HDP's massive election rally in Istanbul, May 30, 2015. Demotix/ Sahan Nuholglu. All rights reserved.Demotix/ Sahan Nuholglu. All rights reserved.
Two historic general elections were held in Turkey over the course of four months in 2015. The desperate losers in the first elections on 7 June turned out to be the (in)glorious winners 120 days later, serving to confirm the idea that elections can serve different goals depending on their particular political contexts. Moreover, by the second elections on 1 November, what had been a relatively stable and peaceful country in June 2015 was now in the throes of a violent ‘war on terror’ against the Kurdish militants. This left a tenuous 2013 ceasefire in tatters and changed the face of Kurdish towns into virtual war zones.
Within this broad arc of events lies the crucial story of the rise and (perhaps) fall of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP). For the first time in the history of Turkey, on 7 June a pro-Kurdish party attracted enough 'Turkish' support to surpass the 10% election threshold and gain access to parliament. This triggered a chain of reactions that precipitated a re-election, resurgent ultranationalism, escalated fighting in the east, and severe crackdowns on the press and other forms of personal freedom. Political positions have solidified alongside these events and spaces for political expression have narrowed if not closed completely. HDP, faced with waning support, is struggling to negotiate this shrinking field, maintain its legitimacy amongst its constituents, and make productive use of however much time left it has in the Turkish parliament.
How could have this happened? What effect did this reemergence of violence – a trademark of the “military solution” of the Kurdish issue since the 1990s – have on the triumphant rise and then fading of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP)? Moreover, what does this mean for the political space of parliament in Turkey, and how has their entrance into the Turkish Grand National Assembly altered Turkish politics?
Impact of the non-identical-twin elections
Rosettes at HDP's massive election rally in Istanbul. Demotix/ Sahan Nuhoglu. All rights reserved.The significance of the 7 June elections was twofold. First, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the AKP, prime minister between 2002-2014, and since 2014, the president of the republic, turned it into a plebiscite for his grand project of an executive presidency. In his election campaign, Erdogan had explicitly asked the electorate to vote for two interdependent goals: keep the votes of the Kurdish HDP under the 10% threshold required to win any seats in parliament, and give the AKP the number of seats necessary to amend the constitution to make executive presidency come true. The results were shattering for the so-far invincible Erdogan who had carried his party (the AKP) through three spectacular election victories since 2002 with no serious competition. The AKP won the most seats (258) but lost 10% of the votes it received in the 2011 elections and fell short of the majority needed (276) even to form a government.
Second, for the first time in Turkish political life, a Kurdish political party, the HDP, passed the 10% threshold and won 80 seats. This put it on a par with its nemesis, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is a single-issue party adamantly against any peace process with the Kurdish nationalists.
Acting on the conviction that the party lost its parliamentary majority due to the defection of some of its conservative-nationalist voters to the hardline nationalist MHP, Erdogan set out a series of orchestrations to reverse the election results to recoup its “conservative pious Kurdish” votes from the HDP and shrink the MHP which shared more or less the same Turkish nationalist voter base. The army resumed extensive military operations against PKK militants in late July, ostensibly because the cease-fire with the PKK, which the government initiated in March 2013 to allow peace talks with the PKK’s incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan, became impossible to sustain.
The government’s decision to launch a massive offensive against the PKK was clearly an attempt to link the PKK militants, who are branded as terrorists by the US and many European countries, with the HDP, and to push the HDP back below the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary representation.
In addition, the government was alarmed by the fact that the Kurdish conflict was also growing on the back of the Syrian crisis in such a way as to embolden the PKK strategically as well as psychologically. The PKK’s Syrian Kurdish brethren, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is a key partner of the anti-ISIS alliance and had begun to carve out a semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in Northern Syria.
The 1 November elections were held as massive warfare in the southeast threatened to spiral out of control and two massive suicide attacks were mounted by ISIS, one in Suruc, a Kurdish town on the Syrian border, killing 33 Kurdish activists, and the other at a pro-Kurdish rally in Ankara 20 days before the elections, taking 102 lives.
