BACKGROUND: For the first time, Kurdish voters in Turkey mobilized under the banner of one Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebel group and ran a campaign that included a call for renewed peace talks with the rebels and regional autonomy for Kurds.
The Kurdish “surge” in Turkey’s June 7 general election marks a big shift for HDP and its predecessor parties, which over the past 25 years had never won enough votes to meet the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament. In the June 7 elections, this changed. The HDP doubled its percentage of the national vote to 13 percent, mainly thanks to voters in the country’s Kurdish southeastern region. On a province to province basis, the HDP’s votes rose to above 50 percent in many parts of the southeast, grabbing support that had previously gone to the Islamist-rooted AKP in national and local elections (because previously the HDP ran its candidates as independents to get around the 10 percent threshold, it is hard to do a precise comparison with previous elections).
In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish region, the HDP’s slate received 80 percent of the votes – a year earlier, in local elections, the party won about 55 percent of the province’s votes. In Ağrı province, HDP got 79 percent of the vote, while the year before it had received about 46 percent of total votes in local polls. Overall, about 75 percent of the 80 seats the party won in the 550-seat parliament were from provinces in the southeast. In half of the 14 provinces where HDP polled first, AKP was unable to win even one seat.
The AKP’s losses among Kurds were fueled by three things: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s abandonment of long-promised reforms to liberalize the constitution and grant Kurds more rights; his slow paced negotiations with imprisoned PKK rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan, whose group declared a ceasefire in 2013 to allow for talks; and, most importantly, Erdoğan’s miscalculation about the importance of Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town on Turkey’s border that was attacked by the radical extremist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) last year.
The PKK’s Syrian affiliate, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its armed YPG force, took over Kobane after the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. By 2014, the city was in danger of falling to ISIS. Ankara’s refusal to support Western military assistance to the lightly armed YPG fighters, coupled with Kurdish views that Turkey was backing ISIS, frayed what little trust had existed between Turkey and Kurdish nationalists. When President Erdoğan dismissed the importance of Kobane, saying “if it falls, it falls,” and claimed that the Kurdish forces were no different than ISIS, protests by Kurds in the southeast of Turkey turned violent, leaving some two dozen dead by the end of October 2014.
Erdoğan’s position backfired. The U.S., ignoring Erdoğan’s opposition, dropped weapons and supplies to the YPG and launched an air campaign against ISIS that ultimately forced the Islamic extremists to retreat (most recently, with U.S. air support, Kurdish YPG fighters have captured the strip of land along the Turkish border that connects Kobane with Kurdish-held Cizire province to the east). Kobane – or actually, Turkey’s reaction – led Kurds inside Turkey to reevaluate their support for AKP. It precipitated the defection of several leading Kurdish tribes from their decades-long adherence to Turkish conservative political parties, of which the AKP is the latest representative, and they publicly declared their allegiance to theHDP.
The switch of these tribes, who previously wanted nothing to do with any political party so closely linked to the PKK rebel group, underscores the extent to which the PKK has managed to establish itself as dominant force within the Kurdish national movement in Turkey. These new votes came from people who on the one hand simply saw HDP as their best choice after AKP, but on the other hand, knew they were voting for a party whose base of support rests on the PKK. In essence, the vote in the national elections showed that an overwhelming majority of Kurds now see the PKK as the only legitimate power for promoting and protecting Kurdish rights.
IMPLICATIONS: The HDP’s entrance into parliament has pushed the party into the mainstream. It is not clear how the HDP can benefit from this, at least immediately. The party faces a number of obstacles related both to its own internal party politics and to its relations with the PKK, mainly the rebel group’s dominant role in setting the political agenda. At the same time, the party continues to face the problem that the Turkish political establishment, whether it is the Islamist-rooted AKP or the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), still does not accept the legitimacy of Kurdish demands nor the legitimacy of the PKK as the main power for Kurdish rights.
The HDP ran a slate of candidates that reflected the diversity of Turkey’s ethnic minorities – including Armenians and Yezidis – and the range of liberal, leftist interests in society. The list was touted as proof that HDP had recreated itself as a party for all of Turkey, but the fact is the party still is dominated by Kurdish activists and focused on the Kurdish issue. Nonetheless, the broad range of interests among the HDP parliamentarians may end up diluting the party’s message and weaken its ability to have one, targeted approach on the Kurdish problem and democratization.
At the same time, even with 80 deputies in parliament – the same number as the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – the HDP is not likely to be asked to join a coalition government. That is largely because the party’s demands still do not reflect what Turkish political parties are ready to agree to. The HDP wants Turkey to reform the constitution to grant Kurds broader rights; demands a formal negotiating mechanism for peace talks with the PKK; and says Öcalan’s prison conditions have to be eased to give him the opportunity to play leading role in these talks. The AKP, which launched the talks with Öcalan over two years ago, has not bothered to move forward since. The center left CHP certainly wants constitutional reforms, but as recently as March rejected sitting at the same table with Öcalan for peace talks. The nationalist right-wing party, MHP, which is the most likely coalition partner with the AKP going forward, has compared Kurdish demands to the 1920 Sèvres treaty that would have divided Turkey and created a Kurdish state.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle the HDP faces in being effective in parliament is that the party does not hold the real mandate to act on behalf of Kurds. That is held by the PKK. The PKK remains the main arbiter of how the Kurdish problem will be solved and what needs to be done to end the armed struggle for good. When, after the elections, the co-chair of HDP Selahattin Demirtaş announced that HDP was ready to go see Öcalan in İmralı prison because he was the only one who could tell the PKK to formally end its armed struggle, the PKK stepped in with a statement saying that HDP was not the “PKK’s legal party” and had no right to dictate to the PKK. Nor, the rebel group added, would Öcalan be able to enter into serious negotiations and make decisions for the PKK unless he was free.
A week later, the PKK’s Duran Kalkan, a leading member of the group based in the main headquarters in the Kandil mountains of northern Iraq, essentially ruled out HDP joining any coalition government unless legal changes were made to liberalize Turkey first. This is not an issue, noted the HDP a day later, pointing out no party had invited it to discuss a coalition.
CONCLUSIONS: The PKK has made clear that any legal or constitutional changes should be handled by the HDP in parliament. But ultimately, the final decisions continue to rest with the Kurdish rebel group. It used to be that critics could argue the PKK did not really represent the majority of Kurds in Turkey and thus should not be allowed to act on their behalf. That argument is getting weaker and weaker by the day. The HDP’s win can be ascribed, in large part, to a boost in backing for the PKK. Much of that increase is due to the fighting that the PKK and its Syrian affiliates have been doing to protect Kurds in Syria and Iraq and to push back ISIS. Turkey’s hope that the PKK would end up weak and marginalized has not come true. It’s the AKP government’s that has been losing support.
The Kurds has made sure that Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” vision is blocked, at least in the short-term. It is now the Kurdish surge – and the Turkish reactions to it – that are going to determine what the “New Turkey” will look like. The June 7 election left Turkey a divided country along ethnic lines like never before. Checking Erdoğan’s power has reinvigorated the Turkish opposition and given people hope that the country can return to pursuing the liberal reforms that Erdoğan abandoned over the past few years. The question is whether these same parties and people who want more rights and freedoms will realize that Kurdish rights, autonomy and likely freedom for Öcalan must be part of this to truly make Turkey into a liberal place.
Aliza Marcus is a writer in Washington, DC, and the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sutherland)