The success story of Turkey's Kurdish HDP party

The success story of Turkey's Kurdish HDP party
Comment: A newly born party in Turkey made history in last week's elections. But what is the story behind the HDP? And what brought a pro-Kurdish party this far?
5 min read
10 Jun, 2015
HDP is Turkey's first pro-Kurdish party to enter parliament [Getty]

On the morning of June 8, people woke up to a new era in Turkey.

For the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party passed the 10 percent threshold of total votes required to win around 80 parliament seats.

The success of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has shifted the balance of power and ended the dominance of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Freedom Party (AKP).

HDP's electoral boost has created a festive atmosphere, not only among Kurds but also among HDP's non-Kurdish secular and liberal supporters across the country.

Surely, the charisma and rhetorical skills of Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of HDP, have been an important factor in the party's success - making him the "trending topic" of domestic and international media.

Yet, was charisma alone enough to bring an end to the single-party dominance that AKP has enjoyed for more than 13 years? There are at least two other reasons that contributed to the HDP success.

'Gezi spirit'

In 2013, the "Gezi spirit" was born in a central Istanbul park among protesters united from a wide variety of ideological and ethnic backgrounds. What started as an environmentalist movement soon turned into a national display of anger at the perceived aggressiveness of the AKP government.

Milliyet Daily columnist Mehmet Tezkan defines the "Gezi spirit" as the essence of solidarity, love, respect, humour, intelligence, youth and freedom.

     HDP presented itself as the embodiment of the grassroots, pluralistic, democratic vision of Gezi.

Social interaction between protesters developed cooperation mechanisms and a new political culture among many Turkish youth organisations and individuals - who were once reticent when it came to politics.

When the police evacuated the park, for example, protesters started to meet in smaller open spaces to discuss local politics with each other in a pluralistic and decentralised manner.

During the 2014 presidential election in Turkey, HDP presented itself as the embodiment of the grassroots, pluralistic, democratic vision of Gezi. The party was formed by a coalition of libertarian socialists, Greens, left-wing democrats, LGBTQ community members, individuals from different ethnic groups - and Kurdish popular support.

While the HDP adopted pluralism and de-centralisation in its decision-making; the two main opposition parties, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had determined their presidential candidate by a handful of people each.

Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister and AKP leader at the time of the protests, used an increasingly personalised and controversial discourse which alienated various groups in Turkish society but held his supporters together.

As Erdogan turned the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015 respectively into a plebiscite for his one-man rule, the pluralistic discourse of HDP gained more support among secular, liberal and especially young voters.

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, Demirtas adopted a discourse that defended fundamental freedom and rights for everyone standing against patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia and the neoliberal economic order in Turkey.

Moreover, the HDP remained as the synthesis of Gezi Parkı movement with the plurality of its members. Membership was not limited to Kurds - Turks, Armenians, Alawites, Circassians, Laz, Assyrians and Arabs also supported HDP.

As a result of this plurality, HDP gained the sympathy of social and political minority groups as well as the support of secular and liberal voters.

Among the supporters of HDP, there were also CHP supporters who cast their votes strategically for HDP to ensure that AKP could not benefit from the very high election threshold as in past years.

     One percent of all HDP votes came from CHP supporters.

According to research by Cagdas Sirin and Koray Caliskan, who conducted exit poll interviews on the day of election, one percent of all HDP votes came from CHP supporters.

Although this rate appears low, it was significant enough for HDP to breach the minimum 10 percent national threshold that a party needs to win seats in parliament.

Kobane protests

Throughout 13 years of its rule, the AKP had benefitted from loyal conservative Kurdish tribes in the east and southeast of Turkey. However, just before the 2015 parliamentary elections, these tribes started to withdraw their support from the ruling party owing to the government's policy of non-intervention in neighbouring Kobane.

This problem arose in October 2014, when Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) fighters clashed with Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria, just hundreds of metres from the Turkish border.

Turkish inaction over Kobane and Erdogan's refusal to intervene militarily sparked anger among the Kurdish public in Turkey.

Kurds all over Turkey took to the streets in support of the Kurdish fighters. Reports of the deaths and injuries during these protests resulted in Kurds losing faith in the government and the "peace process".

In a nutshell, alongside the charismatic leadership of Selahattin Demirtas, both Gezi and Kobane protests have been crucial in increasing the strength of the HDP.

While the Kobane protests were vital to bring in the support of Kurdish tribes, the Gezi spirit was imperative to developing the structure and discourse of HDP, turning it into a party that purported to represent all of Turkey.

Now all eyes will be on the HDP to see if it can protect and maintain the Gezi spirit in parliament.

Demirtas has already gained the appreciation of secular and liberal voters by refusing to create a coalition with AKP. If the HDP keeps its promises and remains as it has positioned itself - the party for all Turkey with a democratic and pluralistic vision - its further rise in Turkish politics is inevitable.

Billur Aslan is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on the use of information and communication technology by Syrian and Egyptian protesters in 2011. Follow her on Twitter: @billuraslan

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.