TURKEY’S TRICKY CHOICE

Tomorrow, Turkey will have its most important election in a decade. The Islamist and conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in power since 2002, and in their earlier years of government presided over strong economic development and made great strides towards EU membership. In more recent years however, their once golden economic touch has turned to butterfingers, and they increasingly rely on religion as a means of getting votes. This election will represent the largest threat to AKP power since they first formed a government.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s president (who is constitutionally supposed to be above party politics but acts as the de facto head of the AKP), has shown a worryingly flagrant disregard for democracy and political dissent. He once compared democracy to a tram-car, saying: “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” With his call for new executive presidential powers after the election, he now looks ready to lead Turkey off the tram-car. The AKP needs a super majority of two-thirds to enact the reforms he would like, and a (more likely) majority of three fifths to call a referendum on enacting them. However, come June 8th the party could find themselves without a single party majority for the first time.

New presidential powers would bring Turkey closer to the political system under its undemocratic Ottoman predecessor, where power was centralised in the authoritarian role of the Sultan. In the hands of Erdoğan, they would be an unquestionably bad thing for Turkish democracy. However, the idea of constitutional reform in itself is not in itself bad: Turkey’s 1980 constitution has many flaws, including an undemocratic ten percent electoral threshold, which for years has limited the voice of the country’s Kurdish minority. Traditionally running as independent candidates in order to bypass the threshold, this year the Kurds will be represented by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who, if they pass ten percent, will most likely stop the AKP from gaining the majority they need.

The HDP are a party which has managed to tie together support from several marginalised constituencies. They represent not only the ostracised Kurdish population, but also aim to represent other ethnic minority rights, environmentalist politics, feminism, and LGBT rights (they are the only party fielding a gay candidate, a fact Erdoğan has used as a stick to beat them with). The difference between the two parties’ campaigns says a lot about the votes they are trying to attract. The AKP candidates are presented on posters with stern faces and folded arms, signifying the strength and stability of the Turkish father state, whereas the HDP posters feature images of their chairman and chairwoman smiling and waving, channelling a younger and more inclusive style of politics.

The HDP draw their core support from Turkey’s Kurdish south-east, and although they will win heavily there, may still not pass the threshold, which would hand all of their 70 or so prospective seats to the AKP. Allying themselves with other issue groups ignored by the AKP could prove to be the factor which pulls them over the line, and the party has gathered support from Turkish youth and leftist voters as a result.

Merve, a music student living in Istanbul, is one of those who might change her vote to the HDP. “I don’t know who to vote for; this election is different” she said. “Normally I would vote for [Turkey’s main social-democratic opposition] CHP, but this time I think I will vote for Halkların Demokratik Partisi”.

It is mainly the younger generation of Turks who are ready to join the Kurds in voting HDP. The older generation who lived through the civil war in the 1980’s are less ready to trust the party, due to their links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist Kurdish-nationalist group recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU. Merve told me she had spoken with older people who “would maybe vote for the HDP in ten years”, but were not yet ready to trust the party’s new inclusive and cross-ethnic image.

Pro-government media are playing up the PKK angle, as they hope it will make a crucial difference in persuading Turks to avoid the party. Even the HDP logo has come under scrutiny, with pro-AKP hacks laughably suggesting it contains subliminal advertising for the PKK. With declining circulation of pro-government media, it is unclear how effective these attacks will be in persuading Turks to avoid the party. It is however clear that any attacks on the party will have very little effect on the HDP’s solidified core vote in the country’s Kurdish south-east, and anti-Kurdish rhetoric may damage the AKP’s standing as the region’s second party.

Mehmet, a young Turkish teacher in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish populated Mardin province, plans to vote for the AKP. “Everyone thinks they know the right answers, but each party has their problems” he told me. The AKP represent stability and economic competence, much like their right-wing counterparts throughout Europe. That Turkey’s economic growth has slipped recently hasn’t affected how Mehmet will vote – he is also strongly religious, and therefore part of a group which the political Islamist party banks on for its support.

Unfortunately for the AKP, religion may not be the best indicator of how people will vote. Issues such as the economy, unemployment and the Kurdish peace process are likely to play a more important part in this election. For Leyla, a devout Muslim Kurd living in Midyat, religion is precisely a reason not to vote for the AKP. Although it was the AKP who gave her the right to wear her headscarf in public places, she won’t support them, because “they use religion as a tool”. Instead, like most people in Kurdish-dominated Midyat, she will vote for the HDP.

Suat is an English teacher in Turkey’s unofficial Kurdish capital, Diyarbakır. He lives in the newer, more modern part of the city with his wife and daughter, and is neighbours with Selahattin Demirtaş (the charismatic male co-chair of the HDP), who he perhaps unsurprisingly plans to vote for.

“It was normal to see dead bodies in the street” Suat said, describing the political situation in Diyarbakır during his childhood. “Every day hundreds of people would be killed, soldiers and [PKK] guerrillas”. Although he agreed that the situation had improved, he was reluctant to give the AKP too much credit for the progress of the last ten years. “The government realised they couldn’t kill everyone and that the Kurdish were not going to stop until they did, so that’s why they said ‘okay, let’s make a peace’”.

Tayyip Erdoğan and the leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan (“the two most powerful men in Turkey”) got round a table and made a deal. The peace is fragile, and there are still occasional outbursts of violence, but it is holding. However, more still needs to be done to resolve the deep-set issues between the two ethnic groups.

For Leyla, the outlook is pessimistic. “Every day there are still lots [of Kurdish youths] going to the mountains [to join the PKK]” she told me. “Whenever I go back to my hometown, there is always someone new who has gone”. The new generation of Kurds are better educated, and more prepared to fight for their rights. According to Suat “We [Kurds] need another 100 years to be brothers with the Turkish.” For him, the hope lies with the newer generation of Turkish youth like Merve, who are more accepting of the Kurds and will vote HDP. If the party can make a political breakthrough in these elections, it will hopefully cause a breakthrough in Turk-Kurd relations.

Whatever the outcome on the 8th of June, it will be a messy one for the politically polarised country. A majority of at least three fifths for the AKP could well lead Turkey away from the tramline of democracy and down a path to authoritarianism. A coalition between the nationalist MHP and the AKP is another possibility, which would be a disaster for Turkey’s minority groups and EU aims. A stable coalition between the three main opposition parties (CHP, HDP and the nationalist MHP) is extremely unlikely due to nationalist phobia of the Kurdish population.

An interesting possible outcome is an AKP-HDP coalition, which would alienate those Turkish voters who switched to HDP to stop Erdoğan, but would perhaps be a good thing for the peace process. Demirtaş has ruled out supporting the presidential reforms, but it is not inconceivable that some form of constitutional change could be achieved in exchange for AKP concessions on the issue of Kurdish autonomy. For Turkey’s Kurdish population, that would be a price worth paying.

If the HDP fail to make the threshold, the Kurdish population and other minority groups will be left without political representation. Mamed, a Kurdish interpreter from Diyarbakır, told me that he would either leave the country or join the PKK if this happened, and that he is far from the only Kurd considering these options.

It is not difficult to imagine a large protest movement around the country, and violent uprisings in Turkey’s south east if the HDP do not get ten percent of the vote. For this reason, Sunday’s election is a lose-lose for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If the HDP pass the threshold, he is unlikely to get his powers. If they don’t, he is unlikely to get his peace.

Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect anonymity