Kurds will be the agent of change in Turkish politics

Real political change in Turkey has been hard to come by in recent years. Establishment parties in Turkey have, time and again, proven unable to change the political system. Now a new hope for reform has emerged in Turkey from an unlikely source: the Kurds.

During most of the Cold War—and particularly during the 1980s and 1990s—Turkey had, for lack of a better word, a Kemalist consensus: The military played a major role behind the scenes, and those outside the consensus, especially the Islamists and the Kurds, were essentially excluded from politics. 

The first wave of democratization in the post-Cold War era in Turkey came from the Islamists—specifically, from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In 2002, when the AKP came to power, it decided that accession to the European Union should be its main goal and that effort could serve as tool to undermine the political power of the Turkish military that still lurked behind the scenes. So, incredibly, an Islamist party, the AKP, decided to bring about a post-Kemalist system by pushing for membership in the EU’s essentially liberal, democratic project. This strategy explains why Turkish liberals supported the AKP and could hope that the Islamists would push the system in a liberal direction.

But then something tragic happened. The AKP became the establishment. After the military was essentially defeated as a political force, the AKP ceased to be an anti-establishment party. Rather, it became a party that started to use the privileges of power, and itself began its own networks of patronage clientelism, and became a victim of this entity called the state. The AKP became the state. 

Now we’re in a situation where the second wave of democratization may also come from an anti-establishment party, this one mostly representing the Kurds. The most democratic, the most liberal, the most progressive narrative that you hear in Turkish politics today is coming from Selahattin Demirtaş of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—not the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), not the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and not the AKP.

There is reason to think that, in Turkey, only anti-establishment parties can actually improve the system. The old AKP was an anti-establishment party. What gives me hope about the HDP is that, even when it enters the parliament—and even if a miracle happens and it enters a coalition government—it will never become the state. 

By definition, the HDP is a Kurdish political party. The Islamists could become the state, because Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, and people could establish basically a sense of supremacy based on Muslim identity. The Kurds will never be able to represent the majority. They will never be able to become the state. They have vested and permanent interest in the rule of law—indeed their very survival depends on it. Their survival depends on minority rights and on checks and balances. This stark fact gives me hope about the HDP and its agenda.

What’s wrong with the rest of the Turkish opposition?

The real puzzle is the failure of establishment political parties to challenge the system. It would have been wonderful for a center-right party or a center-left party to have taken Turkey to the post-Kemalist phase, to a post-military, pro-E.U., pro-progressive phase. But the mainstream political parties have failed. The establishment of Turkey has failed. The Kemalist order in Turkey has failed.

The agent of change was first the Islamists, and now the agent of change has become the Kurds. 

What is it that creates this mental block of establishment political parties? Why did it take so many years for the CHP to understand that it can become an agent of change, too? In the absence of a left-wing movement in Turkey, there will never be balance. We need a progressive left. We need something that can challenge the strong coalition on the right. The HDP alone cannot be there.

One thing that is not being discussed in Turkey is the possibility of a CHP-HDP coalition, yet this is the most natural coalition. The CHP, if it’s a progressive political party, it should be able to get rid of its Kemalist, neo-nationalist baggage and embrace the progress of liberal, democratic agenda of the HDP. 

One reason that the CHP voters and the CHP itself are unable to really embrace the HDP is because the CHP, deep down, is still the party of Atatürk, still the party of Kemalism, still the party of nationalism. And what the Kurds want in Turkey—make no mistake—what the Kurds want in Turkey is autonomy. They want nothing short of autonomy.

The days when you could basically solve the Kurdish question with some cosmetic cultural reforms are over. They want democratic decentralization. And to me, that translates into autonomy. And this is a very difficult step to digest for the CHP. Add to this the fact that the disgruntled CHP voters are voting for the HDP, the fact that people who usually could vote for a central-left progressive party are so disillusioned with the CHP that they’re gravitating to the HDP. Therefore, there is also a tactical obstacle, in terms of cooperation between the HDP and the CHP right now. 

But down the line, I think the best reconciliation between Turkish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism would come from a CHP-HDP coalition. Turkish nationalism needs to reconcile itself to the fact that the Kurdish genie is out of the bottle. The good old days of assimilating the Kurds are over. The Kurds want autonomy. They will probably get it, hopefully in a bloodless way.