Photo: Dogan Ucar

Turkey elections: AKP wins big, HDP here to stay

  • November 5, 2015

People & Power

Erdogan’s AKP booked an unexpected victory in Turkey’s elections this Sunday, now it’s up to the leftist HDP to provide a real democratic counterbalance.

On Sunday, the ruling AKP secured a surprise majority with 49 percent of the national vote in Turkey’s snap elections. This result gives them a sizable majority in parliament, with almost five million more votes for the neoliberal Islamist party than at the previous elections in June.

To many, it was a complete shock. Former party leader and current president Erdoğan had waged a determined crackdown on all opponents in what many saw as a desperate attempt to cling onto power. His increasingly repressive attacks on opponents was interpreted as a sign of his imminent departure as the dominant force in Turkish politics, a position he has held for 13 years. Instead, the emphatic victory of AKP has given Erdoğan a mandate to continue at the helm of the country.

So, how did Erdoğan achieve such an extraordinary comeback?

The majority of AKP’s newly-gained votes came from the ultra-nationalist MHP, which lost a quarter of its votes to the AKP. By resuming the war with the PKK shortly after the suicide attack that killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists in Suruç in July, Erdoğan managed to garner support among nationalist voters.

However, the surprise of this election was how AKP managed to win back votes among the more conservative segment of Kurdish society, which previously had turned its back on AKP in favor of the HDP at the June elections.

Whilst AKP undoubtedly made major inroads across the country, the election campaign has been marred by Erdoğan’s strategy of sowing violence and exploiting fears of chaos across Turkey.

AKP’s campaign of terror and violence

Throughout the campaign, Erdoğan, along with his ruling AKP, followed a clear strategy of targeting all opponents that “showed dissent.” Hundreds of journalists were arrested, with several newspaper offices being raided simply because of their critical stance towards the president or the government. One prominent journalist, Ahmet Hakan, was beaten up outside his home by AKP supporters in what many saw as an “organized attack.”

For the last five months, the HDP has been targeted, both through state-sponsored crime and by detaining hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists. Almost two dozen democratically-elected mayors were arrested, while hundreds of HDP offices have been attacked by angry mobs, apparently with the approval of the police, who failed to intervene.

Government discourse, seeking to de-legitimize and demonize the HDP by claiming the party acted as a mouthpiece for the PKK, encouraged such attacks. In the month following the government’s decision to resume the war with the PKK, 2,544 people were detained, the large majority of them Kurdish activists.

After the two bomb attacks in Suruç and Ankara — which together killed more than 130 people — the security situation in Turkey deteriorated rapidly. Both attacks were carried out by an ISIS cell from the southeastern city of Adiyaman.

It has since become clear that this cell was well known by Turkey’s security forces, with family members of the Ankara suicide bombers even pleading with police to arrest their children. However, the government ignored calls to crack down on the group, in an apparent attempt to use the security risk for its own political gain.

Both massacres were intended to spread fear among the population on the slow “Syriazation” of Turkey, making Turkish citizens aware that the fundamental safety of their country was at risk as Turkey began to resemble its turbulent Middle-Eastern neighbors.

The policy of pro-actively refusing to quell ISIS-linked groups was intended as a kind of wrath to the Turkish public for failing to give the AKP the majority he craved back in June. Aykan Erdemir, a former politician for the opposition CHP, said “It is as if Erdoğan is saying: If you vote for me, I will bring peace and stability. If you don’t, I will make your life a living hell.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Ankara bomb, Erdoğan quickly capitalized on the situation, claiming that the attack was carried out by a “terrorist cocktail” including ISIS, the PKK and Assad’s secret service. Alongside this, Prime Minister Davutoğlu bizarrely claimed that they had arrested the suicide bomber after he had successfully blown himself into pieces.

To many, these claims appeared ludicrous. But this strategy had a clear aim: to mask the reality from the Turkish public, and to intentionally manufacture a new narrative of the political events that were creating so much turmoil in Turkey. In a sign that this tactic was working, a survey conducted a few weeks ago showed that more people believed the PKK were behind the Ankara bombs than ISIS, despite the factual evidence offered.

“Erdoğan’s strategy appears to be failing, as Turkey is not longer where it used to be in the 1990s,” Aykan Erdemir said in an interview, days before the elections. “But his brutal suppression of Kurdish dissidents appears outdated in 2015 as Turkish citizens understanding of democracy has matured.”

However, Sunday’s election shows exactly the opposite: that a vast section of the Turkish public can still be won over by an anti-Kurdish agenda. In this, we can understand why a quarter of MHP voters switched to AKP, just five months after lending their support to MHP.

While many of these nationalist voters refused to vote for AKP in June, no doubt because of Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, they switched back simply because their hatred for the Kurds, and in particular for the PKK, trumps any ill-feeling they have towards the president.

