The Turkish Opposition’s Secret Weapon
A charismatic new leader could help the Kurds to a breakthrough in Turkey’s parliamentary election. He's already giving headaches to President Erdogan.
On May 11, Turkey’s pro-government press reported that Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), had been spotted eating pork last summer in Germany. This is no minor accusation in an increasingly conservative Muslim country. The “revelation” came two days after Turkish police raided Demirtas’s house in Diyarbakir – “by mistake,” a police spokesman later asserted. Just for good measure, a top government official recently described Demirtas as a “part-time terrorist.”
The government has good reason to feel skittish. After years in which the Kurds have played a relatively marginal role in Turkish electoral politics, Demirtas and his party are suddenly poised to offer a powerful challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party in the parliamentary election set for this Sunday (June 7). While the Kurds may find it hard to crack the absolute parliamentary majority of Erodgan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), a strong showing for the HDP could allow them to assume a crucial spoiler role in post-election maneuverings — namely by thwarting Erdogan’s plan to push Turkey farther down the road to autocracy.
Erdogan wants to transform Turkey’s political system into a strong presidential republic with himself at the helm. To do that will mean amending the constitution, which in turn requires a three-fifths majority in parliament (330 seats out of a total of 550). Over the past two decades, the rise of Erdogan and his immensely popular AKP have made life difficult for Turkey’s fractious opposition, which consists of three main parties that have rarely managed to find common cause. Marshaling effective resistance to Erdogan’s agenda is additionally complicated by Turkey’s election law, which sets a high bar (10 percent of the vote) for political parties wishing to enter parliament.
In the past, the Kurdish party had little chance of reaching the threshold; some Kurds ran as individuals, on independent tickets, but their influence in parliament was correspondingly diluted. Most observers of Turkey’s political scene were correspondingly skeptical when the HDP announced that it would contest the election as a party this time around. Yet they apparently didn’t reckon with Demirtas, whose skillful leadership has enabled him to transcend his party’s traditional limitations and to shake up the political establishment like few other opposition leaders in recent memory.
Demirtas has managed to capture the imagination of many liberal Turks who are desperately in search for a strong opposition leader. He’s young, focused, and has an astute sense of humor, deftly poking fun at Erdogan’s penchant for turning even the most remotely political event into a campaign rally.
All this makes for a stark contrast with the old HDP and its predecessors, which had exclusively Kurdish platforms that never allowed them to emerge from the “ethnic box.” Demirtas has changed all that by working to widen the party’s political base. Under his leadership the HDP has become more inclusive, fielding many Turkish candidates and making significant inroads into the mainstream Turkish electorate. Having run a highly effective (though ultimately unsuccessful) campaign against Erdogan in last year’s presidential election, Demirtas has thus managed to capitalize on the disarray of the other traditional opposition parties. He has even succeeded in improving the HDP’s showing in western Turkey, where there are relatively few ethnic Kurds.
In the coming election Demirtas will be banking in particular on the support of so-called “strategic voters.” These are Turks who aren’t natural supporters of his party but whose genuine dislike for the AKP and its authoritarian designs moves them to vote for the HDP.
Unnerved by the party’s rise, the HDP’s opponents are pulling out all the stops. So far more than 60 HDP election offices have been burned down and two major HDP offices bombed, leaving a handful injured. HDP rallies are routinely attacked by the mob. Demirtas and the HDP leadership have received death threats. Not a single person responsible for these attacks has been apprehended, suggesting that the attacks are condoned by certain quarters within the government. The objective of these provocations is clear: To provoke the Kurds into retaliating. This would enable the authorities to link the HDP to violence, thus alienating the party from moderate voters in the west. So far, fortunately, the party’s supporters have widely opted for restraint. Even so, there is clearly a risk of further provocations in the run-up to election day.
Undaunted, Demirtas’s party is currently polling between 9.2 percent and 11.5 percent, an improvement of more than 50 percent over its performance in the 2011 election. Apart from the “strategic vote,” the HDP has also benefited from a dramatic shift among conservative, religious Kurds. Many of them used to vote for the AKP, whose Islamist platform appealed to them more than the secular nationalism of the HDP. But they have been strongly disillusioned by Erdogan’s reluctance to aid Kurdish forces in the Syrian civil war, especially during the Kurds’ fight against the forces of Islamic State in the key city of Kobani earlier this year. As a result, many of the ruling party’s Kurdish voters appear to be switching to the HDP.
That is exactly what makes Erdogan nervous. If the HDP manages to pass the threshold, the AKP is likely to lose 45 to 60 seats in the new parliament. It’s even possible that the AKP could lose its long-held majority. Either way, such a shift in the balance of power in parliament would prevent Erdogan from realizing his dreams of a wholesale transformation of the political system. The HDP would be in a position to block any of the president’s plans for amending the constitution.
It’s been a long time since the ruling party seen such a threat to its dominance at the ballot box. For more than a decade the AKP benefited from weak leadership among its opponents. Neither the main opposition Republican People’s Party nor the smaller Nationalist Action Party has proved capable of winning an election in the last thirteen years.
Erdogan has responded to the HDP’s remarkable rise by taking direct charge of the AKP election campaign (a rebuff to the party’s nominal leader, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu). In a clear breach of the constitution, which calls for a non-partisan president, Erdogan has been campaigning on a daily basis, lashing out against Demirtas and the HDP whenever he can. At one public rally in the Kurdish southeast he waved a Quran at the crowd, insisting that he and his party are the only true Muslims in this race – and that the others (especially the HDP) are not. Such blatant exploitation of the sacred book at a political rally is a novelty in Turkish politics.
That said, a good number of Turkish voters remain skeptical about the HDP’s true colors. For many Turks the party’s links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish state and many Turks still consider as a terrorist organization, remain a major concern. Until recently, moreover, the HDP leadership enjoyed relatively good relations with the AKP. Many Turks are correspondingly concerned that the HDP might strike a deal with Erdogan once the election is over. Such a deal would entail HDP support for Erdogan’s plans for a strong presidency in exchange for Kurdish autonomy. Recognizing the danger, Demirtas has repeatedly denied such a possibility, assuring skeptics that his party has no intention of forming a coalition with the Islamists. Even so, doubts remain.
Election fraud is another concern. Memories of the 2014 local elections, which were marked by many cases of government interference in the vote-counting process, remain fresh. There are also widespread concerns about pro-government sympathies within the national election commission. As a result, during this election the opposition will be closely monitoring ballot box security, vote counts, and data entry. The fact that the HDP is so close to the 10 percent threshold gives extra urgency to the worries about possible fraud.
The June 7 parliamentary election will mark yet another key milestone in Turkey’s fragile democracy. For many decades the Kurds and the Islamists, both important but marginalized constituencies, shared the status of political outcasts. In recent years, Turkey’s Islamists have shifted that balance by rising to become the dominant political force. What an irony it will be if the Kurds prove to be the only ones capable of saving Turkey from the wrath of authoritarian Islamism.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images