Category Archives: Election

France: Le Pen’s been beaten – so what now?

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The majority of French voters have rejected Marine Le Pen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the elected president is a free-market fanatic whose programme inspired a record number of people to cast blank votes.

Election posters in Champigny-sur-Marne on 7 May 2017 Photo: Tony Cross

Had Le Pen won the presidency, another country would have succumbed to the revamped right-wing populism represented by Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Brexit – not fascism, in my view, but a new kind of majoritarian authoritarianism endorsed by popular mandate, fuelled by fear of the future and resentment of the establishment, finding its expression in xenophobia and prejudice.

Emmanuel Macron could hardly be styled a courageous defender of minorities but he did resist Le Pen’s racism in the campaign TV debates, which is more than can be said for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon and, for that matter, more than can be said for Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls while in office.

So we’ve escaped a national-level version of the discrimination, repression and racist rabble-rousing the far right has let loose on the towns it controls. And Le Pen’s National Front (FN) seems to have big problems ahead.

Crisis for National Front

The result, and Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the few days before the poll, appears to have plunged the FN into crisis.

In one sense, they don’t have so much to complain about. They achieved a record 10.6 million votes, nearly double their score when Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac 2002. That’s a lot of Islamophobes – or, at least, a lot of people prepared to go along with the FN’s hatred of Muslims, immigrants, Roma and other minorities to poke the “elite” in the eye, which should, but won’t, give the “elite” pause for thought.

But, and this is really worrying, they could have done even better.

Le Pen ran an effective campaign up until the last few days. Then she had the bright idea of picking a holocaust-doubter as her party’s interim president (he also thought that beating up commies was a good political education but that received less media attention) say that France was not responsible for the wartime rounding up of Jews, call Fillon and his party “shits” (the FN claims she just said they were in the shit) and, worst of all, behave just like her father’s daughter during the crucial final TV debate.

The debate performance – where she was caught out lying, blustered, bullied, slouched and grimaced like the chip off the old block she is – has probably destroyed the “dedemonisation” strategy that had been working pretty well for Marine and her pals.

The FN’s canal historique is already sharpening its knives. Its best-known representative, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, one of only two FN-affiliated MPs at the moment, said on Sunday evening that the party must consider its strategy in the election after the “disappointment”.

And, if reports are to be believed, the rank and file is in disarray. An anonymous FN official told the Mediapart website that a the party’s post-debate postbag contained a number of torn-up membership.  And the “fachosphere” – the far-right social media network – is full of recriminations, mostly against Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the FN vice-president who’s seen as the Svengali behind the dedemonisation strategy and the party’s “social” turn.

One is tempted to ask whether Le Pen threw the debate deliberately. As a Trump admirer, she must have read his comment that leading a country is harder than he’d thought. Being the party of mean-minded, resentful opposition has been a profitable business for her family, making them millionaires. Had the FN watered down its opposition to the EU, the real point of difference with the Fillons, Sarkozys and other tough guys of the mainstream right, it could have undergone the same transformation as Italy’s MSI and joined a coalition government some years ago.

But no, the FN leaders were riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment mixed with xenophobia and seemed genuinely to believe they were on the road to power on their own terms. Hence the disappointment today.

It remains to be seen if the backbiting will hamper their campaign in June’s parliamentary elections. A good result there could staunch the crisis.

Macron and extremes

Something else revealed in that TV debate is that Macron is not a very skilful politician.

He’s an intelligent man, a skilled technocrat who knows his facts.

But Le Pen destroyed herself, he didn’t destroy her.

When she posed as a defender of gay and women’s rights during an attack on a Muslim group that supported him, he failed to remind her of her own party’s record on those questions – the potential for mockery was great but Macron doesn’t do funny. When she justified her claim that the wartime deportation of Jews was not France’s responsibility but that of the Vichy government, he let it go without even a mention the former collaborators who helped found the party. Apparently, he also doesn’t do history.

This is not just a historical quibble. Obscuring the party’s Nazi origins and airbrushing out its anti-Semitism are a key part of the dedemonisation strategy and Macron passed on an opportunity to deal it a powerful blow.

In short, Macron has no political culture, which is also the problem of his newly founded En Marche ! movement. Apparently, the political experience that his presidential campaign lacked was made up for by Socialist Party traitors, working against their own candidate, Benoît Macron, in the first round and even more openly for a republican front – nominally anti-fascist but in reality more pro-Brussels – in the second round.

That was also apparent in his speech after the result was announced. In what he imagined was an olive branch to supporters of Le Pen and left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he told them they had voted for “extremists”.

Repeating the old canard of the “extremes” meeting up is hardly a way to win over the seven million who voted Mélenchon in the first round and Macron’s assurance that he understood voters’ “anger, anxiety and doubts” is undermined by his obvious lack of empathy with ordinary people on the campaign trail.

With 25 percent abstention, the highest since 1969 when France’s youth was radicalised by May ’68, and an absolute record of four million blank votes, Macron can expect trouble.

His programme, for the most part a collection of micro-measures and expressions of good intentions, is ardently pro-EU and pro-capitalist. Despite a promise to revive Europe’s connection with “the people”, Macron is determined to press on with reducing the debt through austerity, the very policy that has done so much to help demagogues like Le Pen. On the economy it’s more of the same – tax cuts and subsidies for employers, in the desperate and so far unrewarded hope that they will be bribed to invest, longer hours, later retirement and less social protection for employees.

He has promised to bring in more changes to labour law in the summer, his main proposal being to encourage company-level negotiations on working hours and other conditions, a further undermining of collective bargaining and trade union solidarity.

Mélenchon’s seven million votes mean that, for the first time for years, the left is not demoralised.

Rather it is in combative mood, witness all those blank votes. So strikes, demonstrations and social upheaval are guaranteed, indeed the first took place on the afternoon after the election.

