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A turning point for Turkey’s Kurds and parliamentary democracy

Ultimately, the fate of Turkish democracy appears to be intertwined with that of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP).

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Graffiti artists working on Selahattin Demirtas. Graffiti artists working on Selahattin Demirtas.Demotix/ Erhan Demirtas.All rights reserved.Half of Turkey’s citizens have only known Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as their leader in their adult lives. After 13 years in office, Erdoğan is now poised for his ultimate power grab by imposing a centralized presidential system. Many in the opposition parties seem to believe resistance to the project is futile, while a hopeful few insist Turkey’s flailing multi-party system has some steam left in it to salvage the country’s parliamentary democracy. A hopeful few insist Turkey’s flailing multi-party system has some steam left in it to salvage the country’s parliamentary democracy.

Ultimately, the fate of Turkish democracy appears to be intertwined with that of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) – if one succeeds, so will the other. If not, they will go down together.

Despite Kurds constituting one-sixth of Turkey’s population, their political participation has been subject to major restrictions throughout Turkey’s modern history. As individuals, Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been included in politics. Kurdish politicians, or anyone running on pro-Kurdish platforms, however, experienced extrajudicial executions, party closures, prison terms, and bans from office.

It was only in 1991 that a group of deputies was elected to parliament for the first time on a pro-Kurdish platform, and only as part of the center-left Social Democratic Populist Party’s lists. The ten-percent national threshold, carefully crafted by the generals of the 1980 junta, managed to keep pro-Kurdish parties out of parliament until 2007, when the pro-Kurdish movement finally devised a strategy of circumventing the threshold by nominating independent candidates. These independents would then regroup under the umbrella of a pro-Kurdish party, a maneuver successfully implemented in the elections of 2007 and 2011.

The HDP reached another milestone in the June 2015 elections, becoming the first pro-Kurdish party in Turkish history to pass the parliamentary threshold. Two months later, the HDP reached a third milestone when its MPs joined the cabinet of a caretaker government whose mandate ran until snap elections in November 2015. Although they lasted less than three weeks in ministerial positions, the experience hinted at the possibility of a pro-Kurdish party becoming a coalition partner. Although they lasted less than three weeks in ministerial positions, the experience hinted at the possibility of a pro-Kurdish party becoming a coalition partner.

Erdoğan’s heavy-handed election tactics in the run-up to the November 2015 elections allowed his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to return to a single-party majority. That election, which also saw the HDP weakened, has raised questions about the viability of the Kurds’ pursuing their objectives through democratic rather than violent means.

For their part, Erdoğan and the AKP seem to have given up on Turkey’s short-lived Kurdish peace process. As Turkey is drawn further into clashes between the security forces and the PKK in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast and beyond, it is easy to forget about the HDP’s achievements.

The pro-Kurdish movement’s transformation from a narrow brand of Kurdish nationalism to a wider coalition of progressive forces is the key reason why the HDP received 13 percent, more than double the historical Kurdish vote, in the June 2015 elections. This result, however, was not only based on the success of the HDP’s electoral platform, but also the leadership skills of party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, who earned nearly 10 percent in Turkey’s first popular presidential vote in August 2014.

Turkish politics tend to be dominated by older men who prefer to hold on to their seats until death do them part. The 42-year-old Demirtaş, who was first elected to parliament at 34, and his 45-year-old co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ, are clear outliers. The two are the youngest leaders of the four political parties currently represented in parliament, and the only ones who came of age after the Cold War. Turkish politics tend to be dominated by older men who prefer to hold on to their seats until death do them part.

Demirtaş’s easy-going, friendly style has drawn Turkey’s disgruntled youth to democratic engagement and parliamentary politics. Exit polls show that his personal appeal was one of the catalysts for the HDP’s unprecedented ability to attract a third of the under-25 vote in the June 2015 ballot.

The HDP co-chairs also deserve credit for promoting women’s participation in politics. In a parliament where women have less than 15 percent of seats, the HDP caucus was 39 percent women. The HDP has further revolutionized Turkish politics by becoming the first mainstream party to institutionalize a co-chair arrangement of a man and a woman, which it then expended to mayorships in municipal politics.

Moreover, in a political climate which is increasingly shaped by the AKP’s Islamist agenda and Sunni sectarian rhetoric, the HDP did not shy away from nominating religious minority candidates. The HDP list in the June and November 2015 elections included Armenian, Syriac and Yazidi deputies, and the party became a vocal platform for minority rights and freedoms.

Despite all these achievements, the HDP, continues to be haunted by the consequences of its association with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey (as well as the United States and the European Union) considers a terrorist organization. The HDP’s inability to curb the group’s violent tactics discredits the party’s pro-peace and pluralist message, and pushes moderate and non-Kurdish voters away, as evidenced by the exodus of almost one million voters from the party between the June and November 2015 elections. The HDP’s inability to curb the group’s violent tactics discredits the party’s pro-peace and pluralist message.

Demirtaş and the HDP are squeezed hard in between two immensely powerful forces – Erdoğan and the PKK’s leadership in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. For Turkey’s progressives, Demirtaş until recently symbolized the possibility of building a pluralist Turkey, and tearing down the vestiges of the country’s authoritarian past. For the old guard entrenched in the presidential palace in Ankara or the PKK central command in the Qandil mountains, the HDP and Demirtaş have posed a threat to their authoritarian game. It is, therefore, no surprise that they have worked in parallel to thwart the pro-Kurdish movement’s transformation into a political player of mass appeal.

Time will tell whether authoritarianism will again cripple Turkey’s parliamentary democracy as in the past. Erdoğan is anxious to hold snap elections for the second time in a year to push the HDP under the election threshold and secure the supermajority necessary to implement a centralized presidential system. The PKK is not likely to shed any tears over the HDP’s expulsion from parliament, since that would create a vacuum that the hardliners are eager to fill with their weapons.

The resilience of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy will soon be put to test, as well as the HDP’s ability to resist authoritarian pressures from within and without. If Demirtaş can steer Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party towards parliamentary democracy, he will save not only his career and his party but also the unity of a polarized country at risk of further internecine bloodshed.

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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