By Mustafa Akyol
02 June, 2015
ISTANBUL — On Sunday more than 50 million Turks will go to the polls in parliamentary elections. No one doubts that the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., which has been in power since 2002, will once again receive the largest number of votes. No one expects a major triumph for either of the two large opposition parties — the secularist Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.) or the Nationalist Action Party (M.H.P.). Yet one big question looms: Will the fourth-largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (H.D.P.), clear the 10 percent barrier needed to enter Parliament? The answer will define Turkey’s immediate political future.
The H.D.P. is the latest in a series of parties to advocate the Kurdish political cause; most of its predecessors were shut down by Turkey’s draconian courts for “separatism” or “links to terrorism.” It’s no secret that the party has implicit ties with the P.K.K., or Kurdistan Workers Party, an armed group that both Turkey and the United States define as “terrorist.” (In an imperfect analogy, if the P.K.K. is Turkey’s version of the Irish Republican Army, then the H.D.P. is Turkey’s version of Sinn Fein.)
Consequently, most Turks think the H.D.P. deserves no sympathy. However, the party has recently recast itself as a progressive left-wing force, championing the rights of all minorities, including gays and lesbians, and has thus won the sympathy of some liberals. Moreover the party’s young and charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, has become a political star, thanks to his bold challenges to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
All of these factors have helped the party enlarge its mandate beyond core Kurdish nationalist voters, who traditionally never gave Kurdish parties more than 6 percent of the national vote. Sunday’s election presents a huge opportunity but also a major risk: Turkey’s 10 percent national electoral threshold is the highest in the democratic world. This means that a party earning 9.9 percent of the vote won’t gain a single seat in the 550-seat Parliament, even if it wins certain constituencies by a landslide. In the past, Kurdish parties bypassed this problem by running their candidates as “independents,” which allowed them get into Parliament but minimized their clout. This time, Mr. Demirtas and his colleagues decided risk nominating the H.D.P. candidates as a party slate. As a result, they will either win big or lose big.
If the H.D.P. passes the 10-percent threshold, the party will gain close to 60 seats — twice the number currently held by their supporters in Parliament. Then Mr. Erdogan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, will barely have a simple majority, which the A.K.P. needs to form a government on its own, as has been the case since 2002. The A.K.P. may even be forced to form a coalition with one of the opposition parties.
If the H.D.P. fails to get to 10 percent, however, almost all of the seats in Kurdish areas will go to the ruling party, which is the H.D.P.’s only serious competitor among Kurdish voters. In that case, the A.K.P. will easily form a strong government, and it may even win enough seats (60 percent) to write a new constitution on its own, rather than through a broad national consensus. And the essence of that new constitution would likely be an all-powerful presidency tailor-made for Mr. Erdogan — with no checks-and-balances at all.
Many of those who plan to vote for the H.D.P. fear Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions to further dominate the state — along with the judiciary, the media and business. In the past two years, the A.K.P. stranglehold on Turkey’s institutions has grown so brazen that neither Mr. Erdogan nor his supporters try to hide it anymore. Instead, they proudly declare that they are purging the nation of “traitors.” This triumphalist authoritarianism is one of the reasons Mr. Erdogan is so popular; members of his base — primarily religious voters — are enjoying an era of political revenge after decades of marginalization by a similarly authoritarian secular elite.
This election will also determine the trajectory of Turkey’s Kurdish movement. If H.D.P. candidates fail to enter Parliament, their base, which includes militant Kurdish nationalists, may react violently. Separatism among the Kurds, fueled by a sense of exclusion from Turkey’s political system, could flare up. As a result, the three-year-old “peace process” between Ankara and P.K.K. militants — one of the few successes of Mr. Erdogan’s government — may be at risk.
For the sake of peace and stability, it is vital that the H.D.P. clears the 10-percent barrier and enters Parliament. If the party succeeds, it must be wise enough not to see victory as a blank check for Kurdish nationalism. Most of the new votes it gets on Sunday will, in effect, be “borrowed votes,” garnered from people fed up with Mr. Erdogan who want pluralist democracy throughout the nation, rather than P.K.K. domination in the southeast.
Turkey has already seen too many radical ideological movements that claim to have reformed themselves, but act otherwise when they taste power. If Mr. Demirtas and the H.D.P. win big on Sunday, their challenge will be to avoid this pitfall and exercise their power more responsibly than Turkey’s current leaders have done in recent years.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”