The fear factor
Blast victims' funeral in Ankara, October 11. Demotix/Recep Yilmaz.All rights reserved.The president’s electoral strategy for the AKP was built on offering twin slogans to the public: either a majority AKP government or PKK and ISIS terrorism. Fears about public safety caused by the escalation of violence over the summer and many AKP supporters’ existential fear of being recriminated against if the party failed to form a government seem to have served Erdogan’s objectives.
The AKP’s support climbed from 40.9% to 49.5%, while voters turned away from both the nationalist MHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP, the latter barely passing the 10% threshold, dipping from 12.7% of the vote to 10.7% (from 80 deputies to 59). It can be argued that situational restrictions, which included the security concerns of politicians campaigning in the region and the clampdown on newspapers and television stations and freedom of expression in general, also played a huge part in bringing about the election disaster of the HDP.
More to the point, however, Erdogan’s objective to brand the HDP as controlled by ruthless militants worked. In explaining the question of the HDP’s loss of one million votes in November, especially in the provinces where it had made the strongest gains in June, a related view is that “the HDP was made to pay for the problems” caused by the PKK’s youth wing in predominantly Kurdish cities, where they disrupted business by digging ditches and erecting barricades to prevent security forces from entering their neighborhoods.
YDG-H armed members in Cizre, Şırnak, Turkey, October 2015. Wikicommons/Mahmut Bozarslan. Voice of America. Some rigths reserved.
Challenges to the HDP’s democratic prospects
To shed some light on the possibilities and perils that lie ahead for the HDP, it is important to recognise that the HDP presented a daunting challenge to the AKP as a serious political contender.
The June 2015 elections acted as a catalyst for changing the trajectory of Kurdish identity politics and Turkish responses to it. It is clear that the HDP reinvented itself before the June elections as a new and energising force adopting a much-needed platform for expressing the progressive and democratic demands of 'Turkish' as well as Kurdish political elements, which included social democrats, liberals, leftists, women, the young, LGBT communities, and free-thinking intellectuals. The HDP’s transformation as a new archetype of political party around which broader ethnic, gender, ideological and generational loyalties came to be articulated alarmed the ruling party.
Challenge 1: its own success in transforming itself
The new HDP represented a fundamental shift from the narrow and rather unpopular appeals of Kurdish identity-centred parties of the past at the very moment when the ruling party itself appeared to be evolving into its own model of executive presidency, whereby the president considered himself the embodiment of 'national democracy' and custodian of its unity.
Although the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been the main opposition party in the parliament for the last 13 years, its stale structure and ideology proved ineffective in blocking the AKP’s increasing tendency to concentrate power in the executive, circumscribe its democratic institutions and clamp down on freedoms, oppositional politics, the media and academic life. It was clear that on the eve of the 7 June elections, it was the HDP not the CHP that had become the main challenge to Erdogan’s realisation of his dream of a presidency with boosted executive powers.
The HDP’s rise to replace the CHP and its public perception as energising the leftist political imagination and acting as agents of hope and change played a huge role in driving Erdogan to trigger the post-election crisis in the hope of calling early elections, so that the HDP would be buried under the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary representation.
It should be added that although it was not yet clear whether the party could forge a new identity without abandoning the specific needs and preferences of the Kurdish population, the campaign of Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s co-leader, helped to fashion a party with an unprecedented new face, and a much-needed inspiring leader for Turkey. From a provincial Kurdish background, Demirtas turned into a star performer by exhibiting qualities which were at once humble, humane, humorous, thoughtful, articulate and honest.
Challenge 2: the AKP’s convergence with the secular-republican tradition
Discussing the role and significance of the HDP in Turkish democracy requires coming to terms with the ruling party’s propensity to support the secular-republican system’s nationalist, statist and security-driven priorities and its 'military solution' perspective.
The faultlines that produced Kurdish demands for more rights, greater autonomy and economic, social, and cultural development are rooted in the republican logic of a unitary state that emerged long before the AKP.
