When the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided to contest Turkey’s upcoming June 2015 general election as a party rather than as independent candidates, it sparked much debate within Turkey’s Kurdish community.
For more than two decades, Kurdish-affiliated parties have resorted to running independents as a tactic to circumvent the minimum 10 percent national threshold that a party needs to win seats in parliament. Yet because the HDP’s constituency represents around 6-8 percent nationally, the party risks losing all of its seats, and in turn having no Kurdish representation in parliament.
Such an outcome, however, will also be crucial for Turkey as a whole. If the party, whose voters are mostly from the Kurdish southeast, fails to reach the 10 percent threshold, all formerly HDP-aligned seats are likely to go to the Kurdish regions’ next-most-popular party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP will therefore be further empowered to change the constitution unilaterally and introduce a presidential system in his vision. Currently, the Turkish Constitution is based on a parliamentary system in which the prime minister is the head of the government and chief executive. Although the Constitution grants the president significant powers, such as chairing the National Security Council and appointing judges to higher courts, Erdogan appears to seek an executive presidency that will have greater powers than the legislature and judiciary.
Nonetheless, the HDP’s decision to formally participate in the June elections came after its co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, received 9.8 percent of the vote in the presidential contest in August 2014. But a series of recent polls indicate that Demirtas’ popularity exceeds that of the HDP. Moreover, the rate of support for Demirtas in August was skewed by the lowest voter turnout in recent years (74.1 percent) and inflated because some leftist groups opted to vote for Demirtas in protest against the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) presidential candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Opinion polls consistently put support for the HDP at only 8.5 percent at best.
Despite these polls, the Kurdish-dominated HDP has judged that the time is ripe to push for greater political representation. Other liberals and leftists harshly criticized it for not supporting the 2013 Gezi Park protests against Erdogan. HDP officials and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders have continued to exercise caution in criticizing Erdogan for corruption allegations, desperate not to jeopardize the March 2013 cease-fire between the government and the PKK. Since then, the AKP has reached out to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, passed a new law enabling formal peace talks with PKK guerrillas, and put forth a positive image of Ocalan in state-run media as part of what observers have dubbed a new “peace process.”
But fears that this dialogue will not last – driven by the mobilization of PKK fighters in Syria and northern Iraq – are pushing Kurdish groups to secure substantial outcomes before AKP-PKK talks potentially breakdown. Rumors in local Kurdish circles suggest Erdogan already agreed with the PKK to decentralize Kurdish populated regions in return for encouraging the HDP to participate as a party in the elections. Meanwhile, Kurdish politicians are hoping greater parliamentary pressure can push Erdogan to make more concessions while the cease-fire holds. This is a win-win scenario for the PKK, which is pushing the HDP to take this electoral risk.
Should the HDP pass the 10 percent threshold, the party could secure more than 50 seats in parliament, an unprecedented victory in Kurdish politics. If the HDP falls short, which is the more likely outcome, its leaders claim the Kurdish constituency will use civil unrest to pursue its goals – which is “politics as usual” for the PKK. Such contentious confrontation may upset Turkey’s Kurds in general but would strengthen the PKK as an organization. In this scenario, Kurdish movements plan to establish a Kurdistan parliament in Diyarbakir and ratchet up criticism that Kurds have no political representation in Turkey’s parliament. The PKK hopes that these bold steps would push Erdogan to step up negotiations and fulfill his promise to pursue decentralization in Kurdish-majority regions.
If and when the HDP falls short of the 10 percent threshold, the risk is real that Erdogan could have sufficient parliamentary support to turn the country into a presidential system. “No one should deceive herself,” Demirtas said last August. “After the presidential elections, Turkey could dangerously turn into a one man-rule regime.” The ability for Kurdish parties to negotiate with Erdogan would be severely limited, as would that of other left-leaning parties, who will blame the HDP for allowing Erdogan to secure his power. HDP’s move may well be interpreted as selling out the country for narrow organizational interests, and would alienate supporters among leftist groups that are sympathetic to it.
Other Kurdish politicians within the nationalist movement face additional hazards. Ocalan has long aimed to balance Kurdish parties and PKK guerrilla commanders, in so doing maintaining his control over the movement as a whole.
The PKK will emerge as the primary representative of the Kurdish community should the HDP fail to pass the threshold. Kurds’ frustration with Erdogan’s Kobani policy has already boosted support for the PKK. Although the movement has no resources to wage another war, it also lacks any serious incentive to forgo its arms as part of the peace process. This will boost its profile in Turkish politics at the expense of the HDP.
Moreover, the HDP as a political project could collapse. Last year, upon Ocalan’s request to strengthen Kurds’ political alliance with the Turkish left, the pro-Kurdish alliance of the HDP and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) split into two distinct groups: the Democratic Regions’ Party (DBP), which competes in local elections and represents the municipalities, and the HDP, which contests nationwide general elections.
Within Kurdish politics, the HDP supports Turkiyelilesme – the idea that Kurds should pursue a political future within Turkey’s legal system – over separatism. In the event of the HDP’s failure, the DBP will become the foremost legal Kurdish party, which places special emphasis on self-determination in Kurdish populated regions. This would lead the Turkish left to marginalize the Kurdish movement and increase the potential for violent separatism to re-emerge.
The burden of this high-stakes venture falls on the HDP, which still has time to consider a strategic shift. Negotiations between Ocalan and Erdogan are ongoing, and changes in AKP-PKK dynamics may yet prompt the HDP to change its controversial election decision. But the party must continue to seriously weigh both the benefits and risks of such an approach.
Mustafa Gurbuz is a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, D.C. He is an associate editor of Sociology of Islam and author of “Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey.” (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press). This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).