Kurds Vow to Push Erdogan Back in Parliament or Outside

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Peoples’ Democratic Party Protest
Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party demonstration in Ankara, May 18, 2015. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

The stage is set for a showdown between Turkey’s most powerful man and a political party that’s never won a seat in parliament.

The all-or-nothing structure of Turkey’s elections system means Kurds are kingmakers in the election on June 7. Either they enter parliament with 10 percent of the national vote and gain about 50 seats, or they fall short, ceding those seats to the ruling AK Party, which is seeking to expand the power of its founder and former boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the nation’s unquestioned leader of 12 years.

Opinion polls show the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, on a knife-edge, skirting with the threshold needed to gain representation in the legislature. Victory would mean pushing back against Erdogan’s hold over the government and negotiating an end to three decades of fighting between Kurdish militants and the state, they say. Failure could mean taking their battle to the streets.

“If we enter the parliament, we will try to overturn Erdogan’s plans to strengthen his despotism while forcing him to take solid steps to meet our demands,” Faysal Sariyildiz, a Kurdish lawmaker and candidate for parliament, said by telephone Tuesday. “If we can’t enter parliament, the choking of democratic channels and emergence of an illegitimate parliament would inevitably lead to chaos.”

Reducing Risk

Surveys by Sonar and Gezici published Monday said HDP could win 10.4 percent and 10.5 percent of the vote, respectively, while recent results from pollsters Konsensus and Metropoll put support for the party below the threshold at 9.7 percent and 9.2 percent.

Some investors say they’re reducing exposure to Turkey in preparation for the vote. Societe Generale predicted new lows in the lira on Tuesday, while Citigroup said the risk of “an unstable coalition government” wasn’t adequately priced in.

The lira has weakened 11 percent against the dollar this year, the worst performance among major world currencies except Brazil’s real. The yield on Turkish two-year notes is up almost two percentage points, to 9.96 percent at Tuesday’s close.

HDP’s success depends on widening its voter base, including attracting Kurds who vote for AK Party, said Mehmet Kaya, head of the Tigris Communal Research Center in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Other target voters include secularists who traditionally vote for the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, as well as ethnic and minority groups, he said.

Swing Voters

The party will need to assure potential swing voters that “it won’t strike a deal with AK Party later on,” he said. It will also have to overcome concerns of voters like Veysel Ozturk, a 35-year-old academic, that it doesn’t support armed resistance.

“I mainly regard the HDP as a hardcore nationalist Kurdish party and legal wing of an armed group,” Ozturk said in an interview in Istanbul on Tuesday. “Still, I’ve recently decided to vote for it to try and prevent AK Party from seizing the majority.”

Erdogan is campaigning on fears that the HDP is linked to separatist militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, even as he presides over peace talks with PKK leadership. In rallies, Erdogan refers to the HDP as “the party under the influence of the terror organization.”

Sariyildiz insists that the HDP won’t back down from its pledge to prevent Erdogan from transforming the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one under which he could “rule at will.” Instead it’ll push for greater Kurdish rights, along with a number of social welfare measures, he said.

Short Speech

“We won’t make you president, we won’t make you president, we won’t make you president,” Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman and face of the party, said in March in one of the shortest speeches in Turkish parliamentary history, referring to Erdogan’s ambitions for an executive presidency.

AK Party needs at least 367 votes in the 550-seat legislature to rewrite the constitution and introduce the presidential system Erdogan wants. Failing that, he has the power to order a national referendum with the backing of at least 330 deputies.

If HDP wins seats, it would probably reduce the ruling party to below that threshold, according to polls, granting the Kurds leverage over national politics. The HDP currently has 28 lawmakers who were elected as independents to circumvent the barrier.

Risks of failure could be far-reaching. HDP’s sister-party, the Democratic Regions Party or DBP, may start practicing “de-facto autonomy” in the southeast in response to being left without representation, said the analyst Kaya.

Sezai Temelli, a candidate running for parliament on the HDP ticket, said Wednesday in Istanbul that if his party can’t pass the threshold to enter parliament it would expose shortcomings in Turkey’s democracy and “may lead to early elections.”

Civil Disobedience

In an interview with CNN-Turk on April 30, Demirtas said party members would respond to falling short with “civil disobedience,” protesting what he says are unfair election conditions and one of the highest barriers to representation in the democratic world.

“We’ll do whatever we can to reduce the elections barrier and hold an early election: marches, meetings, signing campaigns,” he said.

Lurking in the background is also the threat of armed conflict resuming between the PKK and Turkish forces.

Mithat Gokcen, a 54-year-old retired worker in Ankara who traditionally votes for CHP, said giving Kurds a political voice in this vote is important for Turkey’s democracy.

“The Kurdish problem can only be solved with Kurds having a political representative,” he said. “I think HDP must be in the parliament.”

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