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Kurdish election gains are ‘historic’ boost for inclusion in Turkey

Pro-Kurdish HDP won historic 13 percent of vote in elections by attracting broad spectrum of minority voters

The surprising success of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP party in this weekend’s election was a historic moment for one of the country’s — and world’s — longest-persecuted ethnic minorities. By capturing 13 percent of the national vote in Sunday’s poll, the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish political faction to surpass the minimum threshold and gain representation in parliament for Turkey's 14 million Kurds.

But analysts said the bigger story was the unprecedented voting electoral alliance mustered by the leftist HDP. For the first time, a Kurdish-focused party had tabled the traditional platform of Kurdish self-rule and peace talks to end the decades-long conflict between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK insurgency in the southeast, in order to present a mainstream liberal opposition to the dominant AKP party. HDP voters and candidates included Turkish liberals, women and a spectrum of marginalized ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. The strategy paid off.

“It is an historic moment” for the Kurdish political movement, said Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, an expert on Kurdish politics with the Jamestown Foundation think tank, who is based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. Considering that the Kurdish predecessors of the HDP “were all banned and its politicians often imprisoned,” he said the election result was also “an important success for Turkish democracy.” 

For those who feared Turkey was careening down an authoritarian path, Sunday was an important shift. In addition to a general crackdown on media and political dissent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing to reform Turkey’s constitution and vastly expand his current powers — an ambition that would have required a compliant legislature dominated by the AK Party that had propelled him to power.

Instead, the HDP and Turkey’s other opposition parties — the secularist CHP (25 percent of the vote) and the Nationalist Movement Party (16 percent) — shattered the parliamentary majority held by the AKP since it was first voted into power 13 years ago. Analysts said public concern over creeping authoritarianism, especially among moderates who once saw Erdogan as a reformer, was a major factor behind this defeat, particularly in light of mounting economic difficulties.

“You have to look at the votes the AKP lost,” said Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. “Because of Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, his meddling in financial decisions, his interference in the judiciary, the lack of media freedom and freedom of expression. All these anti-AKP sentiments culminated in an environment where liberals increasingly started to see the HDP as a party that could fill the liberal void left by the AKP.”

But the HDP platform, which aims to empower Turkey’s sizeable but marginalized ethnic and religious minorities, is also part of the explanation. Party co-leader Selahattin Demirtas has called for an expansion of minority rights, including educational and linguistic reforms long demanded by the Kurds as well as greater religious recognition of groups like the Alevi Muslims. The Alevis, who number at least 15 million, have been branded as heretics by many among Turkey’s Sunni majority population, including Erdogan himself, and their places of worship — cemevis — are not granted the same official tax status or protections as mosques.

“The whole narrative and discourse they based their campaign on is pursuing the interests of the marginalized in the country, of those who have been alienated and disenfranchised by ruling power,” said Ege Seckin, a Turkey analyst at IHS consultancy in London. “When you broaden your appeal to this extent, you’re taking into account a significant chunk of the country’s population.”

Among the HDP’s 80 seats in parliament will be the legislature's first two members of the Yazidi religious minority, as well as several Armenians and Christian Turks. The HDP also vaulted 31 female representatives into the next session of parliament, a higher percentage than any other party, and put forth the country's first openly gay candidate, activist Baris Sulu. In what may be one of the most liberal stances on LGBT rights of any Middle Eastern political party, the HDP has called for a “sexually free society” and taken a stand against homophobia and transphobia. Though raids on gay-rights groups have halted under AKP rule, homosexuality remains severely stigmatized in Turkey, and rights groups say the rate of attacks on transgender individuals is one of the highest in the world.

“The other parties have selected candidates from one or two different groups for decorative purposes,” Demirtas told Reuters in an interview before elections. “We are the richest party when it comes to pluralism.”

Seckin noted that the HDP is not the first political party to reach out to Turkey’s minority groups. The CHP, the secularist party that captured 25 percent of the vote on Sunday, has essentially taken the same approach. On Sunday, one of its candidates, Ozcan Purcu, became the first ethnic Roma ever elected to Turkey's parliament. But the HDP, “because they are a Kurdish party, have more credibility when they say they will stand for minorities' rights. This is a party that underwent ceaseless persecution, being expelled from parliament, having its leaders imprisoned, and more recently its election officers getting attacked throughout the country,” Seckin said, referring to last week’s bombing at an HDP rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir that killed two people.

According to Tol, of the Middle East Institute, “The HDP was a marginal ethnic pro-Kurdish party that could grow into a mainstream liberal party."

But it will have to clear a few hurdles first. In the near future, it remains to be seen whether the AKP, which still has a 41 percent plurality in parliament, will manage to form a majority coalition with another party — something it has never been required to do in order to govern — within 45 days, as dictated by the constitution. Otherwise, new elections will be held by the end of the year. That could be a risky prospect for the ascendant HDP, because the anti-AKP liberals who voted for the HDP this time around may not be relied on to turn out in the same numbers again. “A lot of these votes were protest votes,” said Jamal al-Shayyal, an Al Jazeera correspondent who covered the elections from Turkey.

Nevertheless, the rise of the HDP seems to signal a fundamental shift in the Turkish political climate. The HDP have “proven themselves as a legitimate active player in parliament,” Seckin said. “They have the opportunity to advance the discourse of pluralism. So it will be interesting to see to what extent they can carve out a space in the public debate in the coming weeks.”

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