Turkey’s June 7 General Election and the Risk of an Increase in Violence in Turkey’s Kurdish Regions

Paper written for the Journal of Political Risk, originally published here.

Single digit differences in the percentage of votes attained by parties in Turkey’s upcoming general election could lead to radically different outcomes, all of which hold consequences for the health of the ongoing peace process (the “resolution process”) between the Turkish state and Kurdish armed groups in the country’s restive south east. If political groups close to the Kurdish movements find themselves frustrated at the ballot box, unable to cross Turkey’s high threshold that keeps smaller parties out of the mainstream, there is a chance of an increase in violence, even moves towards secession. Similarly, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), if it does not do sufficiently well at the next elections, may find it hard to push through with the resolution process. However, there are other potential outcomes that would not degrade the resolution process. Turkey’s south east regions with large Kurdish populations hold great economic potential, with hydrocarbon reserves, a mobile population and proximity to an opening Iran and a flourishing Northern Iraq. A collapse of the resolution process and an increase in the conflict could seriously prejudice this potential and lead to greater instability across Turkey. Continued cooperation could help bring greater stability to the wider region.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, is seeking to change the constitution to endow the presidential position with more powers, despite apparent divisions within his party over the issue. While, as president, Erdoğan is technically no longer a member of his party and is not running in the coming election, he is campaigning feverishly against the opposition. His party, the incumbent AKP, has been in power now for three terms and has seen its share of the vote rise and fall. But, while always maintaining enough seats to form a government, it has seen its number of seats consistently fall. Current polls suggest AKP will not have the backing it needs to change the constitution. Many polls suggest that the AKP share of the vote may fall by at least 5-6% (compared to its 2011 election result, where AKP took 49.8% of the vote) at the coming elections, but that they will still be the largest party. However, if they lose much more than this, they may even be unable to form a government.

At the same time, the ascendant People’s Democratic Party/ Democratic Regions Party (HDP/DBP) is hoping to gain at least 10% of the vote nationally and thus cross the important 10% threshold.[1] The threshold was introduced in the new constitution written after the country’s 1980 coup to prevent small, potentially extremist, parties from influencing politics. Parties that cross the 10% threshold receive a bonus in the proportion of the seats they are awarded; likewise, parties that fail to do so receive disproportionately fewer seats. If HDP is successful in crossing the threshold, their number of members of parliament will thus be significantly increased. Such an outcome would probably take from the AKP’s share of votes, already expected to fall in this election.[2]

With many voters aware of the negative impact such a result would have on AKP, momentum has gathered around the HDP. However, current polls show mixed results; with many showing HDP just falling short of or just making it across the threshold (see from May 23: “10 Anket Şirketi, 10 Farklı Anket Sonucu” (Ten Different Polling Companies, 10 Different Results)). HDP has strong ties with the Kurdish movement. This has previously put off voters, who might otherwise be sympathetic to their policies. However, on top of polls that suggest a good showing for HDP, from my own conversations, I have come across voters who would normally vote for CHP (the People’s Republican Party, the main opposition) or AKP but have become disillusioned and who claim to be seriously considering HDP.

The Turkish-Kurdish Resolution Process

Under Erdoğan, first as prime minister, now as president, the Turkish state has been engaged in a so-called “resolution process” with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and other Kurdish militant groups. This resulted in a ceasefire in 2013, which technically ended in late 2014 amid accusations that the Turkish state was intentionally not providing support to ethnic Kurds in Syria. Moreover, both sides accused the other of bad faith, with claims that the PKK had not withdrawn the amount of forces it had agreed to, and that the government is keeping the resolution process dragging along for as long as possible without doing much concrete reform.[3]Rather, they merely pose as reformists for political expedience, with no aims of ever fulfilling the agreements.

The Ceasefire

However, while there have been a number of fatal attacks since the end of the cease fire, the conflict has not fully heated up and ade facto, loose semi-cease fire appears to remain in place. The mechanics of the resolution process, namely, the working committees and meetings, have continued and there remains hope that the conflict will not return to its previous levels of intensity. Currently, public support for the resolution process remains strong. The AKP heralds the resolution process as one of its big achievements. In the run up to the election, neither side will want to be seen to be conceding too much, nor to be overly stirring up conflict, and consequently, the process has been put on hold for the moment. At the same time, after the DBP, the AKP is the second strongest party in areas of Turkey with large Kurdish populations, yet it controls very few districts. The AKP has been working for some time to acquire more districts from the BDP in Turkey’s south east, the regions where Kurdish parties have the strongest support.

