Erdogan Election Fate May Be Shaped by Kurds Suffering Crackdown

  • Kurdish party entered parliament for first time in June vote
  • Erdogan's ambitions depend on regaining parliamentary majority

Much has changed since a pro-Kurdish party upended Turkish politics in a national election five months ago. The key role of Kurds in determining Turkey’s future hasn’t.

Back in June, Selahattin Demirtas and his People’s Democratic Party surged into parliament with 13 percent of the national vote, denying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a parliamentary majority that would have let him increase his already substantial powers over the Middle East’s largest economy. Since then, Turkey’s army and Kurdish militants have broken their three-year cease-fire, prosecutors have jailed dozens of Kurdish activists and local media has imposed an effective blackout on pro-Kurdish politicians.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Photographer: Aykut Unlupinar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The result, as Turkey prepares for a Nov. 1 re-run of the inconclusive June ballot, is a new set of obstacles in front of Demirtas as he battles to stay above the threshold that’s a requirement for entering parliament. With 10 percent or more of nationwide votes, the HDP, as it is called, will take about 80 seats; any less and it gets none, and loses its ability to block Erdogan’s agenda. That would leave Turkey under single-party rule, governed by a leader intent on increasing his powers even as investors fret about erratic policy making and erosion in the rule of law.

“Kurdish votes will determine the future of Turkey,” says Oner Bucukcu, an analyst at the SDE research center in Ankara. At issue is whether the party that represents their interests can “transform itself into a modern leftist party” with broad appeal, or whether it remains under the shadow of the PKK, the militant group whose insurgency against the Turkish state has claimed some 40,000 lives since the 1980s.

Regional Implications

The answer may have implications not only for the stability of Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, but also for stateless Kurds scattered across the region - especially in Syria, where PKK allies have take steps toward self-rule amid the civil war, and Iraq, where Kurds enjoy effective autonomy and have built economic ties with neighboring Turkey.

Erdogan ordered airstrikes against PKK militants in the aftermath of a July suicide bombing in the eastern town of Suruc, even though pro-Kurdish activists had been its targets. The PKK resumed attacks against security forces. In the 100 days that followed, as Turkish jets bombed militant positions inside Turkey and Iraq, some 2,000 PKK members and 150 Turkish soldiers and police officers were killed, according to a tally by the state-run news agency. Another 3,362 people were detained, including Kurdish mayors of eastern cities.

The military offensive against the PKK continued even after the group declared a unilateral ceasefire earlier this month, saying it didn’t want fighting to impact the election.

The conflict’s resumption has added to investor perceptions of risk that were already deteriorating with the political turmoil. Turkey’s lira has fallen 20 percent against the dollar this year, the second-biggest decline among world currencies. The cost to insure Turkish government debt against default has increased by 35 percent to 250 basis points as of Wednesday.

Second-worst performer this year

Burying Weapons

“We’ll continue this fight not only until the terrorist organization drops its weapons, but until they bury them in concrete and leave the country,” Erdogan, who calls the HDP a front for the PKK, said at a meeting of small-town mayors on Oct. 26. “All my Kurdish friends in the region need to take a stand against this terrorist organization.”

It’s a far cry from Erdogan’s years as prime minister, when in 2012 he announced the government was in peace talks with the PKK that no previous Turkish leader would have dared undertake. Whatever trust the two sides had after nearly three years of negotiations “has been thrown out of the window,” said Anthony Skinner, an analyst with Bath, U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft.

Presidential Ploy

“The majority of Kurds, and a large number of Turks, are convinced that President Erdogan was only pursuing the peace initiative with the PKK to achieve a constitutionally-enshrined executive presidency,” Skinner said by e-mail on Oct. 27. “This is despite Erdogan doing more for Kurdish rights than any other prime minister or president in Turkey’s history.”

Selahattin Demirtas

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

For Demirtas, the personal journey from human rights lawyer to leading figure in Turkey’s opposition has also marked a remarkable transformation in Turkish society. In June, his party swept the predominantly Kurdish southeast, but it picked up seats elsewhere in the country too, attracting some ethnically Turkish voters with liberal policies on gay rights and women’s issues, and Demirtas’s pledge to prevent what he’s called a burgeoning Erdogan dictatorship.

The HDP says it won’t allow the constitution to be rewritten according to Erdogan’s blueprint for centralization of power in the presidency. The party agrees that the existing charter, imposed in 1982 after a military coup, needs to expand rights and freedoms. Its most recognizable slogan refers to Erdogan: “We won’t make you president."

Voting Security

While most surveys show the HDP retaining enough support to pass the 10 percent barrier, there are reasons to think the party could suffer a setback that the polls may not be capturing, according to Naz Masraff, director for Europe at Eurasia Group in London. Authorities in the southeast have been repeatedly rebuffed in their applications to move ballot boxes for security reasons.

“In practice, this would lower the turnout among the pro-Kurdish HDP and benefit the AKP,” Masraff said on Oct. 27.

The uptick in violence could also erode the HDP’s support among non-Kurdish voters, according to Mehmet Kaya, head of the Tigris Communal Research Center in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

“The PKK’s resorting to violence overshadowed the HDP’s electoral success, showing that politicians do not call the shots,” he said by phone on Oct. 27. While the Kurdish party needs to expand its support base across Turkey, militant leaders including imprisoned PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan are “more powerful actors.”

While Demirtas’s brother is a PKK fighter and he’s been criticized for refusing to denounce the group, he rejects implications that the party exerts any control over militants. The party shares the same ideological father as the PKK: Ocalan, who’s also inspired an alphabet soup of Kurdish political and militant movements in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

“We never suggest violence or war to Kurdish youth,” Demirtas said at a campaign rally in the eastern town of Mus on Sept. 14. "We say: ‘We’re here, there’s no need for guns.’"

At a party event in Istanbul on Wednesday, he said that regardless of the results on Sunday, the Kurdish gains were irreversible.

“We’re now the reality of this county. We’ve always been that way, but they wouldn’t let us rise up. Now we’ve gotten our act together,” he said. “You can no longer do politics around here without us.”

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