Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Kurds aim for office

The election strategy pursued by Turkey’s main Kurdish party signals its desire to become a national political force, writes Cagri Ozdemir from Istanbul

Al-Ahram Weekly

The largest Kurdish political organisation in Turkey, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has decided to enter the upcoming June elections. In what is considered a surprising move, the party leadership now wants to challenge the ten per cent election threshold that prevents small parties from taking parliamentary seats.

Implemented during the military rule of the early 1980s, the aim of the threshold was to increase political stability by preventing the formation of fragile coalition governments. As opposed to the Kurdish political movement’s previous methods to gain parliamentary seats by fielding independent candidates and then forming party groups in the parliament, there are serious doubts about the party’s capability to surpass the election threshold.

“The threshold is not an obstacle for us. We will overcome this, as we have triumphed over similar barriers in Kobane,” Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the HDP, said last week. Demirtas’s performance during the August 2014 presidential elections demonstrated the HDP’s rising popularity, with Demirtas receiving 9.76 per cent of the vote.

But the party now runs the risk of being sidelined if it cannot succeed in its quest to get into parliament. The threshold, the highest percentage in the democratic world, has inhibited the parliamentary representation of sizeable populations in Turkey for years, especially Kurdish populations.

The most dramatic example of this was when around 45 per cent of the electorate could not be represented after the 2002 elections, when only the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) were able to enter parliament.

Though historically the threshold does not target the Kurdish political movement per se, the idea of preventing the formation of political parties on the basis of region or ethnicity has inadvertently affected Kurdish representation in parliament.

Fed up with the political prosecutions of the 1990s and early 2000s, Kurds managed to enter parliament in the last two general elections in 2007 and 2011 by securing votes for independent candidates in their stronghold of southeastern Turkey.

Since the end of military rule in Turkey in the early 1980s, many political parties have promised either the total eradication or the significant lowering of the election threshold. However, neither the AKP nor its predecessors has kept such promises.

Reasons behind the decision: Encouraged by Demirtas’s relative success during the presidential elections in Turkey last year, the HDP wants to transform itself from an ethnic- and region-oriented political party into an all-embracing centre-left party.

For many, including the party’s leadership, dissolution of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the predecessor of the HDP, and its amalgamation with the HDP is a reflection of the Kurdish political movement’s aim to become a nationwide advocate for the underrepresented masses who are fed up with the current government, as well as the opposition parties.

Like most of the protesting young people during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, the masses do not feel close to any of the four main parties in Turkey. The HDP is aiming to present itself as an alternative.

However, serious doubts about the party’s real leadership have bred suspicions. It allegedly takes orders from the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdish armed group, the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. Because of this, many Turks still do not fully believe in the party’s leftist and inclusive discourse.

In the early days of the HDP, Kurdish politician Orhan Miroglu did not deny the connection and claimed that the formation of a nationwide party was Ocalan’s idea. “He [Ocalan] is the mastermind of this new party, which is designed to be an umbrella political party,” Miroglu said.

According to HDP MP Idris Baluken, the party currently claims 10.5 per cent of the vote, a share that would allow it to send around 55 MPs to parliament. This number would obviously be a historic high, as the Kurdish political movement’s biggest success so far was to get 35 seats in the 2011 elections. After the elections, independent members formed the BDP group in parliament.

Such a scenario also raises the question of who will lose their seats. Given the HDP’s traditional votes in southeastern Turkey, the biggest loser would be the AKP, as the two other opposition parties have little presence in the region.

For polling experts like Ozer Sencar, director of the public polling agency Metropoll, the AKP will be the biggest loser if the HDP exceeds the threshold. As the AKP is the only rival party in the region, more than 20 of its seats would be reassigned to new HDP members, potentially reducing AKP seats to as low as 280.

The government party currently holds 312 seats in parliament, and it is hoping to increase this figure to at least 330, in order to freely work on a new constitution granting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the executive powers that he currently does not possess. The new constitution would also aim to solve the decades-old Kurdish issue by redefining key notions like Turkish citizenship and ethnic identity.

Real chances of success: Since the party’s decision, both AKP and HDP members have been speculating on the possible outcome of the elections. “I do not believe that they [the HDP] could get more than six to seven per cent of the vote,” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan said last week.

Referring to the HDP’s objective of attracting different left-leaning segments of society, Akdogan said, “They have their own contradictions, including marginal leftist factions and organisations. They would only be able to seek temporary votes from other parties.”

However, HDP members seem to be adamant about their decision. “We have to reach out to all four corners of Turkey.

We have to make way for democratic politics. If we cannot exceed the threshold, it is up to the government to deal with it,” Sirri Sakik, an HDP member and the mayor of the town of Agri, said.

It is too early to assess the end result of the HDP’s high-stakes game, but the party’s discourse appears to be based on rather negative campaigning. On the one hand, some HDP members emphasise a variety of dire scenarios if the party fails to surpass the threshold. On the other hand, they are seeking votes from a disillusioned electorate.

Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University and a long-time observer of the Kurdish political movement, says the HDP believes in its own potential and must defend its decision. He does not think that the party’s attitude is a negative one, but rather is a warning sign.

“Anyone who thinks the HDP could exceed the threshold should go and vote for it,” Sancar told the media outlet Middle East Eye. “I do not think that the HDP’s discourse is dismissive or consists of blackmail.”

According to prime ministerial advisor Etyen Mahcupyan, the only way for the HDP to secure more than ten per cent of the vote is in the hands of the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan.

“If the PKK lays down its arms upon a call from Ocalan, and if the leadership in the Qandil Mountains grasps this idea at the next stage of the ‘resolution process,’ then the HDP’s chances will increase,” Mahcupyan recently said at a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

However, if the HDP cannot get its members into parliament, the outcome could be beyond imagination. Demirtas reiterates that the loser in such an outcome would be the AKP, not the HDP, as the party is determined to press ahead with its own agenda in the aftermath. This could include consolidating the power of local administrations in the Kurdish southeast of the country.

According to Galip Dalay, research director of the Al-Sharq Forum, the HDP is pursuing two simultaneous strategies:

the first is to “expand” and transform itself into a nationwide left-wing party, and the second is to “deepen” its reach by establishing connections with Kurds who do not follow the BDP-HDP line by becoming more appealing to the Kurdish-populated regions.

“If they fail at the elections, the HDP would probably abandon the expansion strategy and focus on deepening,” Dalay told Middle East Eye. “This could lead them to pursue more radical strategies, including increasing efforts for democratic autonomy.”

Another outcome that is highly speculative, yet increasingly discussed in political circles, is that the PKK’s jailed leader and Erdogan will strike a hidden deal to keep the HDP out of parliament. This way the AKP would gain the necessary number of seats in parliament to be able to unilaterally change the constitution or call for a referendum.

In return, according to this line of thinking, with the new executive powers that will be given to Erdogan after the introduction of a new constitution, he would promise a more decentralised Turkey, or even a federal system in which the Kurds could enjoy the freedoms they have been demanding for years.

Dalay, however, believes that the Kurdish political movement is mature enough not to bite at such speculative bait. “I believe that the HDP has been a nationwide project since the first day of its establishment, and entering the election as a party has been one of its main objectives,” he said.

For Sancar, the scenario is baseless and against logic. “If the HDP had been planning to accept such a deal, it would not have launched a big election campaign in the first place,” he argued. “The problem will be that if the HDP is left out, the AKP will not be able to write and approve a new constitution without facing the consequences for legitimacy.”

What the outcomes of the speculative scenario may be remains to be seen, but for many observers the radicalisation of both sides could be one of them.

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