Turkish Kurds May Become Kingmakers as Kobani Rallies Voters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to rewrite Turkey’s constitution to give himself more power may depend on a Kurdish minority emboldened by military victory in Kobani.

The successful battle to prevent Islamic State from overrunning the Kurdish enclave in neighboring Syria has energized Turkey’s Kurds before parliamentary elections in June. Some opinion polls put the main Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, close to 10 percent, the threshold that will allow it to enter parliament and potentially deny Erdogan the majority he needs to build a more powerful presidency.

“Kobani has unified Kurds. The mood in the street is to support the main Kurdish party in the election,” Mehmet Kaya, head of the Tigris Communal Research Center, a Kurdish group based in the eastern city of Diyarbakir, said by phone. While Kurds make up between 15 percent to 20 percent of the country’s 78 million inhabitants, lawmakers backing HDP usually poll around 8 percent of votes.

Erdogan, 61, has vowed to transform the traditionally ceremonial presidency into an executive office if the ruling AK Party is backed by a two-thirds majority after the election, triggering opposition claims he’s attempting to assume dictatorial powers. Polling surveys indicate he’ll need the support of Kurdish lawmakers, which could hand them leverage over Erdogan to resolve their community’s 30 year armed struggle for autonomy.

For Kurdish politicians, standing under a party banner for the first time since 2002 rather than as independents is a risky strategy. Under Turkey’s electoral law, political parties must gain 10 percent of the vote to seat lawmakers in parliament. If they fail to gain enough votes, they’ll be without parliamentary representation. That would strip the government of a crucial negotiating partner as it pushes peace talks with the Kurds amid simmering tensions.

Islamic State’s advance on Kobani led to clashes between Kurdish protesters in Turkey and security forces after Erdogan refused to allow local Kurds to send weapons or fighters. He subsequently agreed to the passage of Iraqi Kurdish fighters through Turkey. The violence led to the government tabling new security measures that many Kurds say are too sweeping and jeopardize peace talks.

Bargaining Chips

Kurdish politicians signaled that with a strong presence in parliament the HDP would pursue alliances to advance its quest for self-rule.

“Our primary goal is to have self-administration” in Kurdish areas, Husamettin Zenderlioglu, a HDP deputy representing the southeastern province of Bitlis, said. “We may seek consensus with anyone to reach our goal.”

There are dangers. The Kurds’ high stakes game could “deprive the government of its partner in peace talks” at a time of heightened tensions, according to Oner Bucukcu, an analyst with the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking.

Surveys by MetroPOLL and Gezici Arastirma put the HDP at 9.5 percent of the vote. Kurdish lawmakers say they are confident of making up the 0.5 percent difference between now and June 7. The government says its figures put the HDP at 7 percent.

Respect Decision

The Kurdish decision to run as a single party was “courageous,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in an interview with A Haber television on March 2. Yet if they failed to reach the mark they must “be respectful of the nation’s will,” he said. Davutoglu said his party is expected to win 48 and 52 percent of the vote, according to Hurriyet newspaper on March 6.

While Turkey’s other opposition parties may alter the government’s calculations, a large Kurdish vote would allow them to stake out an aggressive negotiating position. Ertugrul Kurkcu, an HDP lawmaker, said his party is determined to oppose re-writing the constitution to create a presidential system “under which Erdogan will form an empire with unlimited powers.”

Erdogan ran the country as prime minister for 11 and a half years before becoming the first directly elected president in August, pledging to revamp the office.

Missing Votes

The AK Party needs at least 367 votes in the 550-seat parliament to rewrite the constitution and introduce a presidential system. The party currently has 312 deputies.

Failing that, Erdogan has the power to order a national referendum should his proposals win the backing of at least 330 deputies.

A 10 percent vote for the HDP could translate into more than 50 seats, probably reducing the ruling party to below the 330 threshold, and granting the Kurds leverage. The HDP currently has 28 lawmakers in parliament.

To gain the votes it needs, the HDP is using Kobani to rally support among Kurds. “Kobani turned into a litmus test for the AKP and its claim to represent Kurds has been badly damaged,” Kaya of the Tigris Communal Research Center said.

Kurdish Demands

“The government has not been able to repair the damage so far,” he said.

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of HDP who won 9.8 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential race, recently said “conditions have never been so ripe for a victory.”

Peace talks between the Kurds and the government have achieved successes but differences are still acute. The imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan called on his followers to discuss laying down arms and for the Turkish government to expand Kurds’ rights, according to an announcement by Kurdish lawmaker Sirri Sureyya Onder on Feb. 28. Commanders of Ocalan’s rebel group, known as the PKK, said laying down arms depends on their leader’s release, according to IMC television on March 10.

Grave Dangers

Clashes with the PKK, classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, have cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars while the Turkish army’s scorched-earth tactics drew criticism from human rights’ groups. After withdrawing some militants from Turkey in 2013, the PKK has threatened to resume fighting if the government fails to take further steps toward peace.

Some Kurdish lawmakers are predicting violent street demonstrations unless the HDP passes the threshold to win seats in the parliament. Tensions will rise “if HDP is not in the parliament on June 8,” the Kurdish lawmaker Zenderlioglu said. “No one will be able to talk about the legitimacy of the parliament.”

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