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Digging deep into Turkish politics: what next for HDP?

Long regarded as the biggest threat to Turkey’s political system and territorial integrity, the Kurds have emerged as the champion of Turkish democracy and protector of the country’s parliamentary regime.  

Müjge Küçükkeleş
16 June 2015
Rosettes at HDP's massive election rally in Istanbul.

Rosettes at HDP's massive election rally in Istanbul. Demotix/ Sahan Nuhoglu. All rights reserved.In Turkey, most elections are more than mere elections. The latest June 7 parliamentary elections were like this again. It turned out to be a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to switch the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one.

The election results struck a major blow to the governing AK Party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions. The AK Party received 41% of the votes and 258 seats in the Parliament: a steep drop from the 2011 elections where the party won 327 seats in the parliament. The main actor responsible for this drop is the People’s Democracy Party - HDP. The HDP received 13% of the votes, coming out of the elections as the third biggest party (together with Nationalist Action Party-MHP) and represented in the parliament with 80 seats. Long regarded as the biggest threat to Turkey’s political system and territorial integrity, the Kurds have emerged as not only the champion of Turkish democracy but also the protector of the country’s parliamentary regime. 

It is commonly assumed that elections provide Turkey’s polarized political environment with some relief. The four political parties that made it to the parliament mirror well the diversity of Turkish society, improving the Parliament’s demographic representation. But the result has hardly settled the dust over Turkish politics in the short term. Turkey is susceptible to more instability and uncertainties in the coming years. Each coalition scenario has its own challenges: none seem sustainable in the face of the country’s imminent economic problems. However, predictions over coalition prospects in the short run are beyond the scope of this article. Rather, I want to look at the question of the behavior of the Kurdish votes, their evolution in recent years, and implications for Turkish politics.

The Kurdish votes: where do they stand?

The June 7 elections were a victory for the HDP, the party increasing its votes across the whole of Turkey and seizing more votes from Turkish leftists, liberals and seculars. In Istanbul, for instance, the party has increased its votes from 9 percent in the presidential elections in 2014 to 12 percent in these parliamentary elections. How much of this vote came from Turks is hard to estimate. However, some preliminary analyses show that the party was able to win around 2 percent of the votes from the Republican People’s Party-CHP.  If the numbers are correct, it shows that the party’s recent opening up to wider segments of society resonated well with the electorate. Having said that, the increase is most remarkable in east and southeastern Turkey, regions heavily populated by Kurds.

Cuma Cicek divides the Kurdish region into three sub-regions. In the first sub-region, where HDP is the dominant power, the city of Diyarbakir is a cultural and political centre in the Kurdish landscape, and the HDP’s votes increased from 64 percent in the presidential elections in 2014 to 79% in the parliamentary elections in 2015. Numbers suggest the party seems to have established itself as the only political actor with no tangible competitor in the near future.

In Cicek’s second sub region, in the city of Agri, the party’s votes increased from 46% in the local elections in 2014 to 61% in presidential elections in 2014, and up to 78% in the latest parliamentary cycle. In Tunceli, votes increased from 33 percent in the local elections to 52 percent and to 61 percent in presidential and parliamentary elections respectively. It appears that HDP has connected some provinces in this second sub-region to the first one, widening the geography where it enjoys hegemonic power status.

The third sub region, in Cicek’s category, includes the provinces (such as Urfa, Bingol and Kars) where the Kurdish party has traditionally stood in opposition to the other major power bloc in the region-AK Party. Here as well the trend is changing in HDP’s favour. In Bingol, (one of the most conservative cities in the Kurdish region) for example, the Kurdish party raised its votes from 22 percent in the local elections to 31 percent in the presidential elections and to 41 percent in the most recent parliamentary elections.This amounts to an almost 50 percent increase in votes. The other provinces are also experiencing a similar trend. Just like the first sub-region has grown to include parts of the second sub-region, the second sub-region has also expanded into parts of the third sub-region.

These results have been alarming for the AK Party. One of the most unique features of the AK Party has been that the party represented the diversity of Turkish society. AK Party leaders always took pride in their presence across the whole of Turkey as opposed to other opposition parties whose presence has been confined to certain geographies. However, whether it is still the case is open to question now. The AK Party’s harsh campaign against the HDP, accusing party members of being anti-Muslim infidels, did not resonate well with the Kurdish public. On the contrary, it produced the opposite outcome: the AK Party’s presence in the region suffered considerably. This is in part due to President Erdogan’s shift to a nationalist discourse over the course of the election campaign. His statements that there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey played out negatively with the Kurdish population. Kurds increasingly have become frustrated with the AK Party’s shifting stance on the Kurdish issue. Until now, three reconciliation processes have been kicked off, but none of them has yielded any concrete outcome so far. Also, recent developments in Syria and Iraq have all fed into the feeling of unity among Kurds, encouraging them to unify around the HDP.

There is some truth to these explanations. But they do not provide a full account of why the HDP was able to seize the votes of Kurds in cities where it had very little or no appeal before. I believe that HDP’s success in attracting the votes of Kurds, who would traditionally vote for the Turkish central right and conservative parties also has to do with HDP’s evolution into a national party. This reasoning is often asserted as the major factor behind the party’s success in increasing Turkish votes. However, what is often neglected is that the party also owes its popularity among Kurds to its recent opening up to the broader interests of the country as a whole. If the HDP had continued to be a regional party locked into ethnic and regional issues, it is not certain that these votes would have come their way. 

So what next?

The election analysis of the individual Kurdish cities well displays the expansion of the Kurdish movement in the region. The most important aspect to note about this growth is that this has become a trend over the course of recent election cycles. Kurdish parties, formerly BDP and now HDP, have been increasing their votes since the 2009 local elections, and this increase has become more notable under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtas. There is no doubt that the HDP will assume a more prominent space in Turkish politics in the years to come.

Just as the AK party triggered the emergence of a new collective identity and transformed Turkey’s political landscape under the lead of an Islamist identity, with the support of liberals, democrats, Kurdish groups in its early years, so the Kurdish party is set to bring together various ethnic, religious and socio-political groups, though with different weighting, under a coalition with the aim of expanding and strengthening democratic rights and freedoms.

However, what is different from those other major identities in Turkey’s political spectrum, is that this collective identity is built on respect for diversity and difference. This will not only help reduce polarization in the country, but it will also lead the way to the achievement of societal peace. If the HDP succeeds in doing this, it will continue to be one of the most important opposition forces in the country , with the potential to grow into a partner of government in the coming years.

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