Possibility of Violence and Secession if HDP does not Win at the Polls

The results of the election have the potential to affect how the resolution process continues. If the HDP do not make it over the 10% threshold, there is the possibility that elements within the Kurdish movement will take this as a sign that the political process will not deliver their aims and adopt more forceful strategies. HDP not crossing the 10% threshold would likely lead to street protests, which are often met with a heavy police response, in turn raising tensions. In the long term, sustained and increased tensions could lead to a return to conflict.

Moreover, if the PKK feels powerful enough, and the political process is seen as ineffective, some speculate whether the group would seek to declare independence, possibly leading to a bloody conflict, as overall Turkish public opinion is strongly against secession. The DBP having recently changed its name from BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) is seen by some commentators as a nod to the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcallan’s call for the establishment of autonomous parliaments, raising speculation that failure at the ballot could lead to the establishment of a regional government in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the south east.[4]However, the human cost of this will decrease its likelihood.

If HDP does cross the threshold, or even if not, and the AKP’s majority is further weakened, the party may lose some of the political capital needed to drive through the resolution process. Currently, support for the PKK is riding high after the propaganda coup of the siege of Kobane, the persistence of the territory the PYD (the PKK’s sister group) has managed to hold in Syria and accusations that the AKP gave support to Islamic State; moreover, the two years of relative calm have allowed Kurdish autonomists to establish parallel state structures in parts of the country, allowing these groups to take steps in convincing the local populations of their efficacy at governing, as well as build up their local political capital. Thus, a return to conflict could well have the effect of putting to bed AKP hopes of gaining seats in the regions with large Kurdish populations.

Lack of Political Capital to Drive the Resolution Process

Similarly, as mentioned, the AKP points to the resolution process as one of its achievements within a wider context of ensuring stability and economic growth. However, at the same time, Erdoğan has also invested a lot of his own political capital in seeking to change the constitution to give the presidency more power.[5] With his behavior appearing increasingly erratic (with some claiming this is calculated), he could interfere with the resolution process for political gain. In fact, he recently publicly stated that there is no “Kurdish problem” and found himself in a public spat with Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç over his role in coordinating the process. Moreover, the government has been accused in the past of creating or provoking security issues in order to draw attention away from other issues. Indeed, one commentator recently suggested the government might be playing the “war card.”[6]With the Turkish economy in troubled waters, if we believe such a hypothesis, insecurity might not be such an unattractive option to Erdoğan. However, in a political environment as full of slander as Turkey’s, such theories should be treated with caution.

Potential for a Coalition Government

Another, less likely electoral outcome would be the AKP finding itself in a position where its share of the vote is even further reduced, by more than 8%, and it would have to form a coalition government. In such a case, one, albeit still fairly remote possibility, is a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).[7] The AKP has employed rhetoric that focuses on the idea of a common Muslim identity being stronger than ethnic differences to “sell” the resolution process to the public; the MHP on the other hand strongly supports a united Turkey and takes the harshest line of all the main parties on minority claims. The MHP itself even ruled out such a possibility only very recently and the parties differ quite significantly ideologically. However, the economically-liberal, socially-conservative AKP may be left with no other option, being as they are unlikely to want to share power with the main opposition party, the CHP, nor with the left-leaning and socially progressive HDP. Some commentators have raised the possibility of a HDP doing a deal with the AKP for greater autonomy or some other perceived gain, but the ideological gulf between the two would be significant. The MHP on the other hand shares some common ground with the AKP, which has its roots in Islamist parties, in that the former’s ideology involves a valorization of Turkey’s Muslim identity. A coalition with the nationalist MHP could degrade the resolution process, which the party views very negatively.

Another outcome that is starting to look possible is that of a coalition between the main opposition party, CHP, and the MHP, as well as possibly the HDP. While CHP and, to a greater extent, MHP have nationalist tendencies that would clash with the HDP’s more liberal approach to minority issues, HDP and CHP do share something of an ideological overlap stemming from the social-democratic leanings of both parties. If HDP was to find itself in a government with the CHP, the resolution process could continue, albeit potentially under a different framework. While the CHP has been traditionally dismissive of Kurdish claims, its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, last year, during the events surrounding the siege of Kobane, acknowledged the cross-border ethnic ties between Turkish citizens in the border regions and Kurds in Syria. This was understood by many as an attempted demonstration of empathy and understanding towards demands stemming from the Kurdish population and signaling of a softening of his party’s approach. However, as previously mentioned, the MHP, which is likely to receive a higher portion of the vote than HDP, is likely to look negatively on making any concessions to Kurdish demands.

The Syrian Conflict and the Wider Region

The other factor of interest is the ongoing Syrian conflict. The PKK, through its activities with its Syrian sister group, the PYD, has been distracted by its conflict with the Islamic State. This may have fostered a reluctance on the part of the PKK and similar groups to return to a full conflict with the Turkish state. The Turkish government, for its part, has toyed with the idea of an invasion of Syria for several years. Such an eventuality still seems unlikely but could have massively destabilizing consequences for Turkey internally. As mentioned above, the Turkish government has in the past been accused of using security issues to distract from economic or other problems. And again, with the Turkish economy in a bad state, while such a theory may seem absurd, it is hard to predict the effects of the economic collapse, from a weakening lira leading to many companies defaulting on their foreign currency denominated debts, that some have forecast for Turkey’s near future.

The mood in Turkey is certainly tense, after a recent bomb attack on an HDP campaign bus and bombs being posted to a number of HDP party headquarters, which one commentator has suggested are being orchestrated systematically.[8] Given the recent renewed strength of the PKK, a new conflict could be especially bloody. With hydrocarbon reserves, a young mobile population and a strategic location in terms of regional trade, Turkey’s south east holds great potential. With continued infrastructural state investment and stability, the future could hold promising investment prospects. At the same time, commentators have suggested continued cooperation between Turks and Kurds could lead to greater regional stability and the resolution of other conflicts.[9]There is a lot to be gained from continued peace and much to be lost from a return to conflict.

George Dyson is a Turkey-based researcher, focusing on risk, conflict resolution and emerging markets. He works with a number of consultancies, as well as the Istanbul-based Social Production and Education Studies Research Center. Mr. Dyson holds a MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Anders Corr provided editorial oversight for this article. JPR Status: Working Paper. Archived 5/27/2015. An additional paragraph and subheadings were added to this article on 5/29/2015.

Footnotes:

[1] The DBP runs in the south east of Turkey, the HDP elsewhere. They are separate entities but are running together.

[2] The graphs at the top of this article, compiled from statistics from three polling companies, demonstrate the difference the HDP crossing the 10% threshold could make; the top graph is with the party crossing the threshold, the bottom is with it not: “Son Anketlere Göre HDP Barajı Aşarsa AKP İktidar Değil,” (According to the most recent polls, if HDP surpasses the threshold, AKP is not in power”) Bianet, May 25, 2015

http://www.bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/164784-hdp-nin-oylari-meclis-dagilimini-nasil-etkiler?bia_source=rss&utm_content=buffer2dadd&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[3] “The enduring frustration of Turkey’s Kurds,” Foreign Policy, October 4, 2013 http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/10/04/the-enduring-frustration-of-turkeys-kurds/

[4] “Erdogan’s Gordian Knot,” Turkey Wonk, March 25, 2015 https://turkeywonk.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/erdogans-gordian-knot/

[5] “Could Erdogan lose Turkey’s upcoming election?,” Washington Post, May 19, 2015 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/19/could-erdogan-lose-turkeys-upcoming-election/

[6] “As elections approach, is Turkey changing tactics?,” Al Arabiya, May 24, 2015 http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/05/24/What-do-Turkey-s-elections-mean-for-its-foreign-ambitions-.html

[7] “AKP, MHP’yle koalisyon kurar mı?” (Would AKP form a coalition with MHP?), Milliyet, April 27, 2015  http://www.milliyet.com.tr/akp-mhp-yle-koalisyon-kurar-mi-/siyaset/ydetay/2050099/default.html

[8] “Data Set Demonstrates Attacks on Turkish Opposition Party’s Campaign Offices Are Systematic,” Global Voices, May 24, 2015 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2015/05/24/data-set-demonstrates-attacks-on-turkish-opposition-partys-campaign-offices-are-systematic/

[9] “Japonya, Malezya, İran, çözüm süreci…,” Radikal, April 8, 2015 http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/fuat_keyman/japonya_malezya_iran_cozum_sureci-1330928

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