood commissions. This intervention and determination will be very important for an inclusive and consistent victory of democracy in the future.


According to released information, a fourth alliance is in the making. The Revolutionary Movement, the Left Party, the Communist Party of Turkey and the Communist Movement of Turkey will announce the Union of Socialist Forces in Ankara. There is public criticism that the leftist, socialist and democratic forces have not succeeded in coming together under a common umbrella. How do you feel about the fourth alliance?

As part of the alliance talks that the HDP has been conducting for about a year, a dialogue has also developed with the components of the Union of Socialist Forces. I can tell you with certainty that persistent efforts have been made. Nevertheless, the alliance they sought could not materialize because they decided to go their separate ways. In the recent past, because of the experience with the June Movement, the members of the Union of Socialist Forces preferred to stay away from the HDP and its affiliated left socialist parties at a very critical time. Now we are in a similar process and similar decisions are being made.

Therefore, questions like “Why can’t this happen, why can’t everyone meet under a common roof?” are not very reasonable and progressive. If we have a common goal, everyone should clearly define their mission in the face of the reality of the dark regime and state what situation they have changed or will change in concrete policy. Building an alliance on the basis of “we are socialists and there is a gap in the struggle for socialism, we will fill it” requires evidence and action. Because others besides you are claiming to be socialist and paying the price. Therefore, what you mean by the struggle for socialism is important.


My understanding of socialism, for example, demands that when an oppressed people is vomiting blood right next to you, you should not make policies that turn your back on them. This is what we have learned from the history and theory of socialism. At the same time, socialists must first take responsibility for creating a climate in which Turkish and Kurdish workers and oppressed people can live together. The issue goes beyond simple election tactics.

We would like to see all Turkish socialists unite in such a historic mission. Anyway, with the Alliance for Labour and Freedom, we have come a long way toward this goal. In this way, for the sake of the struggle for socialism and its founding, the favourable ground is also being developed on which the space for democratic rights and freedoms is being opened.

Although we are critical of the Union of Socialist Forces, we are hopeful that it will evolve and find a foothold in life and politics.


Recently, Gursel Tekin’s statement “The HDP can be given ministries” caused controversy. In particular, the Good Party stated that it would not sit at the table with the HDP. Against this background, how do you assess the Table of Six’ attitude toward the HDP and the ongoing debate?

These debates were instructive and cautionary for the masses and the democratic forces of the HDP. Although the HDP had no agenda or demand for the table or any ministries, it was stirred up and it was instructive to see the whitewashed AKP sitting at the Table of Six. This policy, which constantly harasses and insults the HDP and the Kurdish people and is mainly led by the Good Party, directly serves the AKP-MHP alliance.

The citizens outside the HDP electorate, whose main concern is to get rid of the government that is wrecking the country, can see this reality with their own wisdom. Politicians who go to great lengths not to scare the proverbial mule in the face of power, only to turn into tigers in the face of the will of seven million people, do not have as much credibility in the eyes of the public as they pretend to have.


On the one hand, they strive to demarcate the CHP. They have already started fighting for ministries in a government that has not yet been won, using the HDP as an excuse. This does not bode well. On the other hand, the government is carrying out a conspiracy from the outside to associate the CHP with terrorism and to break the back of the Table of Six.

The whole plan and mobilization of the government are based on building thick walls between the Table of Six and the HDP, to cut off the slightest legitimate political interaction. Since there are those working on this plan from within the Table of Six, this is the Table’s problem, not ours. The HDP and the Labour and Freedom Alliance will not deviate from their constructive and victory-oriented political line.


Women opposition politicians in Turkey have been facing repression for a long time. On the one hand, there are reports of sick prisoners dying in prisons while, on the other hand, there are reports of sick prisoners not receiving treatment. You are in the same prison as Aysel Tugluk, have you had the opportunity to meet her and what can you say about her state of health?

I have been sharing a room with Ms. Tugluk for three months. All official authorities and public opinion already know that her condition has rendered her unable to live on her own and to remain in prison. Some time ago, tests and examinations conducted by the department of neurology and the dementia clinic of a medical hospital faculty determined and reported that her condition had deteriorated. The number of medications also increased. But since the progression of dementia is closely related to environmental conditions, the medications do not have the necessary effect.


Two weeks ago she has referred to Forensic Medicine once again (September 28), but despite the time that has passed, there is still no news. Every day she remains in prison, the government commits the crime of attempted murder. In addition to Alzheimer’s, other health problems are emerging and under these conditions it will be impossible to intervene quickly. Public awareness and struggle for the release of all sick prisoners starting from Aysel Tugluk must be raised even higher.


One of the areas where repression is felt the most is art and culture. We spent the last summer months with bans on concerts and festivals. How do you view this climate of repression?

The closer the government gets to its demise, the more it reacts to everything that creates movement, to everything where people express themselves in some way. In order to suffocate society and make it dysfunctional, it tries to block the smallest passage of air.

Those who are currently at the head of the state and their partners from the religious sects and congregations have the intention to establish a regime similar to Iran, if not worse. In recent times, its closest trading partners have been states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which don’t give a damn about concerts or festivals and torture those who want to know, detain and torment women caught with their hair uncovered.

Supported by its partner MHP, the AKP has conducted an export campaign for its regime and culture, especially in recent years. The Sunni-influenced model of governance, ideology and culture is spread in society through sects, community organizations and public institutions, and imposed from above through state violence. In other words: I wish the problem was limited to the banned concerts and festivals this summer. It is very likely that this policy will spread further and take more acute forms.


While on the one hand concerts are banned, Erdogan’s statement that those who attend concerts abroad are inferior and degrade themselves is on another level. It shows to what extent he has developed hatred against all groups that do not belong to his own and to what extent moral and cultural threads have been severed.

The divisive and polarizing attitude of the AKP-MHP government can politicalize even a simple concert or festival. It considers it dangerous for its subjects to come together even to listen to songs, rejoice and get to know each other.


Insisting on singing, on dancing the ‘halay’ and ‘horon,’ on joy and fun, is a form of resistance in such a context as ours. Political and aesthetic resistance has toppled many tyrannical governments and will continue to do so.


I started this interview with a question about the banning of your book of poems. I would like to end it with art and literature as well. Who do you read in prison? What literary genres are you interested in besides poetry? Are you also interested in other cultural and artistic activities, for example, are you able to practice your hobbies in areas such as painting and music?

I love and read all kinds of literature, but poetry always occupies a special place in my life. At the moment I am reading a collection of poems by Forugh Farrokhzad. As for novels, historicals and women’s stories are the genres I look for and follow what’s new.

I can’t say that I’m much interested in the visual arts.

I only watch movies on television when I can. I’m away from painting, I’ve never tried to do it. But I like to comment on good paintings, which enhances my ability to look beyond the visible. I’ve also started reading cartoons and humor magazines after a long hiatus. There are people in prison who draw cartoons and publish albums. I browse through them from time to time.


My continuous hobby is music. I had no involvement, and no foundation before I attended the course opened by the prison and started to play the ‘baglama.’ I play and sing for my friends and myself. Then I got carried away and started playing the violin. I play the violin only for myself though, my friends don’t want to hear it. We can’t take classes or get outside help anymore, so we have to pursue every hobby by ourselves.


Finally, is there a message you would like to convey to the public?

I salute the women-led uprising for freedom in Iran. Let us believe in a tomorrow that comes with the power of women, life and freedom in the world, in our region and in Turkey.

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