Parliamentary elections – who know what will happen?

It’s all very well winning the presidency but afterwards you have to form a government.

For someone who doesn’t actually have a real party that’s a problem.

And, with the mainstream parties rejected by voters in the presidential election, everything’s up for grabs in June’s parliamentary election.

Will Macron succeed in destroying the Socialist Party, as seems to be his intention, with his assurance that En Marche ! won’t endorse any candidate standing under another party’s colours?

Will the mainstream right Republicans lose their more liberal MPs, tempted by the prospect of ministerial positions?

Will voters be as ready to reject sitting MPs as they were to turn their backs on their parties’ candidates in the presidential first round?

Will the FN pick up MPs in some of the 95 constituencies where Le Pen won more than 30 percent in that round?

Can Mélenchon and his allies build on the presidential campaign success and win more seats?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone else does, either.

Which means that the parliamentary poll is going to be another cliffhanger and, whatever happens, French politics will never be the same again.

Read my analysis of the result for RFI English here

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Pakistan votes to end military rule under shadow of violence

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Pakistan’s 2008 election came soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and saw more murders and bombings. But voters turned out. The result was historic. A military ruler democratically removed and his supporters accepting the result with more good grace than they were generally given credit for, leading to the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in 2013, although not, sadly, to the end of the violence and corruption that continue to dog the country. Here’s my account of polling day in Lahore.

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The old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 18.02.2008

A stretch of Cooper Road is cordoned off by the police and the polling stations, one for men and a separate one for women, have to be approached on foot.

The parties have set up stalls to check off their voters’ names as they arrive, often delivered by vans driven by political activists. Lahore is the Muslim League Nawaz’s stronghold and the PML-N is doing brisker business than the People’s Party, the PPP. But, at 9.30am, voting is slow, as is also reported to be the case in other areas.

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PPP activists check voters’ names Photo: Tony Cross

PPP party worker Farhat Hussein believes that people are afraid there will be bombs or shootings.

“Violence is the main problem,” he says. “You know, one candidate was killed and the people of Lahore is afraid.”

Last night in the city, PML-N candidate Chaudhry Asif Ashraf was shot dead, along with his driver and secretary, while three other party workers are still in a serious condition in hospital. Voting in four constituencies has been postponed because of the death of a candidate. One of those constituencies was to have been contested by Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination sparked fears of a major bombing campaign.

During the campaign most of the violence was restricted to the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the secular, Pashtun-nationalist Awami National  Party has been the  principal target.

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PML-Q activists on polling day in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

The worst attack was on Saturday in Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal agency, where 47 people were killed and many more injured. Most of them are reported to have been PPP supporters who were attending an election rally.

In NWFP dozens of public employees tried to get out of their obligation to man polling-stations. They’ve been told that they must find replacements or face disciplinary action. And many retired police and soldiers are reluctant to take up the offer to help with security. They consider the pay – one-and-a-half euros a day – insufficient compensation for the risk.

Here in Lahore police claim to have arrested 37 would-be bombers over the last three months, while in Hyderabad, Sindh province, they claim to have caught three yesterday.

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Voting at a women’s polling centre in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

No wonder the desire for peace is on many voters’ minds. A chatty group of women, some wearing hijab, say that they voted PML-N. Razia Mumtaz says that she and her friends want change.

“We want to elect people who work for our country and for better system, change the system, for the safety of the people,’ she says. “First of all, for the safety of our country.”

Most voters seem to expect some electoral fraud by the outgoing government. PML-N supporter Osama Ahmed is typical.

“They have already said in the newspaper ‘We have won’. What else I can say? Everybody knows there’s going to be something fishy-fishy.”

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PML-N supporters parade a lion on the back of a lorry – and RFI tries to record its roar – during the 2008 election campaign in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Aref Lateef, who also supports Nawaz Sharif – “he lies less, the others lie more” –is resigned to the idea.

“Pakistan has a tradition of vote-rigging, it was always rigged. Except once, I think that when East Pakistan broke away [to become Bangladesh] at that time it was not rigged but they did not give the power to the party who was in majority.”

Throughout the day, people report that they or their families are not on the electoral register, although it’s impossible to tell if this is due to their negligence or official malpractice.

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Inside the old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

If the PPP is to be believed, there’s also a danger that voters will turn up and find that their polling station isn’t where they expected it to be. In Punjab the party has complained about 398 “ghost” polling stations, moved to between four and seven kilometres’ distance from where they were initially sited. The PPP claims they will be used to provide over a million fake votes.

If there’s a Benazir cult in PPP strongholds, like Faisalabad and Sindh province, the principal object of veneration in Lahore is Nawaz. The PML-N’s symbol is a tiger, often transformed into a lion by the party faithful who wear big-cat badges on their shirts or waistcoats. Yesterday the party sent a truck with a lion in a cage on the back touring the city. The wild beast can stand equally for the party and its leader, so Osama Ahmed, who seems to have a penchant for natural history, declares: “Better a man-eating lion than cannibals!”

Another PML-N supporter, Sayed Shaufiq Hussain, sees Nawaz as a local boy persecuted by Musharraf.

“We have our hero from our society – number one – from our region – number two – and he was competent. One thing was very bad when he was sent in Saudi Arabia forcefully. So that’s why people are still with him. He had done a lot of jobs for our society, especially for the Lahori people, so that’s why we are with him.”

More than one Nawaz-admirer praises his backing for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme. In a poor area far from the city centre, Liaquat says that the bomb is essential for the nation’s security, although he doesn’t see any immediate threat.

“Nobody will attack on Pakistan because we are safe,” he declares. “And we are brave. And we are Muslim.”

