The Kurds Will Decide Turkey's Fate

The Kurds could be more important than ever in securing Turkey's democratic future.

On June 7, 2015, Turkey will hold its twenty-fourth general election to determine the 550 new members of the parliament. As the election date approaches, Turkish politics boil a little hotter. One development that has added fuel to the fire is the recent decision of Turkey’s largest Kurdish political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to contest the elections as a “single party” for the first time.

The HDP is a left-wing political organization that emphasizes minority, namely Kurdish, rights. A party in name, but not by representation, in the Turkish parliament, HDP has not always been a major force in Turkish politics. This changed last year, when its young and charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, enjoyed an unprecedented level of popularity and won almost 10 percent of the national votes in the August 2014 presidential elections. Prior to Demirtaş’ success, HDP and its predecessors had only been receiving around 6-7 percent of the national votes. Given that Turkey has one of the highest electoral thresholds in the world, which requires a political party to garner at least 10 percent of the national votes to gain any seats in parliament, enjoying such a low level of electoral popularity has been an obstacle in advancing Kurdish rights.

The army introduced the election threshold in the name of political stability when it last seized power in a direct coup in 1980. Many, however, have long considered the threshold’s true purpose to be a mechanism by which to shut the Kurds out of politics and suppress political Islam. Over the years, ruling political parties have promised either total elimination or significant lowering of the election threshold, but none—including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose predecessors were on the blunt end of this threshold rule—have kept their promises. HDP has been circumventing the threshold by having its members run the elections and enter the parliament as independent candidates.

The threshold rule does not apply to independent candidates, who—once elected into parliament—can form a party group within the parliament if they have more than twenty MPs. The HDP currently has twenty-seven MPs in the Turkish parliament with an estimated potential of seating thirty to thirty-five more independent members if it uses the same method this June. Yet its success in 2014 seems to have given the HDP a boost of confidence to change its tactic, and to instead contest the elections as a united party. This decision is a historic and risky one, with huge implications for Turkish democracy and politics.

There are serious doubts as to whether the HDP can pass the threshold. In the instance that it does pass, the AKP would see at the very least twenty (calculating just the votes from HDP’s primary voter base in Kurdish provinces) of its current 312 seats go to the new HDP members. This would be a tremendous loss for Turkey’s president (and former prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who needs AKP to obtain a super-majority in parliament with 367 seats to be able to change the constitution without the support of other parties or without having to call for referendum.

Erdoğan wants a new constitution that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary to presidential system and allow him to cater to Kurds’ political demands on his own terms. Many are concerned that in a presidential regime, Erdoğan would become even more of an authoritarian leader than he already is.

After a victory in the last parliamentary elections in 2011, Erdoğan attempted to introduce a new constitution, but failed to muster the necessary consensus. AKP needs 367 seats to be able to swiftly change the constitution. Analysts estimate that the HDP will gain between fifty-five and seventy seats if it passes the 10 percent threshold. These seats would mostly come from the AKP. Such a loss would make it impossible for the AKP to reach 367 seats, and effectively undermine Erdoğan’s aspirations for a centralized presidential regime with few checks and balances.

If, however, a political organization running as a single party fails to meet the threshold, all the votes given to that group get distributed to the second-highest vote getter in the region. Since the AKP comes second in popularity after the HDP, the AKP could sweep all the HDP-aligned votes and could very well gain a super majority—especially since no independent HDP members would be in parliament.

Hence, the AKP, which once fought to have its own voice heard, is now relying on the threshold to quiet HDP’s voice in the National Assembly. On the flipside of the same coin, HDP is running the risk of being sidelined and letting the ruling AKP reap all the gains. Erdoğan’s recent remarks about there never being a Kurdish problem in Turkey because “[Kurds] have everything” make the dangers in HDP’s risky move all the more visible.