Pro-Kurdish party at the heart of the Turkish elections: prospects for the peace process

As has been seen clearly during this campaign period, the harsh rhetoric used by the AK Party and the HDP regarding one another has brought the negotiations to the edge of a total freeze.

Müjge Küçükkeleş
3 June 2015
Graffiti artists working on Selahattin Demirtas.

Graffiti artists working on Selahattin Demirtas.Demotix/ Erhan Demirtas.All rights reserved.Turkey is going through very interesting times. Interesting, because a former pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party – HDP (both with its agenda and voter base) is evolving towards a national party that is appealing to wider segments of society beyond the Kurds.

And this small party is the key in determining the number of seats that the ruling AK Party will gain in the June 7 elections, and consequently in Turkey’s political system. On November 21, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas signaled his party’s intention to contest the general elections as a political party for the first time and caught many by surprise. Encouraged by the recent support the party’s leader had received in the Presidential Elections in 2014 (9.7% of the votes), the pro-Kurdish HDP finally officially announced that rather than put up independent candidates, it would run in the June 2015 parliamentary elections.

HDP’s decision generated wide discussion with some praising the party’s decision while others criticized it. Supporters averred that running as independents would only earn the party a few more MPs in the National Assembly and that this would not bring about any significant change in the functioning of the Parliament. With the ruling AK Party maintaining most of its seats in the new parliament, opposition parties such as CHP (Republican People’s Party), MHP (Nationalist Action Party) and HDP would not be able to challenge the government. Critics, on the other hand, found the party’s decision too risky, especially at a time when the government had announced its plans to switch Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential one. As a party generally receiving around 6.5 percent of the votes, this view held that HDP’s chances of crossing the 10 percent threshold are very slim. If HDP fails to pass the threshold, it will lose its current MPs to the biggest, ruling AK Party. Critics even went so far as to claim that HDP is in a secret pact with the AKP to win them an absolute majority in the parliament in exchange for regional autonomy and the release of PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan. People of this persuasion even believe that should the HDP pass the threshold, it would lend its support to the AKP presidential system proposal.

As the campaign developed, the HDP leadership has made repeated statements to scotch such rumours that the HDP is in cahoots with the government behind the scenes to support the presidential system. However, what really put an end to these speculations was co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas’ shortest parliamentary group meeting in the Assembly. Limiting his regular hour-long speech to only three words in Turkish--Seni Baskan Yaptirmayacagiz--Demirtas called out to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – “We will not let you become president.” The HDP is thus heading off all speculation, and stressing the party’s commitment to democratic rights and freedoms. This move especially targeted urban, secular and middle class Turks, who have voted CHP, but have also become alienated from it in the last few years. Demirtas’ strong opposition to the president and presidential system offset with humorous rhetoric resonated well with urban Turks.

Kurdish voters, on the other hand, constitute the second target of what is known as the HDP’s two legged campaign strategy. The party aims to unify the Kurdish population by presenting itself as the true protector of the peace process.  The party leadership has said several times that the AKP is an unreliable actor who has no intention of pursuIng due process in the absence of HDP within the parliament. In doing so, the party wants to convince Kurdish voters, including those who vote AKP as well, that continuation of the peace process depends on HDP’s parliamentary presence. As we enter the final week of the election campaign, the party’s statements have further intensified with the Party’s co-leader Demirtas even arguing that the AKP is preparing an armed operation against the Kurds in Turkey and Syria once the elections are out of the way.

Interestingly, the AK Party’s response to HDP claims over the peace process has been similar. Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan defined HDP’s decision to run as a political party in the elections as "a chaos plan" that is being carried out by those who want to create unrest in Turkey. Akdogan also added that the peace process will be hurt if HDP entered Parliament, implying that if the AK Party government loses power, there will be no settlement process.

Most scenarios for the future of the peace process focus on the possibility of HDP not passing the threshold. Some state that HDP’s failure to cross the ten percent threshold will cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the parliament. Its exclusion by a small margin would mean that a lot of Turkish citizens will be unrepresented. This will not only entail problems for Turkish democracy in general, but will further frustrate and alienate the Kurdish population. In such an environment minor disagreements can turn into socially explosive issues as occurred during the Kobane protests where nearly 40 people were killed in four days. In technical terms, nonetheless, HDP’s absence in the Parliament will not necessarily and automatically suggest the end of the peace process. In itself, it is neither likely to guarantee its continuation nor precipitate its breakdown.

To understand this better, one only need look at HDP’s role throughout the negotiation process. Since the start of the resolution process, HDP has served as a messenger channeling messages between imprisoned leader of PKK Abdullah Ocalan on Imrali Island and Qandil Mountains, where the PKK leadership is based. Three HDP MPs-Sirri Sureyya Onder, Pervin Buldan and Idris Baluken - took part in negotiations. However one needs to recall that some other proposed deputies from HDP were prevented from having an official role in negotiations by the government. Those three HDP MPs who served in the negotiations only did so with the government’s consent.

So the HDP may keep on assuming a similar position outside of the parliament as well. However, this will surely have an impact on how the peace process will proceed. HDP’s engagement in the peace process outside of the parliament will make it difficult for the party to strike what is already a delicate balance between the expectations of its Kurdish constituency and the Turkish voters to whom it has been appealing.  HDP cannot sustain its anti-AK Party stance while officially re-engaged in negotiations. As has been seen clearly during this campaign period, the harsh rhetoric used by the AK Party and the HDP regarding one another has brought the negotiations to the edge of a total freeze. The last time HDP negotiators were allowed to go to Imrali Island to meet Abdullah Ocalan was two months ago.

Moreover, continuation of the peace process with those HDP involved locked outside the parliament will weaken the link between the general democratization of the country and the resolution of the Kurdish question. And even if there is progress with respect to the issues specific to the Kurdish question, such as Abdullah Ocalan’s status or an end to the PKK’s armed struggle, the existence of other democratic problems in the country will put pressure on HDP’s recent opening up to the wider population. The resolution of the Kurdish issue cannot be separated from Turkey’s democratic consolidation in general. The two should go hand in hand; choosing one over another would not yield a healthy outcome in the historic attempt to resolve the Kurdish issue peacefully.

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