Musharraf’s collaboration with the US war on terror also comes under fire. Sitting astride a motorbike, Sohel Iqbal refuses to say who he voted for. But it certainly wasn’t the president’s party, as becomes clear when he explains his top priority for the new government.

“Independent foreign policy, independent. Not to depend on America or things like that. All the decisions should be taken within the country.”

Voting picks up as the day progresses. By the evening the opposition are convinced that they have won. Their supporters take to riding around the city cheering and, in some cases, firing into the air, a form of celebration which leads to several arrests.

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Moghul-era lattice-work in Lahore’s old city Photo: Tony Cross

To hear my radio report for RFI on election day in Lahore click here

Military ruler Musharraf’s party bows out ‘with grace’ after 2008 election defeat

Credit where credit’s due, it was historic that the PML-Q, a party that was not overburdened with principles, accepted the 2008 election defeat and that General Pervez Musharraf didn’t hang on much longer. Musharraf is still being dragged through the courts but Pakistan, for the moment at least, no longer seems under danger of a new military coup, following one elected government succeeding another in the 2013 election.

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Mushahid Hussain concedes defeat Photo: Tony Cross

Mushahid Hussain knows how to make a virtue of necessity.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has suffered a humiliating defeat in the election. It has gone from government to an isolated minority in the National Assembly. Its share of the vote may not have fallen much but its share of seats in parliament has been slashed.

Several party leaders, such as party president Chaudhry Shujat Hussain and his brother Pervaiz Elahi, are no longer MPs. Former Railway Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a key figure in the previous government, managed to lose two seats, Pakistani law permitting candidates to stand in two constituencies in one election.

But Mushahid Hussain handles interviews with the aplomb of the journalist-turned-politician that he is and assures reporters that the PML-Q will be the first party in the history of Pakistan to “accept the election outcome with grace”.

Let the PPP and the PML-N form a government, he says. “We want to play our democratic role in the opposition, as a vibrant and robust opposition, an issue-oriented opposition.”

Apart from the press, the PML-Q’s rather scruffy headquarters is largely empty now, after a meeting of the party’s MPs and its more numerous failed candidates earlier today.

“The mood was upbeat, the morale was high,” Mushahid Hussain insists, although Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is hovering in the background, doesn’t appear to be brimming over with joy.

Mushahid Hussain is a Senator and Secretary General of PML-Q. Before the election he predicted that the PPP would invite his party to join a coalition, an option that Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, flirted with for a brief moment. Now it’s clear that PML-Q is banished from the ministries.

Hussain warns the new government against confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, whose coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 gave rise to the split between the N and the Q and the latter becoming the governing party.

“We don’t want any destabilisation. We don’t want any polarisation. We don’t want any new fronts opened between parliament and president.”

Although Hussain says he hopes the new government will last its full tenure, the PML-Q clearly hopes to profit from the political turmoil that is likely to hit the new government, both in its relations with the president and in relations between the biggest parties in its ranks.

Meanwhile, PML-Q needs to hold onto its members. Its leaders have appealed to the PPP not to poach from its ranks.

“This has been a tradition in Pakistan. We hope the norm has changed now because let’s not repeat old mistakes,” says Hussain but he laughs when reminded that his own party wasn’t shy of the practice in the past.

So far as government policy is concerned, Hussain doesn’t expect big changes. He calls for a “consensual” foreign policy. Musharraf’s collaboration with Washington may be unpopular with the voters, but that doesn’t mean that the new government will change it.

“That foreign policy has not been criticised by the opposition, as yet. The People’s Party and PML-N have not criticised the fundamental contours of Mr Musharraf’s foreign policy,” he points out with a courteous smile.

Lawyers fight on for chief justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement and Musharraf’s departure

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Pakistani lawyers demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired by Pervez Musharraf Photo: Tony Cross

Another question on which the government’s supporters may face disappointment is the fate of the judges sacked by Musharraf last year.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry’s dismissal, last March the ninth, started a long battle between the president and the legal profession. Chaudhry was later reinstated … and then sacked again.

Later, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the president sacked about 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office.

Nine months of noisy and emotional protests, usually ending in black-suited lawyers being teargassed and beaten by the police, played a major role in discrediting Musharraf and his allies in government.

But the PPP has not committed itself to reinstating Chaudhry or the other judges. Nor has Zardari made any promises to that effect since the election, even though one of his party’s best-known members is lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who’s still under house arrest in Lahore.

So the lawyers are still demonstrating. At Islamabad’s district court, a group of them sit in front of a giant photo of one of their colleague’s suffering the attentions of a zealous police officer.

They say they’re optimistic, especially since PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has said that the judges must be reinstated immediately. Since the election, Sharif has made surprise appearances at lawyers’ demonstrations and even proposed direct action to place the judges back in office. Now he says he wants an executive order, like the one that dismissed them, to reverse the damage.

Nobody seems too clear as to how this would work, however.

Should they argue that the order which sacked the judges was unconstitutional, on the grounds that Musharraf didn’t bother to consult parliament about it?

Or does the president have to issue a new one? And does that necessitate getting rid of the present incumbent?

The demonstrators’ legal training doesn’t seem to be much help in this case. But there’s no doubt what Islamabad Bar Council member Malek Lateef Kokar favours from an emotional point of view.

“A new president might come,” he hopes. “This president, better sense may prevail on him just at this right moment. Better sense may prevail and he may do what the people of Pakistan like and what they want. They have given a clear mandate against the President Musharraf. The honourable way is that he must restore the judiciary and quit.”

The lawyers, who by now must be as adept at chanting as pleading a case, segue from slogans in support of the judges to “Go, Musharraf, go!”

