Year after year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and former prime minister, has tightened his grip on his country’s government, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and state institutions. After 12 such years, Garo Paylan, 42, wants to see him out of the picture. “We need to get rid of Erdogan. We need him to stay in his palace,” he says, referring to the Turkish leader’s new residence, a 1,150-room, $620 million compound built on protected land.
On June 7, the day of Turkey’s parliamentary elections, Paylan, a candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), will have his best chance so far.
Erdogan, elected president in August 2014, has said he will use a decisive AKP victory to endow his new post with more powers. His allies have mentioned the French and U.S. presidential systems as Erdogan’s inspiration. Citing his growing inability to handle dissent, the AKP’s domination of the bureaucracy and the lack of adequate checks and balances, critics warn that the model the Turkish leader has in mind sounds more like Russia’s under Vladimir Putin.
Arguably the biggest obstacle in Erdogan’s way, at least for now, is the party that Paylan helped build.
Until recently, the HDP and its predecessors, most of them banned by Turkey’s courts, were seen merely as political outgrowths of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U. consider the PKK a terrorist group. Many Kurds see it as the armed incarnation of their struggle for autonomy and cultural rights.
Under Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s animated co-leader, the party has undergone one of the most remarkable transformations in Turkey’s political history. While retaining its Kurdish core, the group has embraced an agenda that includes rights for other ethnic minorities, quotas for women and an end to discrimination against LGBT people. It is the only mainstream political party fully committed to EU accession. It is also the only one to have publicly recognized and commemorated the Armenian genocide. Its field of candidates, half of them women, includes Kurds, Yezidis, liberal Turks, disillusioned Islamists and a gay activist. Paylan is one of three ethnic Armenians on the HDP ticket.
In previous elections, Kurdish parties, having traditionally polled in the single digits, circumvented Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold, the highest anywhere in the world, by having their candidates run as independents. This time around, the HDP has decided to lay everything on the line and run as a single party. Backed by progressive voters, it has seen its support in the polls swell to 9.2 to 11.5 percent.
Although the AKP is almost certain to win a plurality of the popular vote (most polls give it at least 40 percent), almost everything else depends on the HDP’s showing. If the party clears the threshold and enters parliament, it will likely find itself in a position to thwart Erdogan’s plans. With a strong showing by the other parties, it may even force the AKP into forming a coalition government. If the HDP falls short, its share of the vote will be reallocated to the bigger parties, possibly giving Erdogan a sufficient majority (330 out of 550 seats) to forge ahead with constitutional changes.
Not only Erdogan’s ambitions and the course of Turkey’s democracy hinge on the HDP’s fortunes. Peace talks between the government and the PKK — intended to put an end to a conflict that has cost about 40,000 lives over the past three decades — are also at stake.
“There can’t be a peace process without the HDP in parliament,” says Paylan. With Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader, behind bars since 1999 and with the militants based in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, he says, the HDP is the government’s only possible mediator. “Ocalan and Qandil are the ones who will talk about laying down weapons, but we are the ones talking about the future. They need us to negotiate.”
For the peace talks to deliver results, Paylan says, Erdogan needs to be tamed. “The more power he has, the fewer steps he will take,” he says. “That’s one more reason for us to be in parliament … He needs to be weaker so that he sees us as equals.”
The president’s allies could not disagree more. No one has done more for the Kurds than Erdogan, they say, referring to new language rights, investments in areas ravaged by war and the decision to launch peace talks with Ocalan. “This process needs a strong leader,” says Hasim Hasimi, an AKP candidate from Diyarbakir, the heart of the Kurdish-majority southeast, sitting in his party’s local headquarters. “We need a powerful man to set the bureaucracy, military and the [Turkish] nationalists straight.”
With so much on the line, the campaign ahead of the June 7 elections has been vicious even by the standards of Turkey’s deeply polarized politics. Keen to shore up the conservative vote, Erdogan has notched up the nationalist and religious rhetoric, brandishing a Kurdish translation of the Quran during a Diyarbakir rally, accusing foreign newspapers of conspiring against Turkey and calling the HDP a creation of “terrorists, homosexuals and the Armenian lobby.” Demirtas has had to deny reports in pro-government newspapers that he consumed pork (forbidden in Islam) during a 2014 trip to Germany.
The heated rhetoric has gone hand in hand with a surge of violence. A candidate from the opposition Republican People’s Party was wounded in an attack in May. A gunman killed the son of a former AKP deputy in the southeastern province of Batman. Of a reported 161 attacks against the offices of the main political parties from February to mid-May, 122 targeted the HDP. On May 18, a pair of blasts hit the party’s bureaus in Adana and Mersin, wounding six people. Mithat Sancar, an HDP candidate from Mardin, pins the blame on the government. “They’re hoping this will provoke the PKK to retaliate,” he says. Orhan Miroglu, an AKP parliamentary hopeful also from Mardin, complains that he cannot campaign in some districts without armed guards, for fear of being attacked by Kurdish militants.
During last year’s local elections, reports of vote rigging marred the mayoral race in the capital, Ankara. This time around, at least in the Kurdish southeast, trust in a fair vote is so low that any result short of 10 percent for the HDP risks being seen as evidence of electoral fraud. This, in turn, may trigger unrest and clashes with Turkish security forces, placing the peace process on the brink of collapse. “We’ll do what we can to avoid violence,” says Sancar, “but we don’t have unlimited control over the streets.”
The other question is what will happen if the HDP’s gamble pays off and the party enters parliament with 50 to 60 deputies. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary by its leadership, suspicions linger that the HDP may strike a deal with the AKP, giving Erdogan the powers he covets in exchange for further concessions on the Kurdish issue.
Paylan vehemently rules out a possible alliance with the AKP or with any other party, for that matter. The HDP will not betray the block of progressive voters whose trust it has fought so hard to win, he pledges. “Every [such] step we take, one part of us is going to protest,” he says. “We are a new party. We would rather be in opposition than in coalition.”