Turkey’s Kurds have their day but face challenges ahead
BEIRUT - The Turkish electorate sent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a strong message on June 7th by thwarting his ambition to establish an executive presidential system in Turkey. Part of this message was built around the success of the main political faction of the country’s Kurdish minority, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which was able to overcome the 10% election threshold necessary to enter parliament.
With its historic breakthrough after years in the political wilderness, many challenges await the Kurdish party as it enters the complex Turkish political field dominated since 2002 by Erdogan, three times prime minister who became president in August 2014 and sought to monopolise executive power for a post long deemed neutral.
But the HDP has changed the face of Turkish politics and bloodied the nose of the long-dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan used to put himself in power. In a country torn by political violence for decades, many fear greater instability.
The HDP’s success can be partly explained by its ability to evolve from an exclusive pro-Kurdish party into one appealing to various social groups such as left-wing or liberal citizens, minority groups and women, many of whom were marginalised under Erdogan’s Islamic-influenced rule. The HDP has allocated 30 of its 80 seats to women.
The rise of the HDP appears to have stemmed, for now at least, Erdogan’s attempts to boost his powers by transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. The HDP managed to capture a larger number of conservative Kurdish votes, which led to a loss of the AKP parliamentary majority, dropping from 49.83% in 2011 to 41%, thus depriving Erdogan’s party of the 330 seats needed to call for a referendum on proposed constitutional changes.
The AKP secured 258 seats, with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) taking 132 while the National Movement Party (MHP) and HDP each claimed 80.
“The pro-Kurdish HDP party managed to win the votes of conservative Kurdish Muslims, which resulted in the AKP losing seats to the HDP. The HDP has thus played a major role in shifting the balance of power,” says Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank.
Increasingly divisive AKP positioning on the local and regional scene, particularly its Syria policy and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), may have contributed to the AKP being stripped of some of its traditional votes. Kurds did not forget Erdogan’s hesitation in allowing Kurdish fighters to cross into the battle-torn Syrian border city Kobani to join the fight against ISIS in 2014.
The slowdown in long-running peace negotiations with Ankara has further disillusioned the Kurds, with the HDP calling on June 11th for a resumption of the process.
Kurdish interests also lie in the revitalisation of the peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which may be involved in shaping a future coalition government.
“There are several possibilities. An alliance with the CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, would certainly be the best option for the country’s economic and political stability and would have positive repercussions on the peace process since the CHP views concessions positively,” says Ege Seckin, a political and economic analyst at the IHS consultancy in London.
The final possibility is new elections if the parties cannot form a coalition government. “I think there will be early elections since all the opposition parties cannot work together to form a government,” van Wilgenberg observed.
Besides dealing with the complex issue of the government structure and the future of the peace process, the newly elected HDP will have to tread carefully in the emerging political landscape.
“HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas has promised to appeal to a broader base that would include women, Alevis, minority sects, Kurds, as well as liberal democrats and leftists,” Seckin noted. “This means that they’ll have to mitigate Kurdish nationalism and ties with the PKK, as well as concede on more radical demands, including issues linked to regional autonomy.”
Van Wilgenburg sees the next phase as likely to bring more instability. A few days before the election, a bombing at a pro-Kurdish rally killed two people and wounded dozens more. Four people were killed in the mainly Kurdish south-eastern city of Diyarbakir after Aytac Baran, chairman of a charity close to the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party, was shot dead on June 9th.
The Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDGH), a branch of the PKK, was blamed by some for that attack, but it denied involvement. However one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the attack was the work “of a third column with possible links to intelligence services aiming at stalking inter-communal animosity, which would be disserving the HDP”.
Barely in the political race, it seems that Turkey’s Kurds must brace for a long and challenging year ahead.