To hear my radio report for RFI on the lawyers’ protests click here

To read and listen to my report for RFI from Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here

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In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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Between Islamists and the military – two voices of the Pakistani left

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Left-wing activists face state harassment and threats from Islamists. When I met two of them during the 2008 election that put an end to President Pervez Musharraf’s rule, they pointed to creeping Islamisation of both the military and civilian life and seemed isolated as previous anti-Musharraf allies dropped calls for a boycott.

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Activists, including Pervez Hoodboy, protest at police brutality in Islamabad during the 2008 election Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 17.02.2008

As Shahbaz Sharif addressed several thousand people in Sheikhapura yesterday, an umbrella group set up by his party held a smaller rally in Lahore – to call for a boycott of the election.

The All Parties Democratic Movement, APDM, was never an entirely accurate name. The PML-N formed it along with the religious alliance, the MMA, and some secular parties when their previous alliance with the People’s Party broke down.

During the political turbulence that followed the firing of the Chief Justice and the declaration of the state of emergency, the APDM declared that the election couldn’t possibly be fair and launched the boycott call.

But PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif never seemed 100% committed to the idea, especially when the PPP refused to commit itself thus threatening to take most of the PML-N’s seats in a newly-elected parliament.

When the PML-N finally threw itself into the election campaign, its offspring turned Oedipal and expelled it, along with the Jamaat-Ulema-Islami, one of the two largest parties in the MMA, which also stood candidates. A revision of the group’s name seems in order, as the country’s three biggest parties devote all their energies to the election campaign. Among the relatively few parties left in the APDM, the best known are Qazi Hussein Ahmed’s Jamaat-e-Islami and former cricket star Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf.

Still, an alliance of left-wing parties came to comfort them in their solitude and this shell of an alliance managed to muster a couple of thousand at the Pakistan monument in Lahore.

Farooq Tariq Photo: Tony Cross

Farooq Tariq is the leader of the Labour Party Pakistan, a small group which is part of the People’s Democratic Movement, the AJT, a newly-founded coalition of former (?) Stalinists and Trotskyists who seem to be happily coexisting, for the moment at least.

Sitting in his garden in a quiet suburb of Lahore, he seems to be having second thoughts about participation in the APDM. Yesterday’s rally was smaller than expected, he says, and most of the movement’s activities have been dominated by the Jamaat-e-Islami activists. But he claims that there have been successful meetings in Baloochistan, where’s there’s a powerful, armed independence movement, and the APDM has been the only organiSation that has managed to hold meetings in all areas of the country.

There will be a successful boycott in Baloochistan, he thinks, and a low turnout elsewhere, except, perhaps, in Punjab.

“There is no enthusiasm in the election. It’s the most colourless election in my political life of 30 years. No mass meetings; no street meetings; only the media campaign, most like in the developed countries where the media is the main part and that has come to Pakistan in this election.”

There was no choice but to boycott, says Tariq, because the election was intended “to legitimiSe President Musharraf’s rule” and without an independent judiciary or election commission there will be no check on fraud and manipulation.

The left is already thinking of quitting the APDM, although he describes its platform as liberal and progressive and claims that the alliance is dominated by progressive nationalists.

“We can’t work with the fundamentalists, that’s very clear.”

His party has clashed with the Islamists on many occasions and he has received death-threats by SMS. One claimed to be from Osama ben Laden’s son, Hamza, and told him that “If Benazir Bhutto can be killed, the leftists must pay attention;” Musharraf’s régime hasn’t been too kind to him, either, arresting him 12 times and obliging to go into hiding for 18 days during the state of emergency.

Tariq expects the PPP to form the next government and PML-N to do well in Punjab. But “it doesn’t make much difference, only really the faces change.”

He says that representative of the three major parties all attended a seminar in Washington before the election, he says, and assured the US government and the International Monetary Fund that there would be no change in economic policy.

The PPP will be sharing power with Musharraf, “which is contrary to the consciousness of the voters who will go to the polls tomorrow” but was “Plan A of the Americans”, bringing Benazir Bhutto’s party together with the president to fight the fundamentalists.

Tariq and other left-wingers were invited to visit Bhutto shortly before her assassination. She asked for their advice but doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to it. Tariq notes that Benazir opposed the restoration of the judiciary.

To read my interview for RFI with a left-wing activist who infiltrated a jihadi training camp click here

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Pervez Hoodboy Photo: Tony Cross

Also on the secular left is Pervez Hoodboy, whom I met in his office at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad a week ago.

Hoodboy is a nuclear physicist who has opposed Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme, worked for normalisation of relations with India and taken up causes such as the campaign for the reinstatement of the sacked judges.

He believes that the election leaves Pakistanis with few choices and that it is unlikely to be free and fair.

“There’s a very strong opinion that these elections should not be held at all. On the other hand, there’s a very strong opinion that, unless these are held, the country will simply break apart and all hell will let loose.”

Hoodboy believes that the opportunities for rigging are limited because Musharraf and his allies are “deeply unpopular” but also that a coalition government would be divided, thus leaving great power in the president’s hands.

But it’s in his own field of expertise that Hoodboy is at his most gloomy. He doesn’t believe government assurances that the military’s professionalism and security safeguards keep the country’s nuclear weapons in safe hands.

“My concern is that technology ultimately is operated by human beings and soldiers over here in particular and the fact is that within the army there are a growing number of people who disagree seriously, severely, with the position the government has taken in fighting the Islamic militants.”

He believes that many soldiers are more sympathetic to the Islamic militants than to the people fighting them, so the “insider threat” is growing.

“Look at the fact that we’ve had numerous suicide-bombings done by insiders, guided by other insiders, and one cannot really be confident that these nuclear weapons can be kept out of the hands of the extremists.”

Earlier this month, he says, a convoy of ammunition and equipment were hijacked, just two days after the president claimed that it was impossible to steal even one rifle from the armed forces.

