Down but not out: Turkey’s HDP as kingmaker?

Since the election that thrust the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) into Turkish parliament and the spotlight five years ago, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has done just about all it could to dismantle and destroy the party.

Yet despite its top politicians sitting in jail or ousted from their posts, observers believe the HDP could still play a major role in Turkey’s political future. 

Güneş Murat Tezcür, head of the Kurdish political studies program at the University of Central Florida, sees three main strategies of Kurdish nationalism: armed struggle; diplomacy and outreach; and domestic political initiatives that embrace democratic ideals and reach beyond the Kurdish community.

In Turkey, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has chased the first strategy, leading an insurgency in the country’s southeast for more than three decades. The PKK is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The HDP has taken on the third strategy, and to some extent the second, surging into parliament in June 2015 on a campaign that embraced unity and diversity. The AKP lost its parliamentary majority in that vote, and weeks later Ankara resumed its offensive against the PKK in southeast Turkey.

In the years since, the Turkish military has moved aggressively against Kurdish militants in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, while the Turkish state has pushed the HDP nearly to the point of dissolution. More than 100 elected mayors across the east and southeast have been dismissed, thousands of party members have been arrested and dozens of top HDP officials charged with terrorism links and sent to jail.

Former co-leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş has been in prison for more than three and a half years. The latest blow to the HDP came last week, when a Turkish court sent nearly 70 Kurdish politicians to prison for links to the PKK. 

Tezcür said the HDP had suffered and remains open to attack because it has links to the PKK. Once the PKK took shape in the late 1970s, the Kurdish movement became increasingly intertwined with violence and was seen by the mid-1980s as a threat to citizens and the state.

Starting in 2013, the PKK-government peace process gave the HDP the space to reach out to Turkish progressives and emerge in the public consciousness as peaceful, open-minded and democratic.

“The HDP played an important role in that process,” Bestoon Khalid, Suleymaniyah-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval in a podcast. “At that time, nobody was putting HDP members into prison, they were not charging Demirtaş with terrorism.”

When clashes resumed between the state and the PKK in July 2015, the HDP was put in what Tezcür describes as an impossible position. This is largely because many HDP leaders have some link to militancy, such as a relative in the PKK, like Nurettin Demirtaş, Selahattin’s older brother. Many Kurdish politicians have over the years drawn terrorism charges just for going to the funeral of a loved one.

“PKK militants mostly come from the people who are active supporters of the HDP, so from their perspective it is a natural thing to attend the funerals of these people,” said Tezcür. “I believe the HDP has an autonomous position. But they come as a package, in a sense; the HDP can’t completely separate itself from the PKK.”

Khalid countered that there are families in southeast Turkey who have a son in the PKK and another in the Turkish military, which should potentially open the Turkish army to terrorism charges, according to the state’s thinking.

“It’s not that the HDP has an organic connection to the PKK. It’s that the Turkish propaganda machine is very strong and has created this image of HDP having its roots in the PKK,” he said. “They are using this image to put the pro-Kurdish HDP politicians in prison.”

Tezcür sees two ways the HDP might be able to gain more than the 12 or 13 percent national support that appears to be its limit today. The first is a successful peace process that leads to the PKK putting down its arms and the Kurdish movement in Turkey renouncing violence. The second is the Turkish state completely defeating the insurgency and eradicating the PKK. 

“Once the insurgency is defeated it may establish a political climate under which the HDP and the more non-violent aspects of Kurdish politics become more predominant,” he said. “From my perspective, neither of them looks very realistic.”

Though unlikely to disappear anytime soon, the PKK may today be the weakest it has been in decades, thanks in part to the July 2016 coup attempt, which gave the state licence to crack down on even the slightest hint of dissent.

A year later Turkey instituted a new presidential system that made coalition governments much less likely. According to Tezcür, it is now almost impossible for a Kurdish politician to become a top government official, such as a minister, because this was only going to happen under a coalition government.

“There was a real chance the HDP could become a parliamentary partner,” he said. “Under the new presidential system that’s not the case.”

Yet he did see a silver lining, which emerged during last year’s local elections when the opposition alliance of the Republican People’s Party and the Good Party called on the HDP for support, and rode that Kurdish backing to significant victories. This may also be a result of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s famously polarising political discourse.

“The system becomes so polarised it creates greater incentives for opposition forces to try to recruit the help of the Kurdish movement so they can get more than 50 percent of the vote and defeat the ruling coalition,” said Tezcür. “It still gives some kind of opening for the Kurdish movement to become a kingmaker in Turkish politics.”