Turkey: High stakes for Kurds and Erdogan in coming poll

April 12, 2015

A lot is at stake in Turkey’s parliamentary elections to be held on June 7 — for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as the oppressed Kurdish population.

The AKP, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won 49% of the vote in the 2011 elections and holds 312 of the 550 seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. 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, is making headlines with a bold new tactic. Previously its candidates stood as independents, an approach which netted it 35 deputies in the last election.

But this time it is standing as a party, in all electoral districts.

If it crosses the 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 — most likely the AKP.

Critics 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 for Istanbul, 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 in the city in 2011.

Furthermore, the AKP had lost its majority support among Istanbul’s Kurdish population.

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 two-thirds majority.

Most of the public is opposed to a stronger presidency and even within the AKP voices have spoken against it. The AKP may also fail to win a simple majority in parliament and be forced into a coalition.

As president, Erdogan is supposedly above party politics, but no one doubts he is the AKP's dominant figure. Recently, however, unprecedented divisions in the AKP have been on display.

A key issue concerns the Kurds. The government says it is committed to negotiating a peace settlement with Kurdish leaders — essentially the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Ocalan, jailed since 1999. Recently the government and 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, most of which is in favour of negotiations.

The HDP’s core support base lies in the downtrodden Kurdish population, but it seeks to become the tribune of all those oppressed and discriminated against across Turkey. This includes women, the large Alevi religious minority, the LGBTI community, workers and others.

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

Of its 550 candidates, 268, or just under half, are women — a record for Turkey. The figure for the AKP is below 20%.

One constituency that could play an important role in propelling the HDP over the 10% hurdle is the Turkish-Kurdish diaspora.

A March 30 article in Today’s Zaman said 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.

The September-January siege of Kobane, 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 voted for the AKP.

This comes amid the PKK’s ongoing suspension of military action against the Turkish government and its push for serious negotiations to achieve an internal settlement.

Ocalan 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 decision to contest the elections as a party. If it can surmount the electoral hurdle in June, Turkish politics will be in new territory.

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