To the argument that Islamism has spread among lower ranks but not among higher offices, Hoodboy replies: “The lower matters more than the top because it’s the lower ones who have to do the fighting. We’ve seen hundreds of soldiers surrender without firing a shot in Waziristan, in the tribal areas.”

According to Hoodboy, the jihadists, who have been used as an instrument of foreign policy for a quarter century, have now infected the whole of the country’s culture.

Most female students at his university now feel obliged to cover their hair, he says, while photos on his computer show that this was not the case 20 years. About a million students now attend the country’s madrassas and even state education has been Islamised. As an example he produces pictures used to teach the Urdu alphabet. Knives and guns illustrate one letter, while kites and musical instruments are part of the image chosen for “an obscure Urdu word which not even I knew” – the plural form of the word “sin”.

To read about my visit to a madrassa run by Taliban supporters click here

To read and listen to more of my reports for RFI on Pakistan’s 2008 elections  click here

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Why is support for France’s Front National rising?

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As I write French voters are casting their ballots in the first round of regional elections, although turnout will be much lower than in presidential or legislative elections, so a sense of proportion is needed when analysing the results. Nevertheless it looks almost certain that the Front National (FN) will do well, possibly even taking control of one or more regions after the second round next week. Why is the FN’s vote rising and what does it actually represent these days?

  • The main difference between the FN and the mainstream right is not racism or Islamophobia but hostility to the EU. A short quiz. Who said the following?

“There is no Islamophobia in France. There aren’t any anti-Muslim acts — or no more than acts against women . . . or short people. But there is a rise in anti-Semitism.”

”Someone who comes to us must assimilate, adopt our lifestyle, our culture …. Do you keep your shoes on when you visit a mosque when you’re abroad?”

The first is FN leader Marine Le Pen, the second is Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ex-UMP now rebaptised the Republicans. But it could have been the other way around, couldn’t it?

True, some members of the Republicans – Sarkozy’s rival for the party’s presidential nomination Alain Juppé, for example – are alarmed by Sarkozy’s appeals to Islamophobia, which this year have included the proposal to drop alternative meals for religious minorities in school canteens and to extend the ban on the hijab already enforced in schools to universities. It’s also true that Sarkozy can hardly be accused of consistency, sometimes trying to create a state-sponsored Islam or cultivate Muslims who will toe his line, and that the party from time to time reins in individuals like the slightly deranged Nadine Morano. But the appeal to prejudice in the name of a selective laïcité is now as likely to be heard at a Republicans rally as in one of Le Pen’s almost incessant radio and TV interventions.

What makes further rapprochement between the two parties impossible is not racism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice but the FN’s hostility to the EU, stance that is unacceptable to the French establishment, the Republicans, the Socialist Party, François Bayrou’s Modem and all the other mainstream politicians.

  • The FN is no longer a fascist party. The FN plays on prejudice, is authoritarian in office and, like the fascist movements of the ’30s, has stolen aspects of the left’s social policy to consolidate a popular base. But, although it was in its origin a far-right coalition dominated by fascists, it is not really fascist now, unless you are one of those people for whom “fascist” just means “nasty”. In fact, the mainstream right – sometimes risibly called the “centre right” – now shares many of the attributes listed above. The FN has no militia, does not physically attack or murder trade unionists or left-wing activists, does not appear to have a plan to create a corporate state. No reasonably sized party in Europe has these characteristics today because it is no longer necessary to atomise the working class, as Trotsky, in my view correctly, described the task of fascism, because that has already been accomplished democratically, thanks to globalisation, the decline of heavy industry in western Europe and the US, the weakening of trade unionism and the labour movement, consumerism and the brand in individualism that goes with it, the ideological offensive against collectivism and the rise of neoliberalism, and the confusion on the left that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The FN would certainly be authoritarian and whip up intolerance if it ever formed a government. How authoritarian I don’t know and I don’t think it does, either.
  • Support for the FN is a perverse revolt against the establishment. Obviously, the 13 November Paris attacks have boosted the FN, part of the polarisation that Isis wants to take place in Europe. But the FN’s steady growth in areas that were once strongholds of the left are a sign that an atomised working class believes that the mainstream parties have failed to defend their interests and, in fact, despise them. The Nord, which could fall to the FN, has seen its heavy industries destroyed over decades. Mining, steelmaking and other heavy industries have been destroyed, sometimes deliberately thanks to EU policies based on economic projections that failed to foresee a rise in world demand for steel that led to the Chinese buying, dismantling and importing entire abandoned steel plants. The main parties leaders live comfortable lives, insulated from the daily problems that assail most of the voters, they are frequently caught with their hands in the till or breaking the very laws they or their predecessors have passed and they and much of the media lecture the petit peuple on morality and “republican values”. FN voters are certainly conscious of the party’s racism and mean-mindedness but many, especially the new ones, see their ballot as a poke in the establishment’s collective eye.
  • The Socialist government has betrayed its voters. If any French party is centre-right, it is the Socialist Party, even if its voters and some of its members are left-wing. The first-ever public declaration of ministers’ wealth revealed that eight cabinet members were millionaires. And their policies have protected their and their fellow Croesuses’ interests. The government has stuck to the austerity line, combined with massive tax cuts for businesses, despite their manifest failure to reduce unemployment or revive the economy. The only time it has faced down the right has been over same-sex marriage, a measure that proved perfectly acceptable to Britain’s Conservative Party.  One of the main reasons for the FN’s increased share of the vote is that left-wing voters are completely demoralised and have stayed at home.

To read my article on Marine Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the Front National’s image on the RFI English website, click here.

