Thursday, 27 October 2022

Demirtaş, the HDP and the Kurdish political movement’s struggle for relevance Featured

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By Gareth Jenkins

October 27, 2022

Turkey’s Kurds have the potential to play a key role in Turkey’s forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, which are due to be held in June 2023 at the latest. Their votes could be critical to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hopes of securing a third term as president and are likely to determine whether the alliance between his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) retains its parliamentary majority. But, with most of its leaders in prison or facing prosecution, its members expelled from virtually all of the local authorities they won in the last local elections and its main political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), facing closure by the Constitutional Court, the Kurdish political movement faces a major challenge in persuading its supporters of the relevance of casting their votes. The 2023 elections could be decided not so much by who Kurds vote for but how many go to the polls.

 

Turkey election flags big-2 

 

BACKGROUND: 

On September 24th 2022, the HDP and five left-wing parties announced the formation of an alliance ahead of the next elections, called the Emek ve Özgürlük İttfakı (“Labor and Freedom Alliance”). 

In theory at least, the HDP is itself an alliance, as the political wing of the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), which has 37 constituent members, including political parties, NGOs and media outlets. However, almost all are extremely small. In practice, both the HDK and the HDP are dominated by members of the Kurdish political movement. 

The Labor and Freedom Alliance is far from the first electoral partnership that the HDP has formed with left-wing parties. Although they contribute little to the party in terms of votes, such alliances enable the HDP to try to divert attention away from its widespread image as a single-issue party – namely its support for Kurdish rights and freedoms – to its broader left-wing policy agenda. Nevertheless, junior members of the HDP-led alliances have sometimes expressed their frustration at what they regard as the party’s excessive focus on the Kurdish issue.

Nor do such alliances appear to have any impact on how the HDP is regarded by its diehard detractors, who tend to view it as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been conducting an armed insurgency for greater Kurdish rights since 1984. Such accusations are an over-simplification. There is no doubt that some members of the HDP are sympathetic to the PKK, especially amongst its low-level activists, and that some even in the higher echelons of the party look to the organization for instruction and advice. Indeed, much of the HDP’s policy program is based on the concept of “democratic autonomy” formulated by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK and its sole ideologue.

It is also true that the PKK operates covert networks within the HDP – again, mostly in the party’s lower echelons – which help facilitate both recruitment to the organization and the movement of funds, individuals and materiel. However, there are also individuals in the HDP who are alienated by the PKK’s often brutal use of violence and resent the organization’s attempts to dictate to and control the party.

In practice, the PKK has always been fighting a two-front war: one against the Turkish state and the other for dominance of the Kurdish political movement – including seeking to infiltrate and control NGOs active in predominantly Kurdish areas or among the Kurdish diaspora abroad, and sometimes resorting to physical intimidation and even assassination against its perceived rivals. 

The PKK’s attempts to monopolize the Kurdish political movement have undoubtedly benefited from the Turkish state’s predilection for equating any assertion of Kurdish identity with support for an outlawed terrorist organization and repeatedly closing down pro-Kurdish parties and NGOs. Between the state and the PKK, there is little room left for those who seek to act independently of both. While the frequency and vigor with which the Turkish authorities have suppressed non-violent calls for greater Kurdish rights have persuaded many Kurds that the state’s real target is not “terrorism” but Kurdishness.

There is also – even amongst some of the organization’s committed supporters – still anger and dismay at the PKK for bringing its insurgency into the cities in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country in late 2015 and early 2016 in the knowledge that doing so would trigger a brutal response from the Turkish security forces. The muted reaction to the resultant devastation, including the targeting by the security forces of non-combatants, also dealt a devastating blow to many Kurds’ faith in the intentions of the “liberal Turks” who had voted for the HDP in the June 2015 general election – and has created a widespread suspicion that they did so, not out of any concern for Kurdish rights and freedoms but simply in order to try to deny Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority.

IMPLICATIONS: Even though he has been imprisoned since November 2016 on charges of affiliation with the organization, the relationship between Selahattin Demirtaş – the former HDP Co-Chair and still the most high-profile member of the Kurdish political movement – and the PKK has long been strained. This is well-known not only in the Kurdish political movement but also in the Turkish security forces, who closely monitor the HDP and PKK through technical surveillance and the cultivation of networks of informers. 

Demirtaş’s public popularity, his refusal to consult with the organization before taking decisions and his repeated calls for Kurds to pursue their goals through the political process are a challenge both to the PKK’s claim to leadership of the Kurdish political movement and to its use of violence. In August 2015, Demirtaş infuriated the organization by paying a condolence visit to the family of a Turkish soldier killed by the PKK – and was castigated by the PKK leadership in the organization’s media outlets. More recently, on September 27, 2022, Demirtaş publicly condemned a PKK suicide attack the previous day against a police station in the eastern Mediterranean city of Mersin, which resulted in the deaths of one police officer and the two female assailants. 

