Erdogan’s Kurdish Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost

The president's peace process with his country's Kurds could be the very thing that prevents him from coming out on top in the coming elections.

Supporters of People's Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a protest in Ankara on May 18, 2015 against the goverment and the twin attacks in southern Turkey. Twin bomb attacks hit the regional headquarters of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party in two cities, injuring more than half a dozen people and escalating tensions ahead of June 7 legislative elections. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of People's Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a protest in Ankara on May 18, 2015 against the goverment and the twin attacks in southern Turkey. Twin bomb attacks hit the regional headquarters of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party in two cities, injuring more than half a dozen people and escalating tensions ahead of June 7 legislative elections. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, revered and reviled in almost equal measure in Turkey, is at risk of becoming a victim of his own success. His political opponents, fearful of losing yet another election to him, have united around the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the upcoming parliamentary vote. And ironically, it is precisely Erdogan’s peace process with the Kurds that has made this coalition against him possible.

It is no secret that Erdogan is trying to amend the constitution to establish a presidential system. This will only be possible if the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins 330 seats or more, which will allow it to call for a referendum on the issue. The HDP — often affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), due to its politicians’ close ties with the organization — will be a game-changing actor in determining the distributions of seats in the Turkish parliament. If the HDP manages to pass the 10 percent threshold for representation in parliament, it will be almost impossible for the AKP to win enough seats to call for a referendum to amend the constitution.

The HDP has moved aggressively to appeal to voters beyond its traditional Kurdish base during the current campaign. The party’s supporters did not carry pictures of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan during a rally held in Istanbul on May 31, but rather held pictures of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk has always been a controversial figure among Kurds: As his biographer Andrew Mango wrote, the former president aligned government policy to the “assimilation of all the country’s citizens to Turkish culture.” Since the foundation of Turkey, there have been numerous Kurdish rebellions that aimed to protest or overthrow the Turkish Republic’s exclusionary ethnic politics and inhumane treatment of its own Kurdish citizens. The last Kurdish rebellion cost more than 30,000 lives after a 30-year armed conflict between the PKK and Turkish military.

But times are changing. After successive futile attempts to solve the Kurdish issue, the Erdogan-led government announced a comprehensive peace settlement. It involves direct talks with Ocalan, who some Turkish politicians have long called a “baby-killer,” and offers the country’s Kurdish population many of their long-denied political, cultural, and economic rights.

This peace initiative sparked harsh reactions among opposition. Turkish nationalism is the founding tenet of both the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — both of which have been reluctant to meet Kurdish demands and label the PKK as an illegitimate, terrorist organization. “Isn’t treason the lightest word?” Minister of Parliament Devlet Bahceli asked rhetorically about the peace talks — which he defined in 2014 as “plotting against the state and nation … and dynamiting our national unity and solidarity.”

In an ironic twist, however, these very same opponents of the peace process now see the HDP as the last hope to avert Erdogan’s goal of implementing a presidential system. The daily newspaper Hurriyet, for instance, runs the slogan “Turkey belongs to the Turks,” and has long been an adamant defender of the Turkish army’s oppressive and bloody campaign against the Kurds. Now, however, many of its columnists openly praise the HDP. Ahmet Hakan, probably the daily’s most popular columnist, described HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas’s stance against Erdogan as “creative, provocative, and impressive.”

This attempt to use the HDP to restrain Erdogan not only extends to domestic Turkish groups but to international outlets as well. The Economist asked Turks to vote for the Kurdish party in a recent editorial, saying “It is the best way of stopping their country’s drift towards autocracy.” It marks a strange break for a magazine that once backed conservatives like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and George W. Bush to throw its weight behind a socialist party in Turkey.

It’s a strange split, but pollsters suggest that the AKP will lose votes to both the HDP and the party most openly hostile to the Kurds. Nationalist AKP voters, frustrated with Erdogan’s opening to the Kurds, are inclined to switch their vote to the right-wing MHP, which is expected to increase its vote share to 16 percent from 14 percent in the 2011 parliamentary election. The HDP looks to gain as well with votes from two crucial blocs: Kurds who used to vote for the AKP in past elections and secular, middle-class Turks who are adamant about weakening the AKP.

The HDP and PKK have been quite successful in their campaign to convince Kurds that the Turkish government has supported the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates in their fight against Kurdish rebels in northern Syria. This campaign reached its zenith during the Islamic State’s siege of Kobani, when the HDP called on its supporters to stage street protests that turned into violent clashes between pro- and anti-PKK groups, which resulted in the deaths of about 50 people. This dynamic has pushed formerly pro-AKP Kurds into the HDP camp.

For urban, middle-class Turks, the peace process has finally made the HDP a viable option for expressing political opposition. The ceasefire that has accompanied the talks has allowed the HDP — which used to be banned due to its affiliation with the PKK — to distance itself from armed revolt and refashion the movement as a left-leaning, pro-democracy party. Demirtas, for instance, has taken a very sympathetic line toward the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which were celebrated by middle-class Turks as a “resistance” against AKP policies. While the HDP at the time took a more equivocal stance, Demirtas now emphasizes that the protests were a noble cause, in which deputies from the HDP actively took part. The party also released a statement on May 31, the second anniversary of the protests, accusing the government of suppressing those “who wanted to use their democratic rights” and saluting the Gezi movement as “the resistance that will shed light on the way to establish a democratic future.”

While this anti-Erdogan posture benefits the HDP, no one seems to be certain whether the party will pass the 10 percent electoral threshold necessary to win seats in Parliament or not. The polls estimate that the party will receive between 9 percent and 11 percent of the vote, with a margin of error around 2 percent. Demirtas told me earlier this year that his party credited its gains in past elections to Kurds who previously used to vote for the AKP — implying that urban, middle-class Turks remained loyal to their traditional party, the CHP. The HDP’s success in the upcoming election depends on its ability to make further gains within this voting bloc.

However, the HDP could also become the victim of its own success. If the AKP wins fewer than 275 seats, it will have to form a coalition government — and its most likely partner is the right-wing MHP. This does not necessarily mean an end to the peace process, but it will be more difficult for the new government to implement Kurdish demands due to the staunch nationalist agenda of the MHP.

The AKP has been running a smart campaign, which includes officials raising the alarm bell that the party’s votes have declined significantly and insinuating that there is therefore a possibility of a coalition government. Turkish people have a very traumatic memory regarding the coalition governments that dominated the 1990s and associate them with economic crises, political instability, and stagnation.

How this will play out on election day remains unclear. But William Shakespeare’s observation in his play, The Tempest, would no doubt sound familiar to Turkish politicians: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Ceren Kenar is an Istanbul-based journalist working for the Turkish daily Türkiye.