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Turkey's future: Erdoğan, elections and the Kurds

Turkey is gearing up for pivotal elections on 7 June. At their heart is a complex interplay between presidential ambitions, party fissures, and Kurdish aspirations.

Turkey's election campaign began to the sound of fireworks. The first flash came in late January when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced that it would run candidates under the party banner instead of as independents. The move is bold because Kurds typically field independents to circumvent the high 10% national electoral threshold. If the HDP gamble pays off, the party will win enough seats to prevent the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) from securing a two-thirds majority (330 out of 550 seats). Doing so would thwart President Erdoğan from converting the country from a parliamentary set-up to the formal presidential system he desires. This would make the HDP a prominent - possibly the predominant - voice of Turkey's heterogeneous opposition.

If the bid fails however, Erdoğan would have a carte blanche for his presidential plans, and the Kurds would have no parliamentary voice. This, in turn, could spur Kurds to unilaterally declare a regional parliament. Such an outcome could spark inter-communal clashes across Turkey and force a heavy-hand from Ankara. This would be a dangerous development in a region already grappling with ethnic and sectarian conflict over ever more ambiguous borders.

Given the stakes, observers were struck by a second set of fireworks since 21 March: a very public row between leading AKP figures. There have long been rumours of discontent within party ranks at Erdoğan’s moves to project presidential power in areas that are the government’s business.  This has become visible in intermittent criticism of Erdoğan by deputy prime minister Bulent Arınç.

The party heavyweight recently argued that polarising rhetoric by the president is making Turkey ungovernable. He has also challenged the president’s provocative remarks vis-à-vis Ankara’s ongoing dialogue with the Kurds. Erdoğan retorted that he is no “figurehead,” in turn, emboldening stalwarts like Ankara mayor Melih Göçek to accuse Arınç of ties with the Gülen movement - Erdoğan’s present bête noir. Arınç’s response was no less dramatic: describing Göcek as “indecent,” he accused the twenty-year incumbent of having sold Ankara parcel by parcel.

The next day, a prosecutor launched an investigation into both the allegations of corruption and Arınç's apparent knowledge of such affairs. While both figures were admonished by prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for breaching party discipline, the breach is the latest in almost two years of dramatic fallouts within the conservative constituency. The upshot, as one pro-government columnist put it: the AKP's “magic is fading.”

Kurdish daring, and room to move

What is the relationship between these developments - the Kurds' all-or-nothing electoral bid, and intra-AKP fissures - and with what ramifications for the elections and their aftermath?

On the Kurdish side, daring is driven by a visceral sense that Kurds must grasp a once-in-a-century opportunity. It has not been since the end of the first world war - when the stillborn Treaty of Sèvres promised the Kurds a national homeland - that internal, regional, and international alignments have been as conducive to Turkey’s Kurds shaping their own destiny.

First, unlike the rest of Turkey’s opposition, the Kurds have compelling leaders. Their imprisoned figurehead Abdullah Öcalan appears on the verge of achieving an Arafat-like transformation from terrorist mastermind into august peacemaker. He has done so by investing in an ongoing if substantively ambivalent “peace process” between the government and the militant PKK. The results to date have been modest: a fragile ceasefire and the withdrawal of some fighters to bases in northern Iraq. But the process has helped to reframe Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” as a political as much as a security problem. Turks are increasingly reconciled to Kurdish demands for cultural rights and local governance; Kurds are better able to envisage a future in a multicultural Turkish state.

A champion of this participatory rather than separatist vision has been the HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş. The down-to-earth third candidate in the presidential race of August 2014, Demirtaş raised the party’s vote share from 6.2 to 9.7%. His success is due to savvy projection of an inclusive political language. As the first politician to capitalise on energies unleashed by the Gezi protests of 2013, Demirtaş appeals to liberal and left-leaning Turks frustrated with Erdoğan’s aggressive rhetoric and AKP primacy. Not a large constituency to be sure, but a million such Turkish votes could propel the HDP into parliament.

There is also a now-or-never sensibility among Turkey’s Kurds vis-à-vis regional dynamics. The existential threat that ISIS represents for many Kurds - epitomised in collective grief and then euphoria around the loss and recapture of Kobani - has become a font of pan-Kurdish solidarity. Some analysts view this as a nascent transnational Kurdish “public sphere.”

The Middle East’s fourth-largest but stateless ethnic group, Kurdish aspirations to self-rule have long been belied by internal fragmentation and the primacy of central governments. Today - and persistent internal rivalries notwithstanding - Kurds have more room for manoeuvre than ever before. As Baghdad and Damascus grapple with more immediate challenges, there are de facto autonomous entities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, and in Rojava - the cantons of “Western Kurdistan” controlled by Syrian Kurds. All of these lands border Turkey. As such, a move by Turkey’s Kurds to pursue intensified relations with brethren across borders - either in protest at being excluded from the national parliament or as part of a post-election bargain - has never been as tenable.

Erdoğan's dilemma, and a time of choice

Meanwhile, Kurds have won points in western-cum-international opinion as “boots on the ground” in the fight against ISIS. The secular-nationalist overtones of Kurdish demands, epitomised in the role of female peshmerga fighters, stands in stark contrast to militant Islamist millennarianism. It arguably is also more intelligible to trans-Atlantic opinion than the anti-western populism of Turkey’s political Islamist leadership. At the same time, Kurds’ broadly Sunni orientation may appeal to various regional and international interlocutors as a counterweight to Iranian inroads in the region. For all these reasons, many in the west are likely to be at least somewhat sympathetic to Kurds’ framing of post-election processes. 

But the HDP must still confront the electoral juggernaut that is the AKP. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party has since 2002 won eight successive electoral contests. Today, although the president formally cannot campaign, he has made no secret of his partisanship. The party programme now includes a commitment to an eventual presidential system. Erdoğan has much to lose and everything to gain if the victory is anything short of spectacular. Without two-thirds of the vote, the presidency remains a by-and-large symbolic post. This leaves Erdoğan open to forays from the many enemies he has made during his spectacular rise to power.

To prevent such an outcome, Erdoğan is faced with a tactical dilemma. He can appeal to religious Kurds by advancing the voice of Turkish-Kurdish fraternity under Islam, a line that has resonated with many Kurdish voters, making the AKP the second most popular party in Kurdish constituencies.

Or he can appeal to ultranationalist Turkish-(Islamist) sentiment while provoking Kurds. If this results in violence, the flirtation between Kurds and liberal and leftist Turks would likely fail, keeping the Kurds out of parliament. Recent clashes between the pro-government Islamist Kurdish party Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party) and HDP supporters may be read in this light. 

If Erdoğan wins the elements are in place to turn Turkey into a system where supreme power accrues to the executive. These include an internet law that mandates sweeping controls and a 132-item security bill that critics say could make Turkey a police state. Such an outcome hardly bodes well for cultural and political rights and local governance - potentially spurring Kurds to take matters into their own hands. The stakes are thus high for Turkey, its Kurds, and the region.

Turkey’s transformation also would resonate with other emerging players like India, Russia, and even the European Union’s own Hungary whose leaders combine populism and illiberal governance to stake positions that have rendered them, at best, unreliable allies of the west.

It is at this juncture that intra-AKP frictions become consequential. For elements in the party who wish to balance Erdoğan’s increasingly untrammelled authority may in fact be reconciled to an underwhelming victory even as they work toward reconciliation with the Kurds. Such an outcome would hand them the government but preserve the parliamentary system. The stances that they take on the Kurdish question in the months ahead thus bear watching.

About the author

Nora Fisher Onar is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford. In 2014-15, she is a Transatlantic Academy fellow of the German Marshall Fund

Read On

Bill Park, Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)

Faleh A Jabar & Hosham Dawod eds., The Kurds: Nationalism and Politics (Saqi, 2006)

Kerem Oktem, (co-editor, with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins) Turkey's Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010)

Kerem Oktem, Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2010)

M Hakan Yavuz, Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Erik J Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History (IB Tauris, 2004)


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