With elections approaching in Turkey