Pro-Kurdish party seeks wider reach in Turkish vote

As Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday, HDP emerges as a crucial force in shaping the post-elections political scene.

Istanbul – Turkey’s left-wing pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) is set to play a crucial role in the upcoming parliamentary elections due on June 7, according to Turkish voters interviewed by Al Jazeera.

The party’s absence – or presence – in the newly elected parliament may not only influence the balance of power in parliament but may also pose a serious challenge to the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Turkey’s ruling party for the past 13 years.

Recent surveys show the HDP to be on the verge of passing Turkey’s unusually high 10 percent electoral threshold. A political party that passes the threshold automatically obtains around 50 seats in the 550-seat parliament, while parties that secure less than 10 percent of the votes do not make it to parliament.

The HDP presents itself as a party that advocates democratic rule, human rights, social equality, social welfare, independent judiciary, and women’s rights. “In a country where almost every group, other than ardent AK Party followers, feel like outsiders, the HDP platform is the strongest statement on behalf of all the others with its particular focus on women,” Aysen Ertur, 60, a pensioner from the district of Kadikoy in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera.

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The party, according to party pundits, seeks to attract secular and liberal voters as well as non-Kurdish minorities, although the party does not make secret of its Kurdish identity. “Diversity is the reason why I will vote for the HDP,” said Demet Kazdal, 28, a translator. “They aim to represent a wide range of people. My priority is how they approach LGBT and women’s issues and I think the HDP meets my criteria,” Kazdal told Al Jazeera.

AK Party officials openly say that they do not want to see the HDP in the parliament as they charge the party is collaborating with the outlawed armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Generally, my views are in line with the HDP's policy promises. However, HDP seems not acting in line with their words. Talking about peace while walking hand-in-hand with the terrorist group PKK is not something I can accept.

by Sinan Sunterler, IT expert, Istanbul

Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been unofficially campaigning for the AK Party – from which he stepped down as party leader after being elected president – directly criticised the HDP in his speeches. The presidency is a constitutionally neutral position in Turkey.

Erdogan repeatedly depicted it as a political party “supported by terrorism” or “ran by the terrorist organisation”, in a veiled reference to the PKK.

Several voters told Al Jazeera they were reluctant to vote for the party due to the alleged link between the HDP and the PKK.

“Generally, my views are in line with the HDP’s policy promises. However, the HDP seems not [to be] acting in line with their words,” said Sinan Sunterler, 35, an IT expert from Bahcelievler in Istanbul. “Talking about peace while walking hand-in-hand with the terrorist group PKK is not something I can accept,” Sunterler told Al Jazeera.

Other voters echoed similar views. Gorkem Nurata, a 37-year-old graphic designer from Kadikoy, said that while the HDP’s promises sound good, the party’s rhetoric was just a facade to hide their original Kurdish nationalist agenda.

“Most likely, they will not prioritise [the liberal agenda] nor the real problems of the Kurdish people… I would believe their sincerity if they refused any future connection or collaboration with the armed side of the Kurds [PKK],” Nurata told Al Jazeera.

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The AK Party calls for a new constitution that includes a new presidential system allocating more powers to the president. Currently, Turkey is ruled with a parliamentary system providing the presidency with mostly ceremonial powers. 

The AK Party needs 367 seats to achieve this goal unilaterally without a referendum. If it obtains 330 seats in the upcoming elections, the party can draft a constitution and have it approved by the Turkish public.

It currently holds 311 seats, while the centre-left Republican People’s Party, the Nationalist Action Party, and the HDP have 125, 52, and 29 seats respectively.

Speculation about a post-election AK Party-HDP alliance – to pass the new constitution – is another reason why some voters view pro-Kurdish party with suspicion.

Despite assurances given by party pundits, voters still believe that a likely trade-off between the two parties would result in a presidential system that secures the seat for Erdogan indefinitely. This mighp happen in return for concessions to be made by the AK Party to the HDP and PKK in the peace process.

Since 2012, Turkish intelligence has been negotiating with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to reach a settlement to the decades-long armed conflict.

The HDP took on an active role in the peace process by acting as a liaison between Ocalan and the current PKK leadership located in northern Iraq.

“I don’t think they [HDP] would enter in a coalition government with the AK Party at this point,” Sunterler said. “The party might support a possible AK Party minority government in order to gain more concessions in the peace process”.

Other voters agreed. “If the HDP passes the 10 percent threshold, it will either form a coalition with the AK Party or support an AK Party-led government,” said Nurata. 

Selahattin Demirtas, 42, the co-chairperson of the HDP, has increasingly been the front man of the 

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP, the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party [REUTERS]
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party [REUTERS]

party since he got 9.8 percent of the votes in the 2014 presidential election.

He is known for his remarks supporting the right to protest – even for those protesting against him. Demirtas has called on his party’s voters to respect other parties’ supporters. 

Several voters told Al Jazeera that Demirtas has an important role in influencing their decision to vote for the party. “He does not use a discriminative language. He cares about others’ rights and I want to hear what he has to say,” said HDP voter Demet Kazdal. 

Another voter concurred. “He comes across as definitely intelligent and a voice of reason,” said Aysen Ertur.

“But recently, I am getting the impression that it is turning into a one-man show and that may be detrimental to the HDP’s promise of equal voices for everyone.”

Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_uras

Source: Al Jazeera