Turkish elections: High stakes for both Kurds and government

[Green Left Weekly, #1048, April 20, 2015]

Turkey's parliamentary elections will be held on June 7. A lot is at stake, both for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and especially for the oppressed Kurdish population.

The AKP, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, won 49% of the vote in the 2011 elections and today holds 312 of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly, Turkey's parliament. A Gezici poll taken in January suggests the AKP's support has slipped 9.7% to just under 40%.

The Kurdish-based People's Democratic Party (HDP), led by Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, is making headlines by a bold new tactic. Previously its candidates stood as independents, an approach which netted it 35 deputies in the last elections. But this time it is standing as a party, in all electoral districts.

If it crosses the extremely undemocratic 10% barrier it will gain extra MPs and become a recognised force in Turkish politics. Should it fall below this hurdle, it gets no deputies and its votes go as a bonus to the winning party (the AKP)!

There are plenty of critics who say the HDP is taking a risky gamble but a recent poll suggests otherwise. The April 5 Today's Zaman reported a Gezici survey taken at the end of March for Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, where Kurds make up 20% of the electorate. It put the HDP's support at 13.2%, a dramatic increase on the 5.3% it won there in 2011. Furthermore, the AKP had lost its majority support among Istanbul's Kurdish population.

What Erdogan wants

Erdogan used to be the Turkish prime minister but in August 2014 he became the country's first elected president and Davutoglu took over as prime minister. Erdogan's avowed aim in June is for the AKP to win a two-thirds plus majority to be able to alter the constitution by parliamentary vote and establish a much more centralised presidential system.

Whether the AKP can do this is very much in question. The AKP's dip in the polls, open internal tensions in the party and the rise of the HDP would all seem to count against the government gaining a sufficient majority. A majority of the public is opposed to a stronger presidency and even within the AKP voices have spoken against it. It is not even excluded that the AKP will fail to gain a majority in parliament and be forced to try to construct a coalition.

Tensions in the AKP

As president, Erdogan is supposedly above party politics but no one doubts he is the dominant figure in the AKP. He is an intensely polarising figure and recently unprecedented divisions in the AKP have been very much on display.

A key issue concerns the Kurds. The government says it is committed to negotiating a peace settlement with the Kurdish leadership — essentially the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned since 1999. Recently Davutoglu and the Kurds released a joint statement on the process.

At the same time Erdogan has been saying there is no Kurdish question in Turkey — it is all an issue manufactured abroad. This might play well with the AKP's hardcore conservative nationalist base but it appears way out of step with public opinion, a majority of which is in favour of negotiations.

Tribune of the oppressed

While the HDP's core support base lies in the downtrodden Kurdish population, it seeks to become the tribune of all those oppressed and discriminated against across Turkey — women, the large Alevi religious minority, the LGBTI community, workers and so on.

Recently the HDP officially lodged its list of election candidates. The broad and inclusive list reflects the party's objectives. According to the Firat News Agency, the list 'includes Armenians, Islamists, Alevis, workers, women, environmentalists, LGBT activists and representatives of all oppressed groups'.

The fact that 268 of its 550 candidates are women — just short of half — is a record for Turkey. The figures for the AKP and the conservative Republican People's Party (CHP) are below 20%.

One constituency that could play an important role in helping propel the HDP over the 10% hurdle is the Turkish-Kurdish diaspora. According to a March 30 article in Today's Zaman, the European diaspora vote will amount to 3-4% of the total. In Germany alone, 1.4 million people are eligible to vote in June.

Previously, with its candidates standing as independents, the HDP could not receive votes from the diaspora. But now that it is standing as a party, for the first time HDP supporters abroad will be able to vote directly for the party.

Ripples from Kobanê

The September-January siege of Kobanê, the Kurdish-majority town in northern Syria, by the 'Islamic State' gangs and the epic popular resistance has impacted on Turkish politics. The disgraceful role played by Erdogan and his government — his refusal to help the embattled Kurds and his clear preference for the Islamists — will undoubtedly weigh on the minds of many Kurds who previously would have voted for the AKP.

Coupled with this is the PKK's ongoing suspension of military action against the Turkish government and its push for serious negotiations to achieve an internal settlement. Öcalan wants the PKK to become a purely political movement, struggling for real Kurdish autonomy within a democratised Turkey.

This is the context in which the HDP has made its bold and courageous decision to contest the elections as a party. If it can surmount the electoral hurdle in June, Turkish politics will definitely be in new territory.