The Kurds will decide Turkey’s fate

On June 7, 2015, Turkey will hold its twenty-fourth general election to determine the 550 new members of the parliament. As the election date approaches, Turkish politics boil a little hotter. One development that has added fuel to the fire is the recent decision of Turkey’s largest Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to contest the elections as a “single party” for the first time.

The HDP is a left-wing political organization that emphasizes minority, namely Kurdish, rights. A party in name, but not by representation, in the Turkish parliament, HDP has not always been a major force in Turkish politics. This changed last year, when its young and charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, enjoyed an unprecedented level of popularity and won almost 10 percent of the national votes in the August 2014 presidential elections. Prior to Demirtaş’ success, HDP and its predecessors had only been receiving around 6-7 percent of the national votes. Given that Turkey has one of the highest electoral thresholds in the world, which requires a political party to garner at least 10 percent of the national votes to gain any seats in parliament, enjoying such a low level of electoral popularity has been an obstacle in advancing Kurdish rights.

The army introduced the election threshold in the name of political stability when it last seized power in a direct coup in 1980. Many, however, have long considered the threshold’s true purpose to be a mechanism by which to shut the Kurds out of politics and suppress political Islam. Over the years, ruling political parties have promised either total elimination or significant lowering of the election threshold, but none—including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose predecessors were on the blunt end of this threshold rule—have kept their promises. HDP has been circumventing the threshold by having its members run the elections and enter the parliament as independent candidates.

The threshold rule does not apply to independent candidates, who—once elected into parliament—can form a party group within the parliament if they have more than twenty MPs. The HDP currently has twenty-seven MPs in the Turkish parliament with an estimated potential of seating thirty to thirty-five more independent members if it uses the same method this June. Yet its success in 2014 seems to have given the HDP a boost of confidence to change its tactic, and to instead contest the elections as a united party. This decision is a historic and risky one, with huge implications for Turkish democracy and politics.

There are serious doubts as to whether the HDP can pass the threshold. In the instance that it does pass, the AKP would see at the very least twenty (calculating just the votes from HDP’s primary voter base in Kurdish provinces) of its current 312 seats go to the new HDP members. This would be a tremendous loss for Turkey’s president (and former prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who needs AKP to obtain a super-majority in parliament with 367 seats to be able to change the constitution without the support of other parties or without having to call for referendum.

Erdoğan wants a new constitution that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary to presidential system and allow him to cater to Kurds’ political demands on his own terms. Many are concerned that in a presidential regime, Erdoğan would become even more of an authoritarian leader than he already is.

After a victory in the last parliamentary elections in 2011, Erdoğan attempted to introduce a new constitution, but failed to muster the necessary consensus. AKP needs 367 seats to be able to swiftly change the constitution. Analysts estimate that the HDP will gain between fifty-five and seventy seats if it passes the 10 percent threshold. These seats would mostly come from the AKP. Such a loss would make it impossible for the AKP to reach 367 seats, and effectively undermine Erdoğan’s aspirations for a centralized presidential regime with few checks and balances.

If, however, a political organization running as a single party fails to meet the threshold, all the votes given to that group get distributed to the second-highest vote getter in the region. Since the AKP comes second in popularity after the HDP, the AKP could sweep all the HDP-aligned votes and could very well gain a super majority—especially since no independent HDP members would be in parliament.

Hence, the AKP, which once fought to have its own voice heard, is now relying on the threshold to quiet HDP’s voice in the National Assembly. On the flipside of the same coin, HDP is running the risk of being sidelined and letting the ruling AKP reap all the gains. Erdoğan’s recent remarks about there never being a Kurdish problem in Turkey because “[Kurds] have everything” make the dangers in HDP’s risky move all the more visible.

The statement, which unsurprisingly got a lot of attention, is widely interpreted as a tactic by Erdoğan to secure the nationalist vote ahead of the elections and prevent it from going to the National Action Party (MHP), Turkey’s leading nationalist political party. Based on the sharp shifts in his rhetoric, it appears that Erdoğan is attempting to play a balancing game between Turkey’s nationalists and its Kurds.

