For the first time, a pro-Kurdish party has entered into the Turkish parliament, throwing a spanner in the works of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions.
Turkey must be one of the few countries in the world where the supporters of the smallest party in parliament celebrate as if they are the masters of the universe.
On Sunday evening, when the results of the parliamentary elections started coming in, it didn’t take long for the people to realize that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had successfully passed the 10 percent electoral threshold. HDP supporters took to the streets to join the spontaneous celebrations that erupted in many places, dancing the halay, waving Kurdish flags, honking car horns and shouting slogans like “We are the HDP, we’re going to parliament!”
The euphoric mood among HDP voters and sympathizers stemmed from the fact that the party’s electoral victory marked the first time in Turkish history that a pro-Kurdish party has entered into parliament. The icing on the cake of the HDP’s success was the realization that most of the seats that from now on will be occupied by the HDP’s representatives formerly belonged to the ruling AKP, which lost its majority in parliament for the first time in their thirteen years in power.
The election campaign was marked by violence, in particular directed at the HDP. Election offices were bombed, campaign vans were attacked and several people lost their lives or were severely injured when angry, nationalist mobs turned on the party’s campaigners. The biggest shock came when, just days before the elections, two bombs exploded at a HDP rally in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeastern Turkey, killing two and injuring hundreds. Despite all this, the HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtas continued to call for calm, tweeting soon after the bomb attacks that “peace will win.”
Although none of the attacks have been directly linked to any government figures, many here do not hesitate to place the responsibility for the violence firmly at the AKP’s doorstep. The party’s founder and current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan actively engaged with the election campaign in support of his party, even though his role as president legally forbade him to do so.
Erdoğan’s aggressive rhetoric directed against the opposition — calling other party’s representatives “traitors”, “terrorists” and “atheists” — along with his unwavering support for the police and judiciary in their repression of any form of democratic dissent, and his personal lashing out against anyone who dared to oppose him created a climate of fear in which hatred and violence flourished.
Both for the HDP and the AKP the elections were a zero-sum game. The HDP’s decision to run as a party, and not with independent candidates as the pro-Kurdish parties had done so far, meant that if they failed to pass the 10 percent threshold they would end up with no representation in parliament at all. For the AKP, it was key to gain a three-fifths majority in order to be able to single-handedly change the constitution so as to introduce a presidential system that would transfer significant powers to Erdoğan’s currently symbolic function.
At the same time, the high 10 percent threshold meant that if the HDP managed to get into parliament, they would do so in such high numbers that Erdoğan’s plans for an autocratic presidential system would be ruled out a priori. The AKP would have had to rely on the other opposition parties, but both the Republican and the Nationalist parties had previously expressed their fundamental opposition to the proposed constitutional reforms. In the end, HDP co-leader Demirtas gambled and won — while Erdogan gambled and lost.
The success of the HDP was not only based on its support from Turkey’s Kurdish population, but also from other social, ethnic and religious minority groups that had been increasingly marginalized under the AKP’s thirteen-year rule.
The HDP upholds a forty percent gender quota and has introduced a system of co-leadership of one man and one woman at all the different levels of organization, thus drawing a lot of support from feminist groups and from women in general. The party openly recognizes the Armenian genocide, fights for the rights of LGBT individuals, promotes the use of minority languages and has a political program stressing the need for decentralization, horizontal democracy and local autonomy. Its pluralist program catered to the needs of a wide range of people, and certainly not exclusively the Kurds.
Two important events in the past years exposed the authoritarian turn of the AKP after coming to power on an agenda of hope and unity in the early 2000s. The countrywide Gezi protests, which shook the foundations of Turkey’s political landscape in the summer of 2013, and the government’s uncompromising stance towards the people’s demands for more freedom and democracy opened the eyes of many people to the increasingly autocratic state Turkey had become.
Supposedly depoliticized youths of the so-called ‘Generation Y’ took to the streets in their millions, and although the mass protests soon died in the face of ultra-violent police repression, the so-called ‘Gezi spirit‘ had planted the seeds of change in people’s minds. The HDP’s victory can be seen, at least partly, as a fruit of these events.
The second event that played an important role in the HDP’s rise was the battle for Kobani and the government’s steadfast refusal to come to the aid of the besieged Kurds across the border in Syria when they were under attack from ISIS. For many Kurds who had previously been staunch supporters of the AKP — either due to their religious backgrounds or because of the AKP’s (superfluous) efforts to make peace with the PKK — the Kobani crisis exposed the fact that, despite all the grand rhetoric about brotherhood and solidarity, the Kurds were still perceived as the enemy, the Other, and — in Erdogan’s own words — as “worse than the ISIS terrorists.”
In its dealing with the siege of Kobani, the AKP government lost the support from many religious and conservative Kurds who have since turned and joined the growing ranks of HDP supporters.
Real change ahead?
In the end, the HDP secured 13 percent of the vote, allowing them to occupy 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament. This has been justly claimed as a great victory, and not just because it marks the first time a pro-Kurdish party managed to break down the barrier that had been erected in the wake of the 1980 military coup, for the exact purpose of keeping the Kurds out of parliament.
The HDP will bring with it members of the Armenian, Roma, Aramean and Yezidi minority groups, as well as the first openly gay MP in Turkish history. It will also raise the number of women in parliament to unprecedented heights (96), and, perhaps most importantly, it has leveled the playing field of Turkish politics, bringing an end to more than a decade of one-party rule while curbing Erdoğan’s aspirations to become the single most powerful force in the Turkish political arena.
But where the HDP’s victory is rightfully celebrated as an important step forward for the country, it is important to note that the struggle is far from over. The battle has been won, but the war continues.
The party’s election manifesto — which promises, among many other things, to “realize democratic autonomy”, “establish democratic models of decentralization” and to provide a solution to the Kurdish question by “building a democratic Turkey” — reads like a blueprint for a utopian society in which justice, democracy and solidarity are the guiding principles. The harsh reality is that it is very unlikely that the party will ever become part of a ruling coalition, meaning its possibilities to bring about actual change in Turkey are limited.
The power of the HDP lies in, and stems from, its close connections to the movements on the streets (and in the parks, the mountains, the squats and the squares). It was grassroots campaigning, close contacts with the electorate and a great number of candidates who have a history of activism that inspired faith among people that the HDP could actually be an alternative to the established powers.
However, parliamentary representation should not be seen as the end goal, but rather as a means to create a space in which it is possible for the real facilitators of social change — neighborhood committees, social movements, self-organized workers, grassroots political groups, and so on — to grow, flourish, experiment and build a society in which the idea of parliamentary elections will sound as quaint and unimaginable as a confederation of self-governing communities does today.