Yet there appears little prospect of such statements resulting in a relaxation of the pressure on the HDP – especially now that Erdoğan has become dependent for his political survival on support from the AKP’s ally, the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

The Constitutional Court has already begun hearing the closure case against the HDP, increasing the likelihood that the party will be outlawed – and the 451 members named in the indictment banned from politics – before the 2023 elections. On April 6, 2022, amendments to the Election Law, which governs parliamentary elections, were published in the Official Gazette. The changes make it almost impossible for a recently founded party to field candidates in a parliamentary election – thus preventing any successor party to the HDP running in 2023, regardless of whether or not it joins the Labor and Freedom Alliance.

Under Turkish law, any amendments to the Election Law cannot be applied to an election held less than twelve months after the changes have been published in the Official Gazette. Erdoğan thus has an incentive to use his influence over the Constitutional Court to ensure that the HDP is outlawed in late 2022 or early 2023 and then hold elections after mid-April 2023.

The AKP is the second most popular party in southeast Turkey and would be the main beneficiary if the HDP, or its successor party, were to be unable to participate in the 2023 elections. The Kurdish political movement could, as it has done in the past, field candidates as independents. But this would raise some practical problems. So many of the most prominent members of the movement have either already been barred from standing or face imminent bans that the candidates would be largely unknown to voters. Nor, as independents, could they identify themselves on the ballot paper through the use of a party logo.

Motivating HDP supporters to go the polls at all could also be a significant challenge. When they have done so in the past, their elected candidates in local elections have almost all been subsequently removed from their posts by the government and replaced with Erdoğan loyalists, while their elected parliamentary deputies have either already been imprisoned or face prosecution. 

Even if a verdict in the HDP closure case is delayed, the party still has little show for years of engagement in the political process. It has not even been able to prevent its elected members being removed from office and thousands more of its supporters being prosecuted and imprisoned, much less secure tangible progress in terms of Kurdish rights and freedoms. Indeed, since Erdoğan’s crackdown following the still largely unexplained failed coup attempt of July 2016, the situation of the Kurds in Turkey has arguably become worse. Yet there is little appetite for a return to the past levels of violence, much less the trauma and devastation of the fighting in the cities in 2015-2016. 

CONCLUSIONS: Regardless of what happens in the closure case, many pro-HDP Kurds will undoubtedly still go to the polls in the 2023 parliamentary elections and vote for their own candidates, albeit more in a stubborn assertion of their own identity than hope in a better future. But any decline in the turnout, particularly if it is combined with the closure of the HDP, would hand the AKP more seats in southeast Turkey. Even if these were not sufficient to enable the AKP-MHP to retain control of parliament, they would reduce any majority by what are currently the opposition parties – and thus put even more strain on what, at best, is a very fractious alliance of parties with divergent policy agendas. 

There is also a high probability that, in order to be able to outvote the AKP-MHP in the new parliament, the other members of what is currently the opposition would have to cooperate with any Kurdish deputies in the assembly – something that would be difficult for the Turkish nationalist wing of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and anathema for its primary partner, the Good Party (IP).

Kurdish votes are likely to be even more critical to the outcome of the presidential election, especially if – as currently seems likely – it goes to a second-round run-off one week later between Erdoğan and the main opposition candidate. Although no announcement has yet been made, this currently appears almost certain to be CHP Chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu – who opinion polls suggest is by far the weakest of Erdoğan’s most likely potential rivals.

Although the CHP has recently made efforts to try to reach out to Turkey’s Kurds, its historical legacy, particularly its role in the often violent suppression of Kurdish identity, has meant that it is still struggling for electoral traction in the southeast. As a result, although Kurdish votes are likely to be vital to any hope Kılıçdaroğlu may have of defeating Erdoğan, persuading Kurds to go to the polls to vote for him in a second round of the presidential election is likely to be a major challenge. In the 2019 mayoral elections in Istanbul, HDP supporters living in the city voted overwhelmingly for Ekrem İmamoğlu, the CHP’s ultimately successful candidate. But their support has not been rewarded with any discernible shift in the CHP’s stance on the Kurdish issue. While many Kurds are still resentful of the way that they feel they were used by Erdoğan’s Turkish opponents in June 2015 – and discarded once the AKP had been stripped of its parliamentary majority. The 2023 elections could be decided not so much by who Kurds vote for but how many go to the polls.

 

 

Gareth Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.


 

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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