Some observers of Turkish politics expect that Erdoğan will cater more to the Kurds, since he has, after all, been pursuing liberal reforms to bring an end to the armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state that began in 1984. He is credited with improving Kurdish cultural rights and starting a new, more conciliatory chapter in the country’s history by initiating official peace negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and imprisoned leader of the PKK.

In late February, Öcalan called on the PKK to formally end the armed struggle against Turkey, and to instead pursue a settlement by political means. This was indeed a significant win for Erdoğan and his efforts in heralding the end of the decades-long armed conflict. In return, Erdoğan has appealed to the Kurdish voter base by alluding that his proposed new constitution would include provisions that redefine key notions of citizenship and ethnic identity.

Doubts linger, however, about whether Erdoğan would actually deliver on his promises. Perhaps even more importantly, will his promises be enough to win over the Kurdish voter base, which has long demanded provisions that allow for some degree of administrative—if not territorial—autonomy? These concerns are worth noting, especially since Demirtaş recently warned of a potential serious crisis in the Kurdish peace negotiations if the AKP continues to stall on Öcalan’s proposed ten measures in the “Draft for Peace and Democratic Negotiations.” While these measures are rather vague, there is a general recognition that they—between the lines—entail demands for some form of autonomy.

Turkish politics could boil over if HDP’s gamble doesn’t pay off and if Erdoğan passes his constitution and continues to sideline the Kurds. There are increasing speculations that HDP’s exclusion from parliament would radicalize politics, lead to civil strife and accelerate Turkey’s descent into chaos. If the HDP indeed fails to pass the threshold and there is no independent Kurdish representation in the parliament, it is quite plausible that Öcalan would lose popularity and thereby his ability to control the radical elements within the Kurdish nationalist movement and the PKK. Instead, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK)—an organization founded by the PKK—could aim to put into practice a “state within a state,” just as the PKK attempted to do in the 1990s.[1]

There are reports that KCK is already working towards this goal by running alternative courts, collecting taxes and even running impromptu checkpoints in the countryside in southeastern Turkey, where most Kurds live. A disappointment with the peace process risks this practice being expanded and accompanied by an armed struggle, dragging Turkey back to a violent spiral similar to the one seen two decades ago.

This all seems to suggest that the Kurds and Turkish democracy would be better off if HDP were to pass the threshold. Yet, while HDP’s inclusion in parliament could strengthen minority rights and help prevent abuse of executive power, it could also incur a grudging response from Erdoğan.[2] Should it win out, HDP is expected to use its newly gained leverage over the government to catalyze the peace process, but it faces a huge dilemma: Would Erdoğan and the AKP continue cooperation, even after losing their strong grip on Turkish politics?

The Turkish electorate is worried that instead of becoming a force to contain Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, Demirtaş would strike a Machiavellian bargain with Erdoğan for yet another vaguely defined Kurdish deal at the expense of protecting Turkey’s democracy and parliamentary system. Recognizing this concern, Demirtaş unequivocally stated that he would never let HDP be exploited by Erdoğan to achieve his presidential system.

By choosing to run as a single party, without any certainty of meeting the 10 percent election threshold, HDP has taken a major gamble. Whatever the outcome, Turkey will be a very different place after the elections—all because of a Kurdish political party’s bet. After all the years spent trying to keep Kurds out of mainstream politics, it is quite ironic that Turkey’s Kurds have come to play a critical role in preventing the country’s seventy years of parliamentary democratic experience from eroding.

[1] The Turkish military had launched a very destructive campaign with massive human-rights violations in response to the PKK’s attempt. The PKK was then forced to retreat to northern Iraq and Öcalan was eventually caught and tried for treason.

[2] Demirtaş has managed to appeal to some outside the Kurdish electorate, partly thanks to a political agenda that promoted a more left-leaning agenda of social inclusion and minority rights (including women). It is possible that once in parliament, HDP could become a refreshing voice in support of a more liberal democracy in Turkey.

This piece originally appeared in The National Interest