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War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election

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Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

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A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

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A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross

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Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

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Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

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A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 

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At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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Before the Paris attacks – IS’s dangerous liaisons in Turkey

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When I visited the devastated houses that were the scene of a Turkish police raid on hideouts of the Islamic State (IS) armed group it never crossed my mind that I would be visiting the scenes of IS attacks in Paris less than three weeks later. The Paris attacks cost at least 120 lives and have sparked a wave of sympathy across the world. IS has claimed more lives in Turkey – 135 in the Suruc and Ankara bombings, which appear to have been targeted because of their links to the Kurds, alone  – but, although those attacks received plenty of media coverage, there was not the same outpouring of grief worldwide. The story of the IS and the Turkish state is a complicated one, as I found on my visit to Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority south east.

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The damage caused by a booby trap that killed two police officers and the police assault at the IS hideout in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir 29 October 2015

There’s a gaping hole where the house’s front door used to be. That’s where a booby trap went off, killing two police officers trying to enter and capture or kill the house’s occupants.

The windows are blown out, the interior is a charred shell, there are bullet holes in the walls and a hole in the garden where a jihadist detonated a suicide vest. The trunks of trees in front of the house are splintered and torn by shrapnel.

Seven IS fighters were killed and a significant haul of weapons and explosives seized in the this house and another nearby. They buildings in a residential area of the city served as an IS commando’s base in Diyarbakir.

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Police have done nothing to prevent access to the scene of the fighting Photo: Tony Cross

Although the raid was on Monday, the house still attracts the interest of a group of men and youths. There are no police present and the site had not been cordoned off, so kids and adults go in and clamber among the ruins, oblivious to the possibility that there might still be undiscovered explosives inside.

The police were not particularly diplomatic with Fatma, who live in the house next door, either. They told her and her family that they would fire on their house if they failed to leave the lights on before evacuating them and starting their assault.

Fatma didn’t have much to do with her young neighbours, their main contact being when they put up a tarpaulin in the garden and she asked them to take it down because it interfered with her family’s satellite TV reception.

“We didn’t expect Islamic State to be our neighbours!” she comments.

The pink house around the corner is in almost as bad a state of destruction and also excites the interest of neighbours, both adults and children.

Sinan, who is taking photos on his smartphone, lives in a block of flats over the road.

His family was woken be the fighting.

“Of course I was frightened,” he says. “My children woke up and they were frightened.”

Before the attack, the occupants, all young Kurdish men, gave lessons in religion to local people.

“I didn’t go and I didn’t send my children,” Sinan says.

To read my report of IS in Diyarbakir for RFI click here.

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Children explore the ruins of one of the houses raided by police in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

The government and the security forces insist they are taking the threat from IS seriously and are even issuing alarming reports of possible further attacks.

Police told the media today that a commando of 10 women, four of them foreign, is at large and planning suicide bombings. They are said to be part of the Dokumacilar group, to which those who were living in these also belonged.

Yesterday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu slammed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurd HDP, for accusing him of legitimising IS.

His office says that 285 IS suspects have been arrested in the first nine months of 2015.

But he quickly changed the subject to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, an armed group allied to the Turkish PKK that has proved the most effective force in fighting IS, most famously by recapturing the town of Kobane.

The military have bombed the YPG recently and Davutoglu says that is justified because they represent a threat to Turkish territory.

An indication that he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more worried about armed Kurds than armed Islamists came when Ankara agreed to join US-led air strikes on IS … and then proceeded to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, having broken off peace talks with the guerrillas following the inconclusive 7 June election.

The government is believed to be worried that the autonomous area, known as Rojava to the Kurds and established by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), could serve as an example to Kurds in Turkey, as, indeed, it has. Autonomous zones have been declared in parts of Diyarbakir itself, as well as in towns like Silvan, since the peace talks were broken off.

The HDP and other opposition parties accuse the government of more than sitting on the fence, however.

They claim that it has helped the armed Islamists in Syria – firstly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front and then IS – party because a part of the electorate and membership of the ruling AKP sympathises with them ideologically and partly as a counter to the Kurds.

Evidence of the state’s complicity appears to have been brought to light in 2013 when a convoy heading for Syria was stopped and searched.

It was found to be carrying arms and agents of the secret services, the MIT.

The five prosecutors and one military commander responsible for stopping the convoy were rewarded for their vigilance by being charged with seeking to overthrow the government and revealing state security information.

A secrecy order has meant that their trial, which began earlier this month, is being held behind closed doors.

Kurdish activists believe that the state facilitated two bombings – one in Suruc in July that killed 33 young left-wingers and injured 104, the other at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 0ctober that killed 102 and injured 400 – for which IS has claimed responsibility.

“There are hundreds of cameras in Ankara. They knew there was going to be a demonstration. Why wasn’t there any protection?” asks HDP youth activist Cuneyt Cihan.

On the day of the Ankara bombing, after Erdogan called it an attack on Turkish unity and equated it to PKK attacks on Turkish police and soldiers, Demirtas came right out and accused the state of involvement.

“This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people,” he said

Davutoglu is in town to officially open the airport – now we know why it’s operating although not exactly fully functional in all details – and hold an election rally.

“Turks and Kurds, brothers,” he has the crowd shout in a fine example of Erdogan’s conception of unity. “The separatists are traitors!”

When I came here in 2007, many Kurds found the AKP readier to listen to their discontents than the secular MHP and CHP, whose nationalist agenda had vigorously supported a dirty war in the south-east while in power.

The AKP had no Kemalist axe to grind and a certain amount of support among conservative Muslims in the region. And its supporters among the rising bourgeoisie of central Anatolia were keen to do trade with the European Union and eventually to join it and so ready to concede to concede to its criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record.

Two things appear to have changed.

Firstly, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, casting himself as the heir to the Ottomans, whose legacy in the field of minority rights leaves a little to be desired.

Secondly, ending the peace process seems to have been a calculated attempt to heighten a feeling of insecurity and rally the nation around a strong ruler – himself, in this case.

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AKP Diyarbakir regional councillor Nejla Uysan Photo: Tony Cross

That’s not an analysis that shared by AKP regional councillor Nejla Uysan when we meet her at the party’s regional office on Friday.

“The government and the state doesn’t support Daesh. Definitely not!” she declared. “This is a barbaric organisation and, as Muslims, how do you think we could support such an organisation.”

She accuses the PKK of breaking the ceasefire and claims that the “liberated zones” punished the local population.

But she surprises me by saying that she thinks her party should work with the HDP.

For my written and audio accounts of the AKP in Diyarbakir for RFI click here

“Why don’t you think (we) will not share?” she asks in response to my surprise. “We are living in the same city. We can share everything.”

Not the party line, so far as I know.

For an audio report on the AKP in the 2007 presidential election click here.

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Peace and authoritarian Erdogan – issues in Istanbul in Turkey’s 2015 autumn election

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Everyone was surprised by the result of Turkey’s second election this year, including, I suppose, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won an absolute majority. Erdogan’s gamble of stoking security fears by reigniting the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems to have paid off and was ably assisted by Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you want to call the gang that bombed two pro-peace rallies and apparently has cells planning more mayhem currently in the country. Just to prove that I, too, was surprised, here’s my account of my reporting assignment, which ended two days’ after polling day. I’ve already posted reports on RFI English and will include links to them.

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CHP supporters hand out leaflets in Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 October 2015.

It appears that the president in his wisdom has decreed that Turkey’s clocks will go back one week later than Europe’s this year, leading to Turkish Airlines announcing the wrong time on arrival, my personal mobile and my work mobile giving different times and me being late for my first appointment.

A concerned Onur Öymen rings to ask if I’m having difficulty finding the address while I’m time over a Turkish coffee.

I arrive flustered but the former ambassador and MP for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) greets me charmingly.

He’s old-school CHP – while some party members admit it has alienated religious voters with its enthusiasm for Kemalist secularism and has watered down is hardline nationalism, leading apparently to a rapprochement of its youth wing with the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), he supports the government ending peace negotiations with the PKK, blaming the guerrillas for firing first.

If the election results in no party with an absolute majority, as looks likely, Öymen would like to see and AKP-CHP coalition but admits that the AKP is more likely to want the right-wing secular nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

“I believe that it is politically possible because, to tell the truth, what’s in common between AKP and MHP is much more visible than what’s in common between MHP and the CHP,” he says.

The MHP, whose members wished CHP campaigners good luck when I first met them both during the 2007 presidential campaign, seems now strongly attracted by Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, which has seen legal and physical attacks on opposition media, AKP links to mafia bosses connected to coup-plotters of the shadowy “deep state” and, of course, repression and a new military offensive against alleged and real supporters of the PKK.

After 7 June’s inconclusive election the MHP refused to join an AKP-led coalition, citing the then-still-extant peace process and Erdogan’s plans for constitutional changes as the reason. It objected to his plan to shift decisive power to the presidency and, perhaps more vehemently, proposals that would have left former AKP ministers off the hook in corruption investigations launched by magistrates, whom Erdogan accuses of being agents of his former ally Fethullah Gülen.

Now the peace talks are off and maybe the MHP could be reconciled with a string presidency, if it goes hand in hand with a clampdown on Kurdish nationalism and the left. In a move that can only have delighted Erdogan, its paramilitary wing, the fascistic Grey Wolves, attacked HDP premises during the election campaign.

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Koray Caliskan in his office at Bogazici University Photo: Tony Cross

The last time I met Koray Caliskan was outside the CHP headquarters on the night of the 2014 presidential election campaign. This time I meet him in his office at Bogazici University, a beautiful campus overlooking the Bosphorus that was once the American University of Istanbul.

He is dismayed by Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and supportive of the CHP’s shift to the left.

The MHP is right-wing but will probably not be tempted to support the AKP he says.

“They want rule of law in this country, they want checks and balances to be structured again and they want democracy to work. So there are three forces for democratisation, CHP, MHP and HDP, and the only political party that blocks this is Ak Party. The main division is between democracy and authoritarianism in the country right now.”

Caliskan has had his own brushes with authoritarianism and has three legal cases opened against him for “supporting terrorism” and “libelling the president”.

“In our penal law there is a clause that specifies one to four years for anyone who insults the president, which doesn’t exist in any democratic society.

When Angela Merkel was due to visit Turkey during the election campaign he and other academics published an open letter appealing to her not endorse Erdogan’s rule and giving 10 examples of government actions that, they said,  breach the European Union’s conditions for membership.

That earned him a disciplinary hearing in front of the higher education committee, whose president, he says, is an Erdogan appointee, for “libelling the president” but his university refused to open an investigation into the case.

Most of the students sunning themselves on the campus, several of them petting some of Istanbul’s thousands of stray cats, are too young to vote and don’t expect much change after the election.

Yaran would like to see a coalition but thinks the vote is a “waste of paper”.

“I don’t think there will be much change but the military operations against the PKK and also the other important news, like blasts in Ankara, will really affect the percentages but I don’t think there will be a single winner to govern,” says Volkan, a young man who expresses himself very clearly in English.

He would like to see the AKP win and rule alone, although he is unhappy that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu allows Erdogan to go beyond his mandate and dominate the country’s politics.

Özgur also expects no big changes but clearly dislikes the AKP.

“From a realistic point of view I’d like to see a working government to be established, wo that this turmoil after the elections will end we could have a ministry that can function,” she says. “Hopefully that will bring an end to all the social turmoil in Turkey right now, so that all these bombings and stuff would end.”

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AKP campaigners in Besikitas, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

On my way back to the city centre from Bogazici I come across members of the CHP, the MHP and the AKP campaigning at a busy crossroads in Besiktas district.

The one English-speaker on the AKP stall, where voters can pick up a free sandwich, will not be interviewed without permission, there are no English-speakers on MHP stall but two members of the CHP are ready to speak, the head of the party’s youth wing in Besiktas, through an interpreter, and the vice-president, who turns up later and speaks English himself.

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CHP activist Seçkin Aybar Photo: Tony Cross

“The CHP is the only party with a lot of support that defends social democracy,” says Seçkin Aybar, the youth wing president.

With rousing music non-sectarianly attracting attention to all three parties’s activists, he and his vice-president Ugur Demirckan both slam Erdogan’s authoritarianism.

“The AKP mustn’t rule Turkey,” says Aybar. “Since the 7 June elections 600 people have been killed and there could be more in the next few days … AKP is trying to create a one-party system in Turkey, which can be very bad for secularism.”

“Now there is no jurisdiction,” says Demirckan. “There is no real police … It’s more like hunger for power.”

To read my article on the CHP’s campaign on RFI’s website, click here.

The next day I take to the streets for more voxpops, this time in Osmanbey district.

AKP supporters seem happy with the government’s handling of the economy and have no fears of a slide to Islamisation.

“He doesn’t force me to wear headscarves, for example,” says Zuleyha, a middle-aged woman who runs a lighting business. “Everything is OK for me. No problems.”

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Abdullah and Herdem, a Kurd and a Zaza, in Osmanbey, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Herdem and Abdullah do have a problem with Erdogan and the AKP, however, and she, in particular, is keen to make it heard, dragging him to the microphone.

Herdem is a Zaza, a group that speaks a dialect of Kurdish, while he is a Kurd, and they pose for a picture flashing V for victory signs, having expressed their intention for the HDP, for “democracy, peace and humanity”.

“If the AKP rules again by itself nobody will be able to do anything,” says Herdem.

“We’re stalled and we don’t know why the international remains silent about what’s happening in the eastern part of the country,” Abdullah says. “I have seven family members who have joined the guerrillas. Eighteen have been murdered, we don’t know what’s become of them. I have a wound in my leg because in that region we get hurt. My mother was injured during the fighting in the 90s. But still I call for peace.”

Nihot, a middle-aged businessman, also wants peace.

He supports the CHP and believes the HDP are just PKK representatives in parliament but, reflecting war-weariness among much of the population, as well as the change in his party’s attitude to the Kurdish question, he wants peace talks to be revived.

“I believe that lots of PKK militants want to come to Turkey and live in peace,” he says. “So we want peace and we can do it by negotiation. I believe that.”

To read and hear my interviews with voters in Osmanbey for RFI click here.

 

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Family business – Pakistani powerbrokers the Gujrat Chaudhrys plan to stay in the post-Musharraf game

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As the PML-Q – a party that split from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League N – faced defeat in the 2008 election due to its support for military ruler Pervez Musharraf, one family was confident of keeping its grip on its homebase, the Punjab town of Gujrat, and thus in the national political game. On a visit to their home I found out about the origins of their hostility to the Bhutto family and the PPP and their intention of staying in Pakistani politics. Portrait of a dynasty, written after that visit. 

Gujrat 15.02.2008

In a small room at the back of a vast, white building in the centre of the Punjab city of Gujrat, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, former Interior Minister, president of the outgoing government party and leader of its group in the National Assembly, meets visiting journalists, party activists and family members.

A large, hawk-faced man, with a broad, bitter-looking mouth, he’s showing signs of age. He wears sunglasses indoors, presumably to protect sensitive eyes, and speaks in a faltering voice.

He says that his local party workers told him to attend to national party duties, rather than campaign in his own seat, so confident are they that he’ll be reelected.

The confidence flows from the Chaudhry family’s notorious hold on the town and its surrounding district. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s brother, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, is also an MP and expects to be prime minister if his party wins. Chaudhry Shufaat Hussein, who’s also in the room, is the district administrator, the nazim. “Me being the youngest brother”, he didn’t get a National Assembly seat, he explains. Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis, is standing for a seat in Lahore.

“People like us, they keep electing us. What’s wrong with that?” says Shufaat. He puts that  support down to their good administration of the town.

Shujaat agrees.

“I don’t want to boast or anything but for the last five years my brother was the nazim of Gujrat. He’s worked very hard. I’ll give you one example, Gujrat is the only city where in each and every village there’s electricity, roads and all the amenities.”

Shujaat’s son, Salik – yes, he’s in the room, too – explains that the family’s influence goes back to before the creation of Pakistan.

His great-grandfather went into politics before partition, while his great-uncle looked after the business side by running a handloom factory in India.

For the next generation, Salik’s grandfather, Zahur Elahi, carried on the political tradition. That was then the family’s hostility to the PPP seems to have begun. Zahur was jailed when Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister.

“He was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience,” both Salik and Shufaat report with pride.

Zahur was later murdered.

The Chaudhrys blame the Bhuttos for that, too. Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, was running a radical armed group at the time (“the first terrorist organisation in this region,” says Shujaat). They say that he claimed responsibility for the killing the same evening. Murtaza himself later fell out with his sister and was gunned down near his home in mysterious circumstances – a killing that his daughter, Fatima, blames on her aunt.

But Shujaat insists there’s no bitterness. As Interior Minister in the 1990s, he says he refused to bend the law so as to get her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extradited to Britain and that he went so far as to allow Benazir and Zardari to stay together when they were jailed under Nawaz Sharif.

“After four or five days, the President of Pakistan Ghulam Issaq Khan, he called me in his office and he asked me that ‘Chaudhry Sahib, since when you have started this business of honeymoons?’.”

After the coming election, there could be a coalition between the two parties. “If they win, they should cooperate. If we win, we should cooperate.”

For my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistani election click here

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