Return of violence, lack of answers torpedo Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party

The Kurdish political movement that began in the 1990s peaked when the Kurdish-led, pro-minority Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) won 80 seats in parliament with 13 percent of the vote in June 2015 general elections. In a repeat vote five months later, the HDP won just 59 seats and 10.7 percent of the vote, euphoria gave way to disappointment and the party has since struggled to stay relevant in Turkish politics.

Analysts believe the decline started soon after the June 2015 elections, with the collapse of the peace process the party helped mediate between the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government.

Vahap Coşkun, of Dicle University in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, said the two-and-a-half-year truce that ended in July 2015 had led to a more open discussion about Kurdish separatists and their demands and boosted the HDP's popularity.

"The Kurdish political parties could only get 6 to 7 percent of the popular vote until the HDP won 13 percent,” he said. “The peace process strengthened the HDP and helped the party reach and appeal to a larger part of the population. But the minute the guns were drawn, the HDP started losing its appeal."

That happened on July 20, 2015, when an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomber hit a cultural centre in the town of Suruç, near the Syrian border, killing 32 and wounding more than 100. The PKK called the attack an aggression.

Days later, on July 24, the Turkish military initiated a large-scale military operation against both the PKK and the Islamic State (ISIS) that crushed hopes for keeping the peace process alive. The HDP found itself caught in the middle as the PKK, which had long fought a rural guerrilla campaign, shifted the fight to city centres.

"The PKK's urban warfare tactics significantly deteriorated the HDP's potential to grow both in the Kurdish majority regions and across the country in general," said Coşkun. "Yet the HDP failed to question or self-criticise its own failing policies."

A September 2015 survey by pollster Gezici found that 45 percent of Turks held the presidency responsible for the resumption of violence, while 40 percent blamed it on the HDP. In the November vote, the HDP's share fell and has since hovered right around 10 percent -- the threshold needed to take up seats in parliament.

Following the failed coup of July 2016, the government began a crackdown on the HDP, even though the party was not accused of any involvement in the attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On Nov. 4, 2016, police arrested the HDP's charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, along with his co-chair, Figen Yüksekdağ, and 12 more HDP members of parliament. The government also used powers under the state of emergency following the attempted coup to take over HDP municipalities and remove elected mayors. Thousands of HDP members were arrested.

Coşkun believes that despite the government's hostile attitude towards HDP, the party needed to transform and adapt to the new situation to produce better policy solutions for the Kurdish problem. "The state adopted a strategy against HDP, arrested its co-chairs, disbanded their organisation, pressured non-governmental organisations close to the HDP,” he said. “But in my opinion, the HDP did not do enough to revamp its national policies."

The loss of Demirtaş also hurt the party. "The HDP has a two-part problem: the first is that no other politician could achieve Demirtaş's popularity; the other problem is the perception that the party was actively trying to reduce Demirtaş' popularity," Coşkun said.

"As the government tries to undermine party visibility by arresting its co-chairs and preventing the widely popular Demirtaş from communicating with his electorate, the HDP needs to try and do more to update their ideas and policies.

"The main problem they need to address is the escalation of violence," Coşkun continued. "The HDP today defines itself with its willingness to embrace different identities and promoting ethnic and cultural diversity. But the question is whether violence has a place in this effort or not. If the goal is to democratise Turkey, then they need to take a clear stance against violence."

The HDP needs to resolve these problems before local elections in March. "The process of nominating candidates has just started. The HDP, as a pro-minority party, is in contact with diverse segments of society. They need to develop their own candidate profile and promote new service-oriented policies for the local elections," he said.

The spokesperson of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, lawyer Sıdkı Zilan, believes that both the government and the HDP bear responsibility for the collapse of the peace process, but the HDP has ended up paying the price.

“The HDP was the product of the peace process. When the process collapsed their popularity collapsed as well,” Zilan said. But the real issue, he said, was division among Kurds. "Different Kurdish groups do not support each other,” he said. Demirtaş was nationally recognised, he said, and no other Kurdish politician had ever been as popular. “That was a valuable opportunity for the Kurds," said Zilan.

Roj Esir Girasun, manager of Rawest Research, a company that aims to produce non-partisan information on Turkey’s mainly Kurdish region, believes the HDP will have a hard time recovering after the collapse of the peace process.

"The HDP started losing ground following the collapse of the peace process," Girasun said. "Once the process stalled, they were unable to produce new policies to satisfy their electorate."

The bigger problem, according to Girasun, is the HDP's failure to propose a pragmatic and sensible solution to the Kurdish issue and manage to be a part of the solution.

"The HDP's electorate was expecting the party to keep mediating the actors of this conflict and to oppose to the escalation of violence in stronger terms. But the party didn't or couldn't,” Girasun said. "The bottom line is, the HDP failed to find strong arguments and approaches to become a part of the solution to the Kurdish issue after the escalation of violence, and that is the main reason for its loss of popular support."