A setback for Kurdish self-rule?

The Kurds’ electoral triumph in Turkey will complicate their aspirations for self-rule.

HDP supporters wave a flag with Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and others of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, during a rally in Istanbul [AP]
HDP supporters wave a flag with Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and others of Abdullah Ocalan, in Istanbul [AP]

Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists scored an unprecedented victory in parliamentary elections on June 7, breaking the threshold to enter parliament for the first time. Even more remarkably, their Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) did so by winning ethnic Turkish votes from outside the party’s power base in the mostly Kurdish southeast. Such developments would appear to signal optimism for the stalled Kurdish peace process in Turkey and wider Kurdish hopes for self-rule.

Yet, political dynamics suggest otherwise. Rather than advance the Kurdish nationalist cause, the HDP’s win will bolster the anti-Kurdish far-right at home and expose fissures among Kurdish nationalists in the region.

The HDP’s electoral performance was an aberration and is unlikely to be repeated. Voting for the HDP was the simplest way to deny President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a friendly majority in parliament, leading many ethnic Turks to cast tactical votes for the party.

What’s behind Turkey’s ruling AK party setback?

With Erdogan’s ambitions now checked, a number of factors suggest that the HDP will struggle to hold together its unwieldy coalition of Kurdish nationalists and Turkish protest voters, much less enlarge it.

Ethnic-Turkish voters

Firstly, the affable Selahattin Demirtas headed the HDP’s list. He won votes from ethnic-Turkish voters with his quick wit and an innocuous platform. Yet, it is the Kurdish militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – hated by many Turks for conducting a four decade-long insurgency in Turkey – that remains an animating force behind the HDP.

If Demirtas strays too far from the PKK’s control, PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan will undercut him. The long list of charismatic Kurdish nationalist would-be leaders sitting on the political sidelines, from Leyla Zana to Osman Baydemir, testifies to Ocalan’s skill at protecting his supreme authority, even from prison.

Secondly, the HDP’s social policies – promoting gender equality and LGBT rights – match poorly with the Kurds’ overwhelmingly conservative mores. To date, conflict in Turkey’s southeast has drawn Kurds to the PKK despite this mismatch.

Rather than advance the Kurdish nationalist cause, the HDP’s win will bolster the anti-Kurdish far-right at home and expose fissures among Kurdish nationalists in region.


However, if the PKK continues to pursue the political track in Turkey, it will begin to face stiff competition from right-wing parties targeting voters in the southeast, such as the radical Islamist Kurdish Hezbollah.

The Kurds’ win will also strengthen anti-Kurdish political currents in Turkey. The pro-Erdogan Justice and Development Party (AK party) is still by far the country’s most popular party and will do its utmost to not only win back ethnic Turkish support, but also form a majority government with the far-right National Action Party (MHP).

Indeed, the MHP, the second biggest winner in the polls after the HDP in terms of seat gain in the parliament, has made ending the Kurdish peace process a core precondition for entering a coalition.

Near abroad

The HDP’s newfound prestige will deepen existing divisions within the regional Kurdish nationalist movement. Kurds are present in large numbers not only in Turkey, but also in a roughly contiguous circle comprising the borderlands of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Across this expanse, there are two primary poles of political power: The pro-Ocalan parties on one side, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massoud Barzani of Iraq on the other.

Kurds are understandably wary of highlighting their disunity. However, the divisions are real and plain to see: the KDP and the Iraqi Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fought for control of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region in the 1990s before reaching a power-sharing agreement in 1996. Although the KDP-PUK peace remains durable, frictions between Kurdish groups aligned to Ocalan or Barzani continue.

Turkey’s changing political landscape will only further complicate matters: Since 2008, Barzani has been a close ally of Erdogan. While this friendship clearly served the Kurdistan Region’s economic and security interests, it also secured Ankara’s support for Barzani as a conservative counterweight to the PKK’s revolutionary aims for the region.

Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani [Reuters]
Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani [Reuters]

With the Kurds situated astride a region in turmoil, the stakes in the PKK-KDP rivalry could not be higher. In this context, the HDP’s win can be seen as the latest in a string of propaganda coups strengthening the standing of the PKK at the KDP’s expense. This includes pro-PKK militants successfully freeing Mount Sinjar from an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) siege in Iraq in August 2014, and the March 2015 defeat of ISIL in the Syrian town of Kobane.

Responsible actor

These victories have strengthened the PKK’s efforts to portray itself to the West as a responsible actor and potential security partner in the region, intensifying its competition with the KDP for leadership of the Kurdish national movement.

The Kurds’ electoral success in Turkey is a political earthquake that has already shaken Ankara’s political landscape. Yet the aftershocks may prove to have even greater impact. 

In the wider Middle East, the HDP’s win builds on the PKK’s recent victories against ISIL, strengthening Ocalan’s regional appeal, even in traditional KDP strongholds. Ocalan and Barzani both seek to be the face of Kurdish aspirations for self-determination, and see allying with the West as critical to realising this ambition. Yet many in the power circles in London and Washington DC still view international Kurdish politics through a KDP lens.

As competition among Kurdish nationalists heats up, the West will increasingly find itself in the middle of rival factions. Policymakers should take notice.

Jonathan Friedman is an expert on Turkish and Kurdish affairs. He is a senior associate at global risk consultancy Stroz Friedberg, where he consults for investors in the region. He is also an associate at the London-based Centre for Turkey Studies.

Neil Quilliam is acting head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.