It is also true that the AKP, which was itself characterised as an 'internal security threat' by Turkey’s secular establishment, battled against the shackles put on itself for decades. There are some ironies, however, in the fact that having upended the old politics and reduced the role of its chief actors – big business, the military, the judiciary and the civilian bureaucracy – to prepare Turkey for a programme that could qualify it to join the European Union, the party has come to adopt what in many ways is the same republican tradition, driven by a fixation on state security at the expense of freedoms.
It has replaced 'Islamic threat' as the hot button issue with Kurdish terrorism; frustrated the electoral process after the June 7 elections; abandoned a peace process it had initiated in 2013; and fully converged with the Kemalist republican state tradition of refusing to discuss the legitimacy of identities other than the officially prescribed Turkish one, albeit with more of an infusion of Muslim identity.
As the party leadership became locked in a fierce military struggle to finish off the PKK, the public mind, still haunted by the memories of the 1990s, is deeply concerned at the prospect of 'reliving' an era when the establishment actors and political class addressed purely political-social problems – Kurdish nationalism and political Islam – through national security, the National Security Council and emergency military measures rather than through parliamentary decisions, government policies and civilian wisdom.
As the military was the dominant factor of power in politics, it almost fought its own war, blocking political initiatives, refusing to define and formulate security through interagency debate with civilians and perceiving the fight against the PKK as zero-sum warfare. The 'military solution' perspective of the 1990s has been responsible for the decline of democratic discourse and its replacement by repackaged conservative nationalist ideas.
Moreover, securitisation of the issue led the establishment to step up its ideological and emotional vigilantism over the Kurdish deputies in the 1990s, who had ascended from a series of Kurdish parties representing the Kurdish nationalist movement by either running as independents or on other party’s lists in parliamentary elections.
In 1994 in a notorious incident outside the parliament building. Six Kurdish deputies were arrested, later charged and sentenced to long years for violating the unitary principles of the Constitution. A long series of Kurdish parties were formed but in a quicksilver fashion they were either outlawed, or closed down by the Constitutional Court, or simply failed to pass the 10% threshold for entering the parliament. The opportunity created by the capture of PKK leader Ocalan in 1999 did not turn into a durable process of peace and resolution; rather, the military acquired an increasingly influential voice in the political calculations of Ankara. Military solutions and nationalist narratives dominated the political discourse to the extent of becoming a kind of ‘common-sense’.
Democratic silver lining?
However, after a long hiatus, as violence escalated and casualties soared, a silver lining emerged: in the emerging post-Cold War realities, many sectors started to question the military’s motives and strategies in its fight against the Kurdish separatists. In the changing terms of debate, not only the fundamentals of the republican approach to the Kurdish population were disputed, the idea that it is counterintuitive to seek to manage or resolve a political problem solely by relying on its militarisation, i.e., 'defeating the enemy' was gradually being put on the table.
The AKP’s initiatives for 'openings' and 'negotiations for peace' arose against this background. More significantly, however, they were compelled by practical electoral realities rather than a full subscription to, or appreciation of, the idea that transformative political agendas to resolve the Kurdish issue would require a redistribution of state power to enable plural forms of governance.
The nebulous 2009 'opening' was basically built on a search for disarmament of the PKK and promises of some unclear incremental democratic reforms. Some responsibility for pushing the party in this direction should also be given to the party’s own Kurdish deputies, urging the leadership for a new way of responding to the regions’ problems.
Just as government’s wish to recoup the votes it lost in the region in the local elections of March 2009 played a major role in the 2009 opening, in the 2013 initiative, the impetus came from the government’s wish to address an intractable conflict that was damaging the image of the new Turkey it was trying to build. Since almost any departure from the long-held military solution was considered a hopeful change, these moves were welcomed by the public. The fact that the attempts were simultaneously accompanied by promoting an Islamic brand of 'brotherly embrace and unity' policy was probably overlooked.
