Can Europe Make It?

Parties with a history of secessionist violence: what does their electoral success mean for peace and democracy?

The acceptance of Sinn Fein and HDP as legitimate actors by the wider community is an important opportunity, but one that has to be welcomed by other political actors.

Pelin Ayan Musil
10 March 2020
Mary Lou McDonald TD, Sinn Féin.
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Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

In the general election held in the Republic of Ireland on February 8, the left-wing nationalist Sinn Fein received more first-preference votes than the country’s two mainstream parties, Fian Geil and Fionna Fail. Even though Fianna Fail narrowly won the largest number of seats in parliament, it was Sinn Fein that received the main media attention because this overthrew the country’s centre-right status quo. The party is historically associated with the provisional IRA, an armed movement that, from 1969 to 1994, operated to extract Northern Ireland from British rule The IRA insurgency during the 25 years of conflict took 1,700 lives. Faced with Sinn Fein’s surge in the polls, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail highlighted the party’s link with IRA during their campaigns. Still, these tactics did not prevent Sinn Fein from rising as the new political star of the country.

Ireland is not the first country where a party associated with secessionism and violence has thrived in elections. Five years ago in June 2015, the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) in Turkey also reached a record-high election result, surpassing, for the first time, the 10 per cent national threshold and winning 80 of 550 seats in parliament. During election rallies, the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had accused the party of being a front for the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Compared to Northern Ireland, Turkey’s experience with the Kurdish armed conflict has been even more lengthy and bloody, having taken over 40,000 lives in 40 years. Yet, in the election of June 2015, Erdogan’s tactic to associate the HDP with the PKK did not help his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost its parliamentary majority due to the electoral rise of the HDP.

Erdogan’s tactic to associate the HDP with the PKK did not help his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost its parliamentary majority due to the electoral rise of the HDP.

Illegitimate actors no more

For long decades, both parties had been delegitimized and viewed as threats to the constitutional order in the two countries. The violence, which was both a cause and a result of state policies on the minority populations they represented, outlawed these parties as illegitimate actors in the eyes of the electorate. Later, however, three things in sequence transformed these parties into charmed contestants in the electoral struggle.

First, the governments changed their policies to find a solution to the violent conflict and approached the respective minorities represented by these parties more positively. They initiated negotiations with the armed wing of these parties. The negotiations succeeded in Northern Ireland and ended with the lasting IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Belfast Agreement in 1998. The negotiations between the PKK and Turkish government failed twice, once after the Oslo talks (2006-2011) and second after the peace process (2012-2015). In the Irish case, the British government made it clear that it would not oppose Irish reunification if it were peacefully expressed by the will of majority. The reformist nationalists in Ireland also agreed on a potential future coalition with Sinn Fein if it abided by peaceful means of participation. These helped the establishment of peace.

In the case of Turkey, several factors obstructed the establishment of credibility between the Kurdish and the Turkish side: the leaked Oslo records in the media, the elite-driven nature of the talks and the outbreak of the war in Syria. Despite the difference in the way the conflicts took shape, both the HDP in Turkey and Sinn Fein in Ireland nevertheless attained a certain degree of public visibility and legitimacy, following the change in government policy.

Second, both parties developed a claim to be viewed as more legitimate actors over time. Their organizations expanded and the nationalist discourse shifted toward democratic socialist concerns. For instance, in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein managed to merge its “all-for-unified-Ireland” emphasis with a position that endorses basic needs of the society such as housing, healthcare and the environment. In Turkey, the HDP’s predecessors – the BDP and the DTP – also started campaigning on a wider spectrum of issues than Kurdish rights, such as social and environmental justice, gender equality and labour rights. In fact, democratic socialist values were foundational to the ideology of both parties and their armed wings. Therefore, a discursive shift in this direction was not a surprise.

Third, the political establishment in both Ireland and Turkey suffered from major economic and political crises, which helped these parties to turn their long-term ‘outsider outlook’ to political advantage. Sinn Fein built upon the social frustration triggered by the austerity measures in 2014 and increased its popularity emphasizing social justice and equality. During the February elections, it campaigned on the taxation of global corporations; a boost in public spending and residential rent freezes. These promises spoke mainly to those affected by the housing and health-care crises. The pro-Kurdish party’s popularity increased following the Gezi protests, which started as a local environmental protest and then turned into a nationwide anti-government movement. Even though the party did not take an official position at that time, its campaign in the June 2015 elections embraced the concerns of this movement: It targeted the growing authoritarian policies of the government, addressed human and environmental rights protection and gender equality.

As a result of these developments, the two parties made major strides forward in these respective elections. The effort of the political establishment to remind the voters of their violent background proved futile.

The effort of the political establishment to remind the voters of their violent background proved futile.

Peace and democracy

It is the function of democracies to transform violent conflicts into non-violent forms of political participation. When armed, secessionist groups like the IRA or the PKK transform into political parties that offer candidates in elections, the democratic process of conflict resolution should moderate the radical goals and thwart the armed conflicts. At least this is what one famous theory in political science – inclusion-moderation theory – predicts. But the experience of Sinn Fein and the HDP shows that this is often not exactly a smooth process. The two parties have more or less turned into legitimate actors as a result of the aforementioned processes. Both were able to address the grievances of their societies in their respective regimes. Yet, neither did Sinn Fein cease its radical goal of wresting Northern Ireland from Britain, nor has the HDP’s association with armed conflict ended in Turkey.

Perhaps, at a distant point in time, Sinn Fein will start questioning whether unification with Ireland is necessary, considering that its success was not really a result of its nationalist agenda. But if unification takes place in a consensus-oriented and democratic way, then Sinn Fein will stop being a party with radical goals. In any case, a democratic consensus can only be achieved if the rival parties reconsider the possibility of a coalition with Sinn Fein, rather than ruling this option out. Yet, after the full month that has passed since the elections, Fianna Fáil remains deeply split over the possibility of a coalition with Sinn Féin.

On the other side, as the armed conflict continues in Turkey, it is not easy for the HDP to renounce PKK violence. Research has shown that parties linked with armed groups often have deep emotional bonds with the former or prevailing combatants. The combatants consider themselves those who have sacrificed the most in pursuit of the goal of their movement. Therefore, they have high expectations from the political wing of their movement, which is the party.

In the Irish case, the negotiations had provided sufficient incentives for Sinn Fein to convince the IRA to end their violence. Those incentives never emerged for the pro-Kurdish party during the negotiation process. Moreover, the post-2015 developments in Turkey have brought back an atmosphere of polarization and securitization as the leading politicians of the HDP were arrested. Considering that the party continues to pass the 10 per cent electoral threshold despite the ongoing conflict, perhaps the first thing necessary for peace is not the HDP’s renunciation of violence but the government’s realization that the HDP has not lost its legitimacy. Besides, the source of the HDP’s legitimacy today is due to the policies implemented by the Turkish government itself a decade ago.

In conclusion, the transformation of parties associated with violence is surely necessary for the maintenance of peace and democracy, but it is not sufficient. The acceptance of these parties as legitimate actors by the wider community is an important opportunity for peace or democracy, but it is one that has to be welcomed by other political actors.

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