Istanbul, Turkey – Two months ago, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) gained enough votes to secure a place in the Turkish parliament for the first time – a historic electoral victory that raised hopes for a new era of peace and political empowerment for the country’s long-suppressed Kurdish minority.
But those hopes have been shattered in recent days, leaving the party fighting for survival amid an escalating conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish fighters.
The violence has accompanied increasing domestic pressure on HDP politicians.
Turkish fighter jets pounded Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in southeast Turkey last Tuesday, while three soldiers were killed in separate attacks in a neighbouring province.
Considered a “terrorist group” by the Turkish government, the PKK has spent decades fighting to establish Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Since 2013, a ceasefire had the parties observing a tentative truce, while the Turkish government held nascent peace talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Last month, that ceasefire effectively collapsed, leaving both sides locked in an escalating cycle of violence.
The government claims the PKK presents as big a threat as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group. On the other side, Kurds suspect that Turkey is using its expanded role in the US-led offensive against ISIL to crush Kurdish fighters and politicians.
Growing tension has forced HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, who campaigned on a platform of peace, to navigate a political minefield of pressure from the government and growing discontent among his party.
At the same time, Demirtas is also trying to distance his party from the PKK and its acts of violence.
Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on parliament to take away immunity from Kurdish politicians who have links to the PKK, rendering them vulnerable to prosecution.
Erdogan also lashed out at Demirtas, suggesting that “he can’t take a stand against the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Europe and the United States”.
Top HDP deputies, including Demirtas, are now facing possible prosecution on several terrorism-related charges.
The deepening crisis poses the biggest challenge yet to the Kurds’ political future in Turkey, according to Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“The government is trying to put the HDP on the defensive in the case of fresh elections, by associating them as much as possible with the PKK, launching lawsuits and using the media to take them down a few pegs,” said Barkey. “The HDP runs the risk of getting crowded out from the political debate, especially in light of government pressure on the media not to report on them. What you’re seeing is essentially a policy of isolation.”
With hostilities escalating, Demirtas earlier this month urged both sides to return to peace.
“PKK weapons must be instantly silenced; their hands have to be taken away from triggers,” Demirtas said in Ankara. “The government should also state that operations against them would be stopped, and it must open a dialogue with an approach that would not include death.”
But that message may be falling on deaf ears, with some analysts suggesting that Kurdish political leaders are increasingly at odds with the Kurdish armed groups.
While Ocalan, the PKK leader, continues to exert influence over much of the Kurdish movement, he has been isolated in his prison cell since April and unable to communicate with the outside world.
Although the HDP has communication links with the PKK, sources say the party has little, if any, influence over its fighters.
According to Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, the HDP’s political success in June elections – in which it secured 13 percent of the vote to win 80 seats in parliament – potentially undercuts the PKK, while its fighters’ growing number of attacks within Turkey are threatening to turn voters away from the pro-Kurdish party.
“The HDP is literally between a rock and a hard place,” Ozel told Al Jazeera. “Demirtas hasn’t moved fast enough to distance himself from the PKK, and I think he will be forced to take a more radical position against them. At the same time, the PKK with its brutality is also showing that they don’t like the high profile Demirtas has. The civilian wing of the Kurdish political movement is now in the Turkish parliament, which potentially takes the initiative away from the PKK.”
Publicly, the HDP leaders are putting up a strong front while continuing to call for a de-escalation of the conflict.
“People look to us for morale and strength,” Demirtas told the Financial Times this week. “If the government succeeds in frightening us with threats, then society as a whole will be intimidated.”
If the government succeeds in frightening us with threats, then society as a whole will be intimidated.
But privately, sources close to the HDP say the party is running out of options as the government and the PKK appear to be hurtling towards renewed all-out conflict.
“Erdogan controls the fighter jets, Erdogan controls access to Ocalan, and he also controls access to the media,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst for the Silk Road Studies Program, a Central Asia research centre in Washington DC and Stockholm.
“Even more important than the relative shift in influence within the Kurdish organisation is the potential reduction of the influence of any leadership and a fragmentation of control among the Kurds. If pressure on the HDP continues, we’re going to be seeing a lot of young Kurds taking matters into their own hands,” Jenkins added.
The crisis, which was attributed to ISIL, was sparked by the July 20 suicide bombing on Kurdish and Turkish activists in the town of Suruc, killing 33 people.
Tensions with the Kurds flared in the days following the attack, with many blaming the Turkish government for not doing enough to battle ISIL.
The PKK killed two Turkish police officers in retaliation for the bombing, prompting Turkey to launch its air campaign against the fighters.
Authorities have detained hundreds of suspected PKK supporters in nationwide raids, while blocking dozens of websites and Twitter accounts.
With pressure escalating on Turkey’s Kurds, younger supporters of the HDP are growing increasingly disillusioned.
Musa, a 20-year-old Kurdish resident of Istanbul’s tense Gazi neighbourhood, said the optimism he felt in the aftermath of the election has since been replaced by rage.
“We cast our ballots for peace, but the [Turkish] state gave us war,” said Musa, who asked not to be identified by his last name for fear of retaliation from authorities. “It is clear that democracy means nothing to this government. The only language it understands is the language of force.”