But the negative narrative of Erdogan about the Kurdish movement and its party officials prior to, during and after the June elections and his machinations to frustrate electoral politics reveal that his commitment to a peace process was not premised on building a sufficiently broad coalition embracing Turkey’s diverse ideologies and groups with a democratic vocabulary to sustain the peace efforts.
On the contrary, his readiness to circumvent even the most favored form of democracy by Turkish politicians – elections – illustrates that promises to end the conflict were contingent on securing a mathematically permanent conservative-nationalist electoral bloc, one that sustains the same old state-security logic but which is difficult to achieve in a country split down the middle. It also illustrates the enormous ideological and structural barriers that Kurdish parties are compelled to overcome to make their presence felt in Turkish political life.
Is the HDP a falling shooting star?
The reversal of the HDP’s electoral fortunes in the aftermath of the 1 November elections took place along with a sharp escalation in the violence that has plagued the country since July 2015. Civilian casualties have been mounting; intermittent curfews have been imposed in many cities; 200,000 people from the region have been displaced; and many citizens have been trapped in their homes without food, electricity and medical help. The government has enforced a blockade over internet and cell phones in the region as well as on media reporting.
As urban warfare between the PKK and Turkish security forces shows no signs of deescalating, HDP, as the third largest political party in the parliament, is reduced to sustaining a balancing act which causes further immobilisation, isolation and ineffectivity.
Its party officials are constantly harassed by the government with threats to remove their parliamentary immunities for supporting the PKK and/or closure of their party. Their deputies are often barred from entering cities and towns under army curfews. Similarly, its Turkish electorate, who are unhappy about the relentless violence by the PKK, seem to put a distance between themselves and the party. The Kurdish loyalists in the region who are worried about their physical day-to-day survival express rage about the party’s 'weak' narrative and cautious engagement with their hardship.
On the other hand, the PKK, which seemed to be unhappy about the HDP’s new global image, seems to be gaining the role of 'game changer' in the region. It has not only established an unequivocal leverage over Kurdish civil societal groups and formations, but has been able to sustain its main priority – achieving some form of self-rule in the region.
As a result, it is reasonable to assume that the chances for the HDP to carry out an effective pro-Kurdish agenda independent of the PKK are slim. At present, the party has lost a considerable segment of its electoral support as well as the new and broader voice of that rebel spirit that for a while, transformed the Kurdish movement into a more 'Turkified' multi-issue party.
That said, when and if the time for peace negotiations comes, despite its declining fortunes and unclear future, the HDP is still the only notable civilian representative of the Kurdish movement which is capable of sitting at the table and representing a humane and intellectual face for the Kurdish conflict.
Placed alongside Turkey’s grim political treatment of the representation of Kurdish interests, the rainbow coalition which the HDP has achieved and the new democratic blueprint it laid out for Turks and Kurds in June 2015 left an indelible mark on Turkey’s imagination and presented an unprecedented leap in its history. In no small measure, its ability to rebound from the deep crisis in which it is engulfed depends precisely on its capacity to reignite the same hopes across the political-social spectrum via its inspiring leader, honest appeal, and a democracy- and citizen-security-centred narrative.
There are some intriguing questions regarding the nature of the convergence of the AKP with its once-adversary, the historical bastion of the secular republic, the Turkish military.
It is true that Erdogan’s all out war with the ferocious PKK has brought the high command to the forefront once more. What is different from the 1990s, however, is that since the AKP’s military reforms have caused the military to retreat from its role and influence in politics, the government and the high command are on the same page regarding the strength of their nationalism and anti-PKK sentiment. There is no reason to think that the military’s own ‘political’ calculus can override the civilian will.
A particularly striking manifestation of the problematic nature of the government’s warfare is Turkey’s increasing estrangement from the west. It seems reasonable to think that there is a causality between the AKP’s security-centered drift from the hallmarks of western democracy and its visible rupture from the west where Turkey was once held in regard as a catalyst for regional stability.
As Turkey’s role as a stabilising force in one of the most unstable regions of the world wanes, and condemnation of ‘the west’ and EU-fatigue set in, the war against domestic and external enemies escalates.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.
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