How an upstart Turkish party blocked Erdogan's push for power

The anti-authoritarian HDP have finally challenged the entrenched power of the AKP. The question is: what happens now?

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Two years ago few Turks had heard of Selahattin Demirtas. Now, following the shock results of the Turkish parliamentary election on 7 June, the 42-year-old, guitar-strumming human rights lawyer is the talk of the country. It is thanks to his Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13 per cent of the vote, that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority, dealing a significant blow to the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The success of the HDP – a leftist group with Kurdish roots – was celebrated with fireworks in the streets of Istanbul and cities across the south-east. Yet despite the euphoria, the full implications of the result are far from clear. The country, which sits in a unstable region and has a slowing economy, and which is becoming estranged from the EU and even Nato (in which Turkey has the largest military presence after the United States), has just experienced a big internal shake-up.

All the same, this month’s elections have been transformative in two main ways. First, they have trimmed the entrenched power of the AKP and Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014. Erdogan was counting on a resounding party win to push through his plans for an executive presidency.

The AKP, which has held power for 13 years, won 41 per cent of the vote, down from nearly 50 per cent in 2011.

Second, the vote has brought the emergence of a party – Demirtas’s HDP – that has taken on the concerns of the Gezi Park protest movement that galvanised Turkey in 2013. Among these were the ruling party’s growing authoritarianism and disregard for civil liberties. The HDP, though originally focusing on Kurdish rights, has also spoken out for disenfranchised people: ethnic minorities, women and LGBT people, all of whom were represented on its candidate list. The party is committed to decentralising power and lowering the electoral threshold for parliamentary representation, currently the highest in the world, at 10 per cent.

With the HDP’s strong showing, which gave it 80 seats, including 30 held by women, the Turkish parliament now has its highest ever proportion of women (18 per cent) and minority-group MPs. The party’s rapid rise is largely attributable to Demirtas, its charismatic co-chair, who in recent weeks has countered threats and insults from the ruling AKP with easygoing witticisms and promises of a more peaceful democracy.

In the process, he has won over many Turks who were keen to clip the AKP’s power but were also wary of his untried party and of the HDP’s support base among the Kurds, who form about 20 per cent of the population.

For two years the HDP has been negotiating for a peace settlement on behalf of the Kurdish separatist militia group the PKK. That agreement, currently suspended, was intended to end the strife that has simmered since the 1990s between a contingent of Kurds in south-eastern Turkey, who demand self-governance, and the Turkish military. The Kurds have demanded greater rights from the central government for decades, and the HDP is viewed as a mainstream party that can help achieve that.

Demirtas’s behaviour during the campaign contrasted markedly with that of Erdogan, who, though technically an impartial head of state, toured the country to drum up support for the AKP. Erdogan also brought lawsuits against politicians and journalists in the lead-up to the vote, even suing the main opposition leader after he implied that there were golden lavatory seats in the new £400m presidential palace in Ankara.

Two days before the election, a double bomb attack on an HDP rally in Diyarbakir, the heartland of the party’s Kurdish support, killed two and injured hundreds. Demirtas was about 30 metres away from one of the blasts and he immediately called for calm. Riot police dispersed the crowd with water cannon and tear gas, but the attacks failed in their presumed purpose – to provoke unrest in the run-up to the election and possibly discredit the HDP among prospective voters.

It is not known where the AKP goes from here and what role in the party Erdogan will play. One fear is that the AKP – which still holds the largest vote share – will fail to form a coalition with any of the opposition parties and that Erdogan will call fresh elections, leading to further political and economic uncertainty. Another possibility is that the three opposition parties will form a coalition in spite of their differences. That would be a hefty blow to the hegemony of the AKP. 

This article appears in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?