Despite coming in last in Turkey’s first public presidential elections, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party’s (HDP) candidate Selahattin Demirtas is the true winner of the race. He significantly increased his party’s votes from 7 percent in the local elections in March to nearly 10 percent, and his unprecedented electoral gain will impact the future of the Kurdish political movement.
Those who were critical of government’s failure to uphold its end of the deal when it launched the “peace process” with Kurds in late 2012 hoped that Erdogen would not win the presidential elections in the first round.
This, the logic goes, would strengthen the position of Turkey’s Kurds at the negotiation table with the government. Erdogen would have needed Kurdish votes to win in the second round and the Kurds would have secured more concessions from the government.
To the dismay of many, this did not happen as Erdogen secured the majority of votes in the first round. But based on the election results there is still some room to be cautiously optimistic about the future of the “peace process.”
Erdogen did not win a landslide victory. He was elected with 52 percent percent of the vote, slightly higher than the 50 percent minimum required to win the election. This means Erdogen needs the Kurds to realize his dream of transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential system similar to that in the United States.
Switching to a presidential system requires a constitutional amendment, which needs a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament.
The AKP now holds 58 percent of Parliament’s seats. The party either has to win the 2015 general elections by a large margin or garner the support of other parties to secure the two-thirds majority it needs to push through the constitutional amendment.
Judging by the results of presidential elections — and the expected challenges ahead for AKP when Erdogen steps down as party leader later this month — it seems unlikely that AKP will substantially increase its votes in 2015.
This makes the Kurds the kingmaker in Erdogan’s drive to introduce an executive presidency. The Kurds must play their hand wisely and capitalize on this window of opportunity by pushing the government to carry out reforms and address Kurdish demands in the run-up to the 2015 general elections.
After capturing 10 percent of the vote in presidential elections, Demirtas is in a strong position. The mere fact that a Kurdish candidate who has championed the Kurdish cause throughout his political career ran for the presidency is an indication that the Kurdish political movement in Turkey has come a long way from its early days.
It has revised its strategy to be more in tune with the current domestic and regional situation by dropping its quest for independence and adopting an agenda that seeks “democratic autonomy” within a democratically consolidated Turkey. The armed struggle seems to have taken a back seat on Kurdish quest for change.
Before the local elections in March, Turkey’s Kurds launched the HDP in an effort to expand their base and appeal to the non-Kurdish segments of the country. Throughout his campaign, Demirtas used inclusive rhetoric focusing on the urgent need for rule of law, accountability, freedom of expression and democratic consolidation.
His critique of homophobia, xenophobia and the neoliberal economy and call for a non-sexist, ecological, egalitarian, social and libertarian order seems to have resonated well among left-leaning Turks who were alienated from conservative Islamist candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Demirtas’ campaign.
Demirtas won the praise of a large portion of votes ranging from members of the LGBT community to workers and managed to gain votes from the Black Sea region and Aegean and Mediterranean coastal cities — places that have traditionally been out of reach for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
The region’s seismic shifts have created new opportunities and could be a breakthrough for the Kurds. The biggest hurdle standing in the way could be intra-Kurdish rivalries.
If imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan — who has been uneasy with Demirtas’ rise — does not get in the way, Demirtas’ electoral success might mark the start of a new era for Turkey’s Kurds.
* Gonul Tol is Executive Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.