Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory is roiling the country’s Kurdish movement, with its most popular leader declaring from jail that he is withdrawing from active politics. The announcement Wednesday by Selahattin Demirtas, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), presages debate on a future course to be charted ahead of critical local elections that are to be held in March 2024. Kurdish voters are poised to play a key role as they did in 2019 when they helped the opposition wrest key cities, notably Ankara and Istanbul, from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The key question is whether the alliance between the HDP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its Table of Six partners can endure. Or will the Kurds decide to back Erdogan? The outcome will have effects on Kurds beyond Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.
Either way, despite the dire predictions about the future of Turkey’s democracy, electoral politics continue to matter and the Kurds remain in the game, but only if Erdogan chooses to play.
Going, going, not gone
In an interview today with the pro-opposition Arti Gercek, explaining his surprise decision, Demirtas took aim at the HDP and its electoral strategy, which saw the HDP’s share of the vote dip in this election to 8.8% from 11.70% in the last parliamentary elections in 2018. He noted the massive pressure on the party, with elected mayors booted out and replaced by government administrators and thousands of party officials and sympathizers locked up. However, Demirtas argued that the leadership was also responsible for the lackluster result due to a poorly run campaign and parliamentary candidates selected with little or no regard for the views of the party’s base, to cite only a few of the issues.
The biggest bombshell, though, was Demirtas’ revelation that he had offered to run as the party’s presidential candidate only to be rebuffed. “My offer was turned down without explanation,” Demirtas said. “I still don’t know the reason."
Had the HDP fielded its own candidate, Demirtas argued, this would have helped mobilize the base and deflected Erdogan’s claims that his rival, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was acting in concert with “terrorists.” It would have also probably saved Kilicdaroglu the embarrassment of having to seek the endorsement of a far-right party led by the virulently anti-refugee Umit Ozdag in a bid to draw nationalist votes in the runoff, only to lose again. Most critically, though, it would have given the HDP real leverage. The opposition in particular would have been forced to offer real concessions in order to draw the Kurds’ support in a second round, thus ensuring their full turnout.
Either way, even as he recused himself from the HDP’s daily affairs, Demirtas made it clear that he was not going away. “I am not resigning from the HDP nor from any position,” Demirtas asserted. Despite such critiques, his relations with the HDP leadership were one of comradeship based on mutual trust.
So why do his views matter and what do they spell going forward?
The 50-year-old commands strong sympathy among Kurds worldwide. Their “Selo” (Selahattin's nickname) is widely credited with propelling the HDP to parliament for the first time in 2015 after running on a platform that elevated the party above ethnic politics to appeal to Turks and Kurds alike. The rebranding of the HDP as “Turkiyeli” (citizens of Turkey) won the group 13% of the vote, thus denying Erdogan a ruling mandate for the first time. Though Erdogan extricated himself by forcing a snap election five months later, the famously vindictive Turkish strongman never forgave Demirtas, who has been in prison on thinly evidenced "terrorism" charges since October 2016. Throughout his campaign, Erdogan demonized Demirtas — he even did so during his victory speech, prompting cries of “Death to Selo!” from the crowds.
The feelings are mutual. Tweeting in response to those calls, Demirtas called Erdogan an “old king who, with the intoxication of a fraudulent and fake victory, continues his lies, threats and insults from the balcony of his luxury palace.”
By announcing his withdrawal from active politics, Demirtas may be in effect freeing his party’s hand to deal with Erdogan ahead of the mayoral polls, said Arzu Yilmaz, a Middle East scholar at the University of Kurdistan - Hewler in Erbil, Iraq. Yilmaz told Al-Monitor that “a reset in Kurdish politics has been long overdue” because the HDP’s pitching of a broad tent with mass appeal had failed to deliver any results and Demirtas had become “overly engaged” with the opposition.
The Kurds’ backing of the opposition was not a result of the HDP’s engagement with it but because of their rejection of Erdogan.
Moreover, Yilmaz argued, Kilicdaroglu’s strong showing, particularly in many majority Kurdish provinces, was due to the Kurdistan Workers Party's (PKK) repeated calls for people to vote for him. “For the first time, the PKK became engaged in its own way too,” Yilmaz noted. But it’s coming from a different place.
Jaw jaw or war war?
Citing humanitarian concerns in the wake of the massive earthquakes that devastated parts of southern Turkey, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire on Feb. 10. It was making a virtue out of necessity, many say, since for the past several years the PKK has come under intense and increasingly lethal pressure from the Turkish army and in particular from its Bayraktar drones. An opposition win was its sole hope of easing that pressure, which has seen Turkish forces expand their presence around PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and invade chunks of northeastern Syria where a PKK-friendly administration has been governing under US protection since 2014.
It would not be able to mount any meaningful attacks inside Turkey even if it tried unless it resorted to urban attacks. The group has targeted tourist destinations in the past, and with the Turkish economy on life support, any such attacks would bring the country to its knees. Will the PKK choose to use that leverage at this time to force the government into resuming peace talks that were shelved in 2015? A pro-PKK businessman who spoke anonymously because of the controversial nature of his views told Al-Monitor, “The Kurds have not even gained a single strand of hair without bullets.” Resuming the war “cannot be ruled out as an option, and there are several others, depending on how things go,” he said.
More likely, the PKK would look to strike a deal ahead of the elections. Erdogan attempted to forge just such a deal with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan before the 2019 mayoral race, but coming at the last minute it failed. Ocalan’s ambiguously phrased calls to remain neutral — in other words, to not back the opposition — fell on deaf ears. Ocalan’s words had been twisted and the government had coerced him in any case, the ensuing narrative went. The prevailing consensus is that if the PKK had gone along, the outcome would have been different.
Erdogan certainly has plenty of incentive to woo the Kurds. The results of the May 15 parliamentary polls showed Kilicdaroglu prevailing not only in Istanbul and Ankara but in western provinces where the AKP has traditionally done well, such as Bursa, Manisa, Balikesir and Denizli. Roj Girasun, who runs a research and polling outfit in Diyarbakir, the Kurds’ informal capital in southeast Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan is in for a very rough ride.”
If Kilicdaroglu succeeds through some miracle in holding together his electoral alliance with the nationalist Iyi Party and gets the support of the Kurds, the opposition can expand the number of municipalities under its control, Girasun explained.
Should the PKK resume its attacks, however, this would play straight into Erdogan’s hands, allowing him to further criminalize the Kurdish movement and continue to claim that the opposition is in bed with “terrorists.” In truth, the Kurdish movement has few good options. Should it support the opposition, it will only draw further government wrath without getting much in return. Erdogan runs the government and makes policies, not opposition mayors. Thus, potentially, the Kurdish movement has far more to gain from Erdogan. A deal might see the government allowing mayors elected on the HDP ticket to retain their seats, a de-escalation on the military front, and possibly granting Ocalan access to his lawyers and other visitors, which has been denied since March 2021. But would Erdogan be interested?
If anything, the election results proved once again that Turkish nationalism is a winning card. The chances of Erdogan changing tack look more remote than ever. In the southeast, Erdogan has thrown his weight behind Huda-Par, a Kurdish party with roots in Hizbullah, which has no links to its Lebanese namesake. The group, which espouses a radical Islamist agenda, waged a bloody campaign against PKK sympathizers in the 1990s using butchers’ cleavers to slit their throats. Running on a joint ticket with the AKP, the party won four seats in parliament for the first time.
Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish author who was elected to parliament on the ticket of the Green Left Party — which was set up to avert a possible banning of the HDP — told the BBC’s Newsnight program this week that Erdogan’s strategy was to use Huda-Par to lure away the HDP's base. One of the methods to lure votes is patronage dispensed through municipalities seized from the HDP and the services provided by them. Mashuq Kurt, a lecturer in sociology at Royal Holloway University of London and the author of a seminal book on Hezbollah, told Al-Monitor, “Huda-Par has a social base in the Kurdish provinces and western cities where many Kurds reside. The government and Huda-Par will do their best to realize [Erdogan’s] ambition.”
“Kurdish politics is diversifying and going through a transformation. Huda-Par is also part of this new era,” Kurt noted. “I have heard rumors that many supporters of Huda-Par are given local administrative positions within the Department of Education. There are also indications that the mayoral and governmental facilities are at the disposal of the group whenever they organize an event.”
Still, in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the group scraped a measly 0.31% of the vote, and a majority of Kurds remain suspicious of the group. For all its recent setbacks, the HDP remains uncontested among Kurds. And for as long as the government responds with violence to the Kurds’ demands for political and cultural rights, it will likely retain its appeal.