A turning point for Turkey’s Kurds and parliamentary democracy

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *