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Turkey’s Kurdish party at the threshold

Kurdish demonstrators gesture as Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the HDP, Turkey’s leading Kurdish party, addresses a crowd in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Oct. 9. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Turkey’s voters head to the polls June 7 in a critical test of the future of the country’s democratic system. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to be on course to win a fourth consecutive victory though, if polls are to be believed, without a supermajority in the parliament. What makes this election different from others in Turkish history is the critical role of a Kurdish party contesting elections for the first time, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The traditional leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has long positioned itself as the bulwark of secularism in Turkish politics, with an electoral ceiling of roughly 20 to 25 percent. Previous Kurdish parties have solely focused on Kurdish ethnic identity and long-standing grievances and have routinely been banned by Turkish courts, with independents rarely winning more than 5 percent.

This year’s election campaign has been different: It is the ruling AKP which has doubled down on religious and ethnic identity issues, while its opponents have scaled back their traditional attention to those concerns in favor of economic issues. The campaign trail has been dominated by the AKP’s Erdogan brandishing copies of the Koran proclaiming that he “was raised with Koran and have been living with it” and that the opposition has a “heretical mindset” and “nothing to do with religion.” Similarly, Erdogan has provocatively suggested that “Turkey does not have a Kurdish problem” while condemning the Kurdish “peace process” initiated by an AKP government led by Erdogan himself in late 2012. The AKP, in other words, has all but invited its opponents to pursue a secular, anti-religion or Kurdish ethnic identity oriented campaign.

Instead, opposition parties are veering away from identity politics, with the secular-religious divide and (Kurdish) ethnic identity taking backseat vis-à-vis bread and butter issues. Both CHP and HDP have emphasized a minimum wage on the campaign trail, with the CHP proposing a 50 percent increase in minimum wage from 1,000 Turkish liras ($380), per month to 1,500 liras ($569), two annual bonus pension payments and plans for a “mega city” to be the engine of economic production in Turkey. The HDP responded by proposing a minimum wage of 1,800 liras ($683) per month, while drawing attention to issues of corruption, gender equity and environmental protection.

In contrast to previous election campaigns, where aggressively secular or Kurdish electoral platforms alienated conservative Turkish voters, both parties have this year gone out of their way to avoid attacks on religion (CHP) or Turkish identity (HDP). It seems to be working, at least up to a point. According to a public opinion survey by HDP, the electorate, indeed, buys the change in HDP. While the share of voters who would “never” cast their vote for the HDP stood at 85 percent in August 2014, the same figure dropped to 15 percent in March 2015, an astonishing swing in such a short time. Another survey finds that those who want HDP to pass the electoral threshold rose from 18 percent in April 2015 to 50 percent in May. Personal interviews with the electorate support the findings in surveys. The perception of AKP’s “invincibility” has begun to fade, as the CHP and HDP chip away at AKP’s initial substantial lead in the polls. Recent public opinion surveys suggest that AKP hovers between 38 and 44 percent of the votes – far from its desired supermajority.

The biggest question is whether the HDP can clear the extraordinarily high 10 percent national threshold that the Turkish electoral law requires to win seats in the parliament. If it does, then the AKP’s ambitions to consolidate an increasingly authoritarian single party rule would be checked, and Turkey might finally make headway in solving its longstanding Kurdish problem. An HDP which cleared the 10 percent threshold would command a sizable minority representation in the parliament and prove itself as a worthy counterpart in negotiations. It would also be able to stand against Erdogan’s plans to establish a “Turkish-style” presidential system in Turkey.

This is not impossible. Conservative Kurds are moving away from AKP to HDP, especially after the Turkish government’s inaction in Kobani, Syria where Kurds faced a horrific fate at the hands of the Islamic State in October 2014 alienated many Kurds. In addition, HDP’s liberal discourse is particularly attractive among at least some secular voters who are also concerned about the party’s electoral prospects because the failure to clear the threshold would imply a prolonged, and possibly more authoritarian, AKP rule. Many recent polls put HDP above the threshold, usually between 10.4 percent and 11.4 percent, although a number of other polls put HDP below the threshold by a couple of points. HDP needs a slight push from secular Turks in Turkey’s west or conservative Kurds in the east who have consistently supported AKP in recent years to secure its parliamentary representation.

If HDP fails to eclipse the threshold, however, surveys suggest that the AKP, and not its rivals, would obtain most of the seats that HDP should have won as the next popular party. The difference between 9 percent and 10 percent for HDP could result in a swing as large as 60 to 70 seats for AKP. This is large enough of a difference to allow AKP to pass a constitutional amendment on presidentialism, with or without a referendum based on other parties’ performances. For AKP, keeping HDP below the threshold has become the unexpected key to victory.

This scenario could create its own problems, including possible tensions and violence in the country. Civil unrest and the creation of a “de facto autonomous Kurdish region” within Turkey are the more likely options for an HDP that falls short in the elections. Electoral defeat could also galvanize the HDP’s sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), which commands great presence in local governance across the eastern and southeastern provinces dominated by Kurds. This would likely involve a greater role for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose civil society activism and presence in local institutions has grown in recent years and could stand to benefit from the failure of a Kurdish party attempting to play by the Turkish government’s electoral rules.

Ultimately what is at stake is the long-running Kurdish question that looms large for many ethnic Kurds and Turks in the country. If HDP moves in a direction where “Türkiyelileşme” – roughly translated as the process of pursuing “a political future within Turkey” – rather than separatism reigns the party discourse, then the dynamics of the Kurdish question can change dramatically. HDP’s move away from a separatist discourse is a major sigh of relief for many. CHP and many in the right side of the political spectrum would be likely to support a peace process within a unitary Turkey framework. The party now adheres to a radical democratic discourse to solve the Kurdish question, which not only entails equality on the basis of ethnicity but also gender, socioeconomic status and religion.

In the long run, such a transformation might usher in genuine democratic consolidation in Turkey. On one hand, the Kurdish question’s security orientation is likely to change significantly. The decrease in the uncertainty surrounding the Kurdish side’s ultimate goals should allow better prospects for finding a political solution to the problem. On the other hand, public opinion has been a major concern for political parties as far as engaging in a political solution to the Kurdish issue goes. The trust deficit in terms of the Kurdish movement’s ultimate goals has permeated the nationalist mood that rules over the majority of the Turkish population. The move away from separatism on the Kurdish issue will enable non-Kurdish parties to have a freer hand in dealing with the Kurdish question. All of this depends on whether HDP manages to clear the fateful 10 percent threshold on the June 7 elections.

A.Kadir Yildirim is an assistant professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., where he teaches courses on comparative politics, politics of the developing world, Turkish politics and the Middle East. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow in regional political economy at Princeton University’s Niehaus Center.