Furthermore, these nationalists know too well that Erdoğan is the only man capable of truly shedding the blood of the Kurds. A weak Erdoğan means a weakened state, which would play into the hands of the PKK. For this reason, nationalists have presented Erdoğan with a strong mandate to continue his suppression of Kurdish dissidents.

HDP’s defeat is still a victory

In the immediate aftermath of the elections, many saw the HDP as the biggest losers. In June, the HDP surprisingly won 80 seats in parliament after obtaining 13.6 percent of national vote. This result contributed to a rising momentum for the HDP – with its emphasis on including all of Turkey’s varied minorities and broadening its appeal beyond its traditionally Kurdish base – and led many to wonder whether they could be a force for change in Turkish politics.

However, while they now are the third biggest party in parliament, this election came at the cost of a quarter of their seats, leaving them with only 59 MPs in the 550-seat parliament.

After the Ankara attack, which targeted HDP supporters as well as trade unionists and leftists, the co-president of HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, immediately canceled all campaign rallies for fear of further massacres. This, along with the detention of thousands of HDP members, made it increasingly hard for HDP to conduct a proper election campaign.

Within this political context, the HDP found it increasingly difficult to defend itself amidst the all-encompassing war which was being waged between Turkey’s armed forces and the PKK.

Part of the success of HDP’s results in June’s elections was due to the support of the vast majority of Kurds who had previously supported AKP. The HDP roughly lost a million votes this time around, and this loss can be mainly attributed to these Kurds returning to the AKP, undoubtedly wary of the violence that has engulfed the region since the AKP resumed the war with the PKK.

However, these votes were not lost in the regions that saw the worst violence, but rather in the periphery of the Kurdish regions. In this sense, we can see the AKP’s strategy at work: brutally suppressing Kurds in the region where the resistance was at its strongest, while using the powerful propaganda mechanisms at their disposal to manufacture a fear of violence that the HDP was alleged to indirectly encourage.

While the PKK has fought a guerrilla war with Turkey’s armed forces from the mountains, much of the most recent conflict has been taking place in Kurdish cities where youths have taken armed control of various neighborhoods. Known as the YDG-H, these loosely organized youth groups have declared autonomy in a number of towns, following the ideological precepts of democratic confederalism, inspired by the imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan. In Lice, Silvan, Sirnak, Suriçi and Yuksekova – all areas where YDG-H have been active – HDP retained their support and in some cases even increased their percentage among the electorate.

In this sense, the outcome of the election for HDP cannot be seen as a defeat. Instead, considering that they couldn’t run a campaign due to the ruling party’s refusal to defend them against potential bomb attacks, alongside the state-sponsored lynching campaigns that have become a regular sight across Turkey, retaining representation in parliament as the third-largest party should be considered a victory.

However much the HDP were stigmatized and under-represented in the election campaign, it still managed to pass the exceptionally high 10 percent threshold and thus proved that they are here to stay.

The road ahead

The hope before the elections focused on Turkey seeing Erdoğan for what he truly is: an authoritarian leader bent on retaining the power he has acquired after 13 years at the helm.

People believed that the Turkish republic had matured since the 1990s, when the suppression of Kurdish dissidents would have worked, and would firmly reject Erdoğan. However, the remarkable result of this election undoes any such hopes. Kurds across the region feel understandably angry that nearly one in two Turkish citizens voted for a leader who has embarked on killing Kurdish civilians as a means to retain power.

The day before the election, the AKP sent a text message to all people of Diyarbakir: “If you don’t want Turkey to be like Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the others, you should warn your friends and give one vote to AKP.” The message was a direct threat to the people of Turkey. The chilling reality is that it paid off handsomely for Erdoğan.

And herein lies the fundamental problem for the Kurdish movement. The HDP’s democratic project, inspired by the Kurdish movement, is an ambitious project attempting to democratize Turkey by incorporating the various, heterogeneous identities that exist in the country. This election, however, appears to prove that there still exists an underlying hurdle which the HDP needs to overcome, as Turkish society is clearly not yet ready to accept the society the HDP envisions.

Until the Turkish public stands up to the violent rhetoric of the Turkish state, which continues to terrorize those who dare to speak out, the HDP will find it increasingly difficult to cement such a political narrative.

For this barrier to be broken, the HDP needs to move away from its fixation on the ballot box, which has dominated all its activities as a result of the two electoral campaigns in five months’ time. Both elections have now firmly cemented the HDP as a mainstream force within Turkey’s political arena, but its task now lies in expanding its message beyond the constraints of representative democracy.

Broadening links with trade unionists, activists and other allies on the ground through an implementation of a grassroots system of democracy will help widen their appeal into a force that can truly challenge the political discourse that currently dominates Turkish politics.

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Yvo Fitzherbert

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He writes for a number of different publications, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.

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