In a remarkable change of fortune, Turkey’s long-marginalized Kurdish minority is poised to play a pivotal role in the country’s politics. In the parliamentary election on June 7, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), received nearly 13% of the popular vote, giving it an expected 80 seats in the 550-member National Assembly.
The result represents a sea change for Turkish politics, for it marks the first time that a primarily Kurdish party has cleared the 10% electoral threshold to enter the parliament. Indeed, the HDP’s electoral success is the main reason that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to retain its parliamentary majority. The AKP received just under 41% of the vote, compared to around 50% in 2011, and its seat count in the National Assembly will fall from 327 to 258. Not since 2002, when it first came to power, has the AKP failed to win an outright majority.
The AKP’s electoral setback has put an end to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition of transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system of government into a presidential regime, which would have boosted his power enormously. Many voters and outside observers viewed the election as a referendum on Erdoğan’s role in politics. During the campaign, he did not try to hide his preference for a strong executive presidency and unabashedly supported the AKP – violating the neutral stance that Turkey’s constitution requires the president to maintain.
As a result, the AKP’s loss of its majority is likely to be interpreted as a defeat for Erdoğan personally and may even lead to a revolt against him within the party. Former President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc, who co-founded the AKP with Erdoğan, have been signaling for some time their disquiet not only with his authoritarian style, but also with his desire to transform the political system. If there is a revolt within the party, either or both of them are likely to lead it.
The HDP’s unexpected success will give the party – and its Kurdish constituency – an outsized role in the political maneuverings as the AKP struggles to form a new government. One possibility is that the AKP will attempt to entice the HDP into a ruling coalition. Such an alliance, however, would be far from stable.
One reason is that bitterness built up during the campaign – in which several HDP supporters were killed – is likely to linger. More important, although the AKP may be more willing than other Turkish parties to accommodate Kurdish concerns, it is unlikely to accept demands for devolution of powers to regional governments or any other decentralization program that strengthens the territorial autonomy of Kurdish areas.
Even less likely is an alliance among the HDP, the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). While numerically possible, there are too many ideological differences between the HDP, with its goal of Kurdish autonomy, and the other two parties’ insistence on centralization. Both are unwilling to concede that Kurds form a distinct ethnic group, let alone a nation.
Turkey may be fated to experience a relatively long period of political uncertainty and instability before a new equilibrium is found. A coalition government comprising the AKP and the MHP cannot be ruled out, but such an alliance would detract from the inclusive agenda that won the AKP much of its support during the past decade.
Such a coalition would also push the Kurds into a more confrontational posture, as the MHP would be certain to block the concessions that the AKP was discussing with Kurdish leaders before the elections. The breakdown of talks would benefit extremists on both sides and push moderate Kurds into the arms of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a renewed Kurdish insurgency.
The near-term course of Turkish politics is impossible to predict, but two things are becoming increasingly clear. First, the Kurds have an opportunity to make a much larger impact than ever before. Second, Erdoğan has suffered a setback from which he is unlikely to recover. Whatever happens as a result of these two developments, democracy in Turkey will never be the same.
This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Author: Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University and the author of Will the Middle East Implode?
Image: Skyscrapers are pictured behind old buildings in Beyoglu district in central Istanbul August 29, 2014. TURKEY-GENTRIFICATION/ REUTERS/Murad Sezer.