Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The HDP's Election Gambit and Turkey's Tolling Alarm Bells

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By Gareth Jenkins (vol. 8, no. 2 of the Turkey Analyst)

On January 13, 2015, Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), announced that the HDP will run as a party in the June 7, 2015 general election. If the HDP fails to cross the 10 per cent national electoral threshold not only will the country’s Kurds no longer have their own voice in parliament but nearly all of the seats in predominantly Kurdish areas are likely to go to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), thus boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hopes of changing the constitution and introducing a presidential or semi-presidential system.

BACKGROUND: Turkey’s electoral system is based on a variation of the widely-used D'Hondt method and includes a double threshold. In order to secure a seat in parliament, a party must secure a minimum share of the vote both in the country as a whole and in the specific electoral district – the figure varying according to the number of available seats in that district (falling if there are more seats, rising if there are less). As a result, the system is heavily weighted in favor of the larger parties, particularly in electoral districts – such in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country – which only return a small number of deputies and have a higher local threshold.

In recent general elections, pro-Kurdish parties have tried to circumvent the threshold by fielding candidates as independents, to whom the national threshold does not apply. In the last general election on June 12, 2011, pro-Kurdish candidates standing as independents won 35 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament, almost all of them in the southeast of the country. In the same election, the AKP won 49.8 per cent of the national vote and 327 seats. Independent candidates, including the pro-Kurdish ones, won a total of 6.6 per cent.

Demirtaş stood as a candidate in the August 10, 2014 the presidential election, finishing third behind Erdoğan and Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Erdoğan won with 51.8 per cent of the vote, ahead of İhsanoğlu with 38.4 per cent and Demirtaş with 9.8 per cent. However, the results were distorted by what was – by Turkish standards – a relatively low turnout of 74.1 per cent. The low turnout was probably mainly attributable to a lack of enthusiasm for İhsanoğlu amongst CHP and MHP voters and, to a lesser extent, to an assumption amongst some AKP voters that an Erdoğan victory was a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps more critically, opinion polls suggest that Demirtaş’s personal popularity is higher than that of the HDP. On January 19, 2015, Demirtaş reported that support for the HDP was running at around 9.4 per cent, adding that he was confident that it could overcome the 10 per cent threshold in June 2015. However, most polling companies put support for the HDP at only 7-8 per cent. There is currently no consensus on the level of support for the AKP. In January 2015, different polling companies were reporting figures from 38.1 per cent to 48.6 per cent, although the true level is probably closer to the upper end of the range.

Under Turkish law, the support of 367 deputies is necessary to change the constitution in parliament. Provided that the proposal is approved by the president – which in this case would be automatic – the support of 330 deputies is sufficient for constitutional changes to be put to a referendum.

If the HDP runs as a party in June 2015 and crosses the 10 per cent threshold it would probably win at least 50-55 seats, with nearly all of its gains coming from seats currently held by the AKP in the southeast. Similarly, in nearly all of the electoral districts in which pro-Kurdish independent candidates won seats in the 2011 general election, the AKP was the only party to cross the local threshold for representation in parliament. If the HDP runs as a party in June and fails to win more than 10 per cent nationwide, those seats will almost certainly go to the AKP. Although they are unlikely to be enough to give the AKP 367 seats in parliament, they could enable it to come to close to 330.

IMPLICATIONS: Given its current standing in the opinion polls, the HDP’s decision to run as a party in the June 2015 election appears to be a major gamble. But the risks are arguably much greater for the HDP itself than for the broader Kurdish nationalist cause.

In 2014, the Kurdish nationalist movement split into two ideologically aligned but organizationally distinct parties: the HDP, which competes in national elections, and the Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP), which contests local elections.

Before it first came to power in November 2002, the AKP promised to lower the national election threshold on the grounds that it was undemocratic. If the HDP fails to win more than 10 per cent in June 2015, then the HDP can be expected to argue that the AKP had maintained the threshold in order to prevent Kurds from having an organized presence in parliament. Kurdish nationalists could then claim that, after been excluded from representation in Ankara, the AKP had given them no choice but to intensify their efforts to establish what they call “democratic autonomy” in southeast Turkey. This would also result in a shift of focus away from the HDP to the DBP, which controls most of the local authorities in predominantly Kurdish areas. The DBP is already taking practical steps towards cultural decentralization – particularly with regard to the Kurdish language -- in an attempt to lay the foundations for the eventual devolution of political power from Ankara to the region. Consequently, if it fails to secure any seats in parliament in June 2015 – and with the subsequent general election not due until 2019 – the HDP is going to struggle to convince Kurdish nationalists of its relevance.

There are also concerns about the impact of the HDP’s exclusion from parliament on the ability of the three main elements in the Kurdish nationalist movement – the HDP, DBP and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – to control the younger generation of Kurdish nationalists, particularly youths in their teens and twenties who are both more hard-line and more reckless than their parents.

Until summer 2014, it was the PKK – rather than the HDP – which appeared to be facing the most serious questions about its relevance. The PKK has always been skeptical of Erdoğan’s motivation for initiating a new dialogue with imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan in late 2012, suspecting – probably correctly – that Erdoğan was more interested in forcing the organization to suspend its campaign of violence than addressing the underlying issue of Kurdish rights. Nevertheless, Öcalan’s iconic status amongst Kurdish nationalists meant that the PKK had little choice but to implement his call in March 2013 for an open-ended unilateral ceasefire while his talks with the AKP continued. However, by summer 2014 – as Erdoğan continued to prevaricate about initiating comprehensive peace negotiations, much less making concrete concessions to Kurdish nationalist demands – the PKK still had nothing to show for its suspension of violence and it was aware that continued inaction would eventually impact both its prestige and recruitment.

The situation changed dramatically in summer 2014 when military advances by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL) into predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq resulted in the PKK deploying units to fight alongside the forces of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the peshmerga militia of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. The PKK’s willingness to confront the Islamic State and the subsequent successes of its units on the battlefield gave an unprecedented boost to its prestige both in the region and internationally – while also triggering a flow of new recruits.

However, the deployments to Syria and Iraq have stretched the PKK’s resources. The organization remains deeply frustrated by Erdoğan’s refusal to develop the dialogue with Öcalan into peace negotiations. But resuming its insurgency would mean opening a third front in Turkey with considerably less resources than it was able to deploy before its 2013 ceasefire. If the PKK commanders redeploy forces from Syria and Iraq they risk being accused of being prepared to abandon their fellow Kurds to ISIL.

While the PKK is actively fighting against the Turkish state it is easier for the organization to monopolize Kurdish nationalist violence and channel it through a single outlet. In addition to boosting the PKK’s prestige, the fighting in Syria and Iraq has fueled both a sense of Kurdish solidarity and anti-AKP anger amongst Kurdish youth, particularly as the AKP is widely regarded by nationalist Kurds as supporting ISIL. At the moment, the fighting in Syria and Iraq is serving as a partial safety valve for Turkey, providing an outlet for young Kurds who want to fight for the Kurdish nationalist cause. But not all have been crossing the border. In recent months, there have been numerous violent anti-government demonstrations inside Turkey, most notably in the southeast town of Cizre where six people – two of them children – were killed by the security forces during January 2015.

Privately, PKK sources report that they are finding it increasingly difficult to control younger Kurdish nationalists inside Turkey, some of whom have begun to form ad hoc groups to stage acts of often reckless violence on their own initiative. They fear that if the sense of anger and alienation continues to rise – and if the PKK maintains its unilateral ceasefire – this fragmentation is likely to increase. This is a problem for the PKK itself, not least as a challenge to its authority. It also increases the risk of a rise in the most striking characteristic of the recent unrest in southeast Turkey, namely intra-Kurdish violence in the form of clashes between Kurdish nationalists and members of the Kurdish Hizbullah, whom PKK supporters accuse of actively collaborating with ISIL.

CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan is the most successful and most divisive politician in modern Turkish history, loathed and adored in equal measure by his opponents and his supporters respectively. His increasingly autocratic authoritarianism is not only exacerbating Turkey’s growing international isolation but also deepening the divisions in an already dangerously divided society.

There appears little prospect of Turkey enjoying sustained political stability while Erdoğan remains in office. But the tensions are likely to increase still further if he succeeds in holding a referendum on changing the constitution to concentrate de jure political power in his own hands. The outcome of such a referendum is currently unclear. However, whatever the result, such is the depth of the emotions that Erdoğan evokes that it is difficult to envisage either his opponents or supporters – nor Erdoğan himself – quietly accepting a result with which they disagree. If the turmoil that would be triggered by a constitutional referendum coincides with an increase in alienation and civil unrest in the southeast following the HDP’s exclusion from parliament, the consequences for domestic political stability could be severe.

Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

(Image Attribution: selahattindemirtas.net)

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