Can Europe Make It?

From Athens to Kobane, winds fill Kurdish sails

Could Greece, through democratic elections, become for Turkey what Tunisia became for Egypt in 2011 through mass protests?

Karabekir Akkoyunlu
29 January 2015
HDP co-leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, January, 2015.

HDP co-leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, January, 2015. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.The victory of SYRIZA in the Greek parliamentary election last Sunday is sending tremors not just across the European Union, but also the Aegean Sea. As the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued a congratulatory message to his freshly appointed counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, pro-government newspapers scrambled to compare the rise of SYRIZA out of the ashes of old establishment parties to that of the AKP in 2002. But the similarities between the decidedly secular left-wing movement and Turkey’s neo-liberal Islamists do not seem to go much further.

The SYRIZA victory also triggered an instant outpouring of elation among Turkey’s bitterly divided secularists, socialists and left-liberals, who are struggling to unlock the grip of an increasingly authoritarian AKP government. On Sunday night, the social media in Turkey was lit up with expressions of hope for a Greek-inspired secular democratic wave that would sweep not just the west but also the east of Athens.

Could Greece, through democratic elections, become for Turkey what Tunisia became for Egypt in 2011 through mass protests? This depends partly on SYRIZA’s own performance: whether (and how) it adheres to its radical left platform or succumbs to the clientelism of the Greek political establishment, similar to Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK after its 1981 victory. SYRIZA’s decision to form a coalition with the homophobic, anti-Semitic, far-right nationalist Independent Greeks hardly bodes well for prospects of a progressive revolution.

Besides, coinciding with the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, when the revolution has come full circle and the military’s bloody repression seems complete, the analogy with the ‘Arab Spring’ would seem less than desirable, not to mention analytically unsound: the political context is vastly different in debt-ridden Greece from in Turkey, where the AKP still commands strong electoral support and no opposition party threatens to dislodge it from power ahead of the parliamentary poll in June.

A rallying cry

But as far as it goes as a distant rallying cry, the victory of the Greek left might help bolster efforts to assemble a coalition of secular, democratic, left-wing actors in Turkey – most feasibly led by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Over the past decade, the Kurdish movement has been moving away from narrow ethnonationalist goals to endorse a post-nationalist democratic agenda that emphasises cultural pluralism, secularism, gender equality and grassroots local governance.

With the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mired in perpetual ideological and organisational disarray, and engaged in an unsavoury alliance with the far-right nationalists, the HDP looks increasingly attractive to many in the Turkish left, despite lingering distrust on both sides regarding each other’s nationalist instincts.

This attraction was confirmed in last summer’s presidential election, when Selahattin Demirtaş, the young and charismatic co-chair of the HDP, came third with a respectable 9.7% of the vote. The non-AKP media has been drawing frequent comparisons (albeit mostly superficial ones based on age and appearance rather than policies) between the Kurdish politician and the leaders of the new Mediterranean left, Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias of Spain’s Podemos. After the Greek election, Demirtaş congrulated Tsipras with tweets in Turkish and Greek, calling him a brother and wishing him well in his “pursuit of a liberated world for the poor and the workers”.

Indeed, the Kurdish movement is ascendant and it is not just the westerly winds that are filling its sails. On the day that Greece’s new government was sworn in, Kurdish fighters in northern Syria announced that they had driven away Islamic State fighters after four months of bitter fighting that captured the world’s attention. On the day that Greece’s new government was sworn in, Kurdish fighters in northern Syria announced that they had driven away Islamic State fighters after four months of bitter fighting. The victory in Kobane, a strategic stronghold for the Kurdish movement and its secular, pluralistic Rojava revolution, will boost the Kurds’ confidence immensely and raise the movement’s international standing at the expense of the AKP, which is busy suppressing the publication of leaked military documents implicating the government’s intelligence agency in channelling weapons to jihadists in Syria.

Playing with fire?

This confidence was already evident in the HDP’s recent decision to contest the upcoming Turkish parliamentary election as a party, rather than fielding independent candidates. HDP officials appear assured that they will muster the minimum 10% vote needed to enter the parliament, even though no Kurdish party has come close to achieving this feat in the past. Hence the logic of circumventing the threshold by fielding independent candidates: in the parliamentary election of 2011, pro-Kurdish independent candidates collectively received 6% but managed to secure 36 seats in the assembly.

Running as a party is a daring – some would say irresponsible – move with potentially historic consequences for Turkey and the Kurds. If the HDP did manage to pass the threshold, drawing support both from secular Turks disillusioned with the CHP and AKP-voting Kurds frustrated with the government’s Syria policy, they could get as many as 70 deputies into the 550-seat parliament; a momentous achievement that would reinforce the party’s claim to become the secular democratic response to the AKP’s religious-nationalist populism and put the government on its back foot in negotiations for a peace settlement and a new constitution.

But if they fell short, there would be no HDP deputies in the new assembly. Most of the lost seats would go to the AKP, giving it enough deputies to rewrite the constitution alone and install the system of presidency/sultanism of which President Tayyip Erdoğan has been dreaming. The blame game would start in earnest, pitting the Islamists, the Turkish left and secularists, and the Kurdish movement against each other. Without Kurdish representation, the parliament’s legitimacy would come into question. Politics would move into the streets. Kurdish public opinion would most likely shift back from autonomy towards secession. Civil strife could follow, destabilising not only Turkey but also its already chaotic wider neighbourhood.

Holding the country’s fate in their hands, Kurdish leaders seem to bank on the assumption that what is at stake will usher in a new sense of opportunity and urgency, enough to draw support to their party from outside its traditional voter base, while warning the AKP of the consequences of keeping the anti-democratic 10% election threshold in place. The government will undoubtedly interpret this strategy as political blackmail; the question is how the electorate will read it.

If the Kurds stick to their decision (we cannot rule out a U-turn in the final hour) and pull off this gamble, their achievement will be no less significant than SYRIZA’s victory in Greece. If they fail, the ominous comparison to Egypt might suddenly appear not so far-fetched. 

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