Have The Kurds Just Saved Democracy In Turkey?


The onslaught of the Islamic State (ISIS), and all the resulting ripple effects, has proved a game changer for the Kurds.

Until recently, many had never heard of the Kurds.

They are a stateless people, denied their own state by the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, and thus spread out in four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

However, the conflicts triggered by ISIS not only rendered the Kurds rather famous, but we also seem to have a lot to thank them for.

We can thank them for saving Kobane, the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria from ISIS and for providing the West with "boots on the ground" to fight ISIS at the cost of their lives (for a mess they did not create).

We can also thank them for providing refuge for millions with no discrimination in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, for providing a model to the region for democratic reform and peace in Kurdish Iraq and Syria and for promoting gender equality.

We can especially thank them for saving democracy in Turkey.

The Kurdish people have faced genocide in all four countries they inhabit, but Turkey is the only country that sought to deny their very existence. If a problem does not exist, it is easier to ignore it.

A brutal civil war between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state therefore raged until the latest ceasefire in 2013, and the subsequent peace process.

However, there have also always been Kurdish political parties, but they have been shut down one after the other, until the most recent one, the Democracy of the People’s Party (HDP).

On Sunday, June 7, the HDP won a historic victory in Turkey and crushed Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) hopes.

The AKP has been in power for 13 years, and just as they were about to secure absolute majority and power, the HDP stopped them before it was too late, something no other party had managed.

How did the HDP do this, what does it mean for the AKP and what can the consequences be?

In order to ensure the Kurdish minority (20 percent of the population in Turkey) would never be able to be a part of the government, a 10 percent election threshold is in place in the Turkish Parliament.

So, until this election, Kurdish candidates campaigned on an independent basis.

However, this time, the HDP took a wisely-planned gamble, and challenged this threshold by campaigning as one party. Though it has paid off, it was never a guaranteed outcome.

Indeed, the election campaign was fraught with intimidation and hate-speech, instigated by the state-controlled media.

There was a breach of the constitution, due to President Erdogan’s partisan involvement, several fatal attacks on the HDP and their supporters, election rigging and voter intimidation, mostly in Kurdish areas.

Despite these unashamed attacks on democracy, the HDP won not 10 percent, but 13 percent, of the national vote.

The HDP secured this outcome by reshaping themselves from a pro-Kurdish party to a party for all of Turkey, with a progressive social message.

They were the only party who appealed to Gezi Park protesters, other minorities such as the Armenians, women, left-wing voting Turks and for the first time in the Middle East, the LGBTQ community.

To this part of the electorate, the AKP’s message was not so appealing. After 13 years in power, the AKP has had considerable economic success by reconciling with neo-liberalism, but from 2014 onwards, dynamics domestically and regionally changed.

Conflict in the Middle East has shaken Turkey’s desired position as a key influence in the region and domestic troubles, such as the Gezi Park protests and curbs on civil liberties.

The corruption of the AKP and the Sultan-like Erdogan’s drifts toward authoritarianism, and it has been exposed.

In essence, economic success was set back by a lack of promised democratic reform.

Nevertheless, it must not be ignored that the HDP also managed to regain most Kurdish votes the AKP held.

The Kurds who voted for the AKP did so because the party promised to launch a peace process with the Kurds.

However, with the peace process grounding to a halt, Turkey’s support of ISIS and Turkey’s refusal to help the Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS in Kobane, the Kurds of Turkey have woken up and voted en masse for the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Nevertheless, this election outcome was also important insofar, as it has preserved democracy in Turkey. The AKP was hoping to secure an absolute majority through this election.

Following this, Erdogan planned to rewrite the constitution in order to push for regime change, from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency, with vast and incontestable powers.

This would have sent Turkey down an increasingly and worryingly autocratic path.

For the time being, there has been no coalition announcement, but there are essentially two options for the AKP.

They could make a coalition with one of the two other parties in parliament: the CHP, secular conservative democrats, or the MHP, right-wing nationalists.

However, the AKP sees these two parties as an annoyance, obstructing their path to absolute majority.

Additionally, both the CHP and the MHP are against a peace process with the Kurds, which would severely undermine the AKP’s track record.

Alternatively, the AKP could make a coalition with the HDP, but this would require the former to agree with certain HDP conditions that do not bode well with AKP voters, such as supporting LGBTQ rights, gender rights, peace with the Kurds and significantly, a secular democracy.

Whereas, the AKP is an Islamo-conservative party.

It would, therefore, appear that the AKP is playing the waiting game because if no coalition has been formed, a second election will be called.

For example, the AKP has not denounced the attacks on the HDP, but remained silent.

This has prompted co-leader of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş to claim the AKP is not seeking to appease the ethnic tensions, but, instead, wants them spiral out of control so Erdogan can claim chaos prevails when the AKP is not in power.

Moreover, in his first speech since the elections, Erdogan has accused the West of killing Turkmen and Arabs in order to support Kurds in their fight against ISIS, his latest feat of provocation that we have come to expect of him.

Perhaps, the only thing that can be said with certainty is Turkey is entering a phase of uncertainty, but for now, at least, democracy has triumphed.

Regardless of which way the AKP decides to go, these elections have had a profound impact on the Kurds, Turkey and the Middle East.

First of all, if the AKP decides to ignore the HDP, the Kurds will now have a legitimate claim in saying they have no political representation in Turkey, thanks to their election success. As such, the kurds have secured seats in the parliament and, therefore, a voice to pressure the AKP.

This election has also shattered the feeling of invincibility that Erdogan was flaunting, which was on the verge of veering into autocratic power.

It has provided a democratic platform of representation for other ethnic minorities, for oppressed groups and for the left-wing progressive segments of Turkish society.

Finally, this election has been important for the wider Middle East.

In a region devastated by conflict and that is a playground for retrograde forces, this type of election is vital.

Since the peace process started in Turkey, the Kurds and the HDP have finally achieved political representation through a peaceful and democratic route.

On top of this, the Kurds have opened up their party to include women, the LGBTQ community and all ethnicities that wish to join.

Considering the current state of affairs in many other Middle Eastern countries, it is difficult to stress quite how important this is for the region.

It would appear the Kurds are gradually rising in their respective countries, and in the process, they are showing their fellow neighbors a democratic, peaceful and inclusive model that promotes equality for all genders, sexualities, creeds and ethnicities.

At present, people in the Middle East are, by and large, faced with Sophie’s choice: dictatorship, radical Islamic regimes or foreign occupation, usually by Western forces.

However, the Kurdish successes could, perhaps, offer a slightly more alluring choice.