BACKGROUND: In previous general elections, members of pro-Kurdish parties had stood as independents in order to overcome the 10 per cent national threshold for candidates representing political parties. In the general election of June 12, 2011, the HDP’s predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), fielded 61 candidates standing as independents who received a total of 2.47 million votes, 5.8 per cent of the total of 42.94 million valid votes cast. Other independent candidates took 347,000 votes. The election was won by the AKP with 21.40 million votes (49.8 per cent of the total valid votes cast), ahead of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which took 11.16 million votes or 26.0 per cent, and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) with 5.59 million votes or 13.0 per cent.
In 2011, the BDP fielded candidates in electoral districts with high concentrations of ethnic Kurds, such as in eastern Anatolia, and urban areas in the west of the country which are home to large communities of first and second generation Kurdish migrants. In 2011, the 23 largely Kurdish provinces in eastern and southeastern Anatolia accounted for 1.67 million, or 67.7 per cent, of all of the votes for BDP-backed candidates.
The Gezi Park Protests of summer 2013 transformed the Turkish political landscape, galvanizing a large proportion of the country’s previously largely apolitical urban educated youth and accelerating Erdoğan’s descent into an abrasive and socially divisive authoritarianism – which in turn dealt a fatal blow to his already deteriorating international reputation. Critically, the Gezi Park Protests occurred at a time when the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose supporters invariably vote for Kurdish nationalist parties such as the BDP/HDP, had suspended its insurgency after announcing a unilateral ceasefire on March 23, 2013. The combination of the absence of PKK violence, Erdoğan’s polarizing rhetoric – in which he portrayed all critics or opponents of the AKP as part of an improbably vast conspiracy – and empathy generated by experiencing the police brutality that had previously been largely directed at Kurdish protestors helped soften the attitudes of many Turks towards Kurdish nationalist parties. Although the consequences are difficult to quantify in electoral terms, the same factors also had a noticeable impact on attitudes towards Kurdish political parties in the non-AKP media. Even if they remained anathema to Turkish ultranationalists, the BDP/HDP started to move from the margins to the mainstream of public discourses.
The change could be seen in the August 10, 2014, presidential election. In what was, by Turkish standards, a low turnout of 74 percent, Erdoğan was elected president with 51.8 per cent of the vote. In the general elections of 2007 and 2011, the AKP had increased both the number and its share of votes when compared with the previous election. However, even though the electorate had grown by 2.89 million in the meantime, Erdoğan’s total of 21.0 million votes on August 10, 2014 was less than the AKP had received in 2011, suggesting that either his popularity or his ability to mobilize his supporters was in decline. Significantly, the HDP’s presidential candidate, party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, won 3.96 million votes, or 9.8 per cent, suggesting that the HDP’s appeal had begun to expand beyond its traditional base.
The same trends can be seen in the results of the June 7, 2015 general election. Despite being theoretically constitutionally bound to remain equidistant from all political parties, Erdoğan campaigned vigorously for the AKP in the run-up to the poll. Yet the AKP lost ground in terms of both raw numbers and percentages, receiving 18.35 million votes or 40.7 per cent of the total vote. In contrast, the HDP comfortably overcame the 10 per cent threshold, winning 5.85 million votes or 13.0 per cent of the total of 45.12 million valid votes cast.
IMPLICATIONS: During the election campaign, the HDP pursued a dual strategy, targeting conservative Sunni Kurds – many of whom had previously voted for the AKP – by stressing its respect for religious lifestyles in the east of the country and appealing to liberal Turks – such as those who would otherwise have been expected to vote for the CHP -- in the west. Both of these apparently disparate campaigns were largely dependent for their success on the PKK maintaining its ceasefire. Although there is no organizational overlap, many in the HDP are regarded as being ideologically close to the PKK. The PKK’s ceasefire enabled the HDP to retain the support of outright PKK sympathizers while reaching out to those who were prepared to tolerate the party’s links with an organization that had been violent in the past but could have baulked at voting for the HDP if the PKK had been actively engaged in violence in Turkey in the present. However, although it undoubtedly occurred, it would a mistake to regard the difference between the BDP and HDP votes in 2011 and 2015 as being purely the result of a shift in personal allegiances. Generational factors probably also played a part, particularly given what appears have been a strong level of support for the HDP amongst the estimated 3 million first-time voters.
In the June 7 election, the 23 largely Kurdish provinces in eastern and southeastern Turkey again provided the bulk of support for the HDP at 3.21 million votes. However, not only was this far short of the 4.51 million the HDP needed to enter parliament but, at 55 per cent, the region accounted for a much lower proportion of the HDP’s total vote than the 67.7 per cent of the BDP’s vote in 2011. The HDP’s presence on the ballot paper in every province in June 2015 meant that it was able to pick up votes in areas in which the BDP had not fielded candidates in 2011. However, these made only a very minor contribution to the HDP’s total vote. Much more striking was the growth in HDP votes in areas outside the Kurdish heartlands where the BDP had fielded candidates in 2011.
For example, in 2011, the three BDP candidates in Istanbul won a total of 357,000 votes. In 2015, the HDP received 1.07 million votes in Istanbul. In Ankara, the HDP received 183,000 votes, compared with 7,210 for the BDP candidates in 2011. In Izmir the HDP won 286,000 votes in 2015, up from 98,000 for the BDP candidates in 2011. There was a similar trend in many other provinces in western Turkey. For example, in both Bursa and Antalya, in 2015 the HDP received four times as many votes as the BDP had won in 2011. In Antalya the HDP/BDP vote increased from 24,000 to 97,000 and in Bursa it rose from 25,000 to 105,000.
It is impossible to ascribe all of these changes merely to an upsurge in Kurdish nationalist sentiment. Indeed, in percentage terms, the largest changes almost all occurred in areas outside the Kurdish heartlands. The only explanation is that, even if they only account for a small proportion of the electorate as a whole, a significant number of Turks also voted for the HDP on June 7. What is currently unclear is how many did so out of conviction and how many voted tactically to try to weaken the AKP and reduce the possibility of the party securing a large enough parliamentary majority to introduce Erdoğan’s presidential system.
There is no doubt that, in terms of its grassroots support, the HDP remains a Kurdish nationalist party and includes a large proportion of PKK sympathizers. However, in the June 7 election, the 23 largely Kurdish provinces accounted for 7.0 million, or 15.5 per cent, of the total votes cast. To put it another way, 84.5 per cent of the votes came from outside the Kurdish heartlands. Even though it appears to have made inroads into the AKP’s traditional constituency amongst pious Sunni Kurds, the HDP’s appeal in what has long been the most conservative region of Turkey is always going to be constrained by the party’s highly secular leadership and its very liberal social agenda – including, for example, its strong advocacy of homosexual rights. As long as Turkey maintains its 10 per cent threshold, the Kurdish heartlands alone are unlikely to be sufficient to ensure the HDP enters parliament.
Indeed, it is often argued in Turkey that the real threshold is probably closer to 12 per cent. Although volunteer election monitoring organizations – themselves largely a byproduct of the Gezi Park Protests – have now become very active, election fraud remains a major concern and certainly occurred in some areas in the March 30, 2014 local elections in Turkey. But the assumption in Turkey is that it can only be used to adjust a result by 1-2 percentage points without becoming obvious. Perhaps as important as whether it actually occurs is the fear that it might. As a result, the HDP is unlikely to want to risk its vote falling much below the level it achieved in the June 2015 election.
CONCLUSIONS: The HDP is currently still flushed with the euphoria of entering parliament, but it faces a number of challenges over the months ahead. Although the AKP is hopeful of forming a coalition with the CHP or MHP, few expect such a government to be very long-lived. If the negotiations collapse, then there may even be an early election in November 2015. Although he is likely to try to use his still considerable influence to ensure his continued de facto domination of Turkish politics, there is a general sense in Turkey that Erdoğan’s dreams of introducing a formal autocratic system are over and cannot be revived – which means that at the next election the HDP risks losing the tactical votes that were designed merely to thwart Erdoğan’s ambitions. Even it retains them, the HDP is going to find it difficult to replicate the balancing act that it performed in the run-up to the June 7 election, seeking to attract conservative Sunni voters in the east and liberal voters in the west – and, if it is to be sure of re-entering parliament, it needs both.
Perhaps most critical is whether the HDP can use its presence in parliament to deliver on its core support’s demands for greater Kurdish political and cultural rights. There is currently no sign that a AKP-led coalition will be prepared to make the necessary concessions, particularly if it fears an election is imminent. Yet, without such concessions, it is going to be very difficult for the HDP to continue to argue – as it did throughout the election campaign – that the way for Kurds to achieve their goals is through the political process rather than resorting to violence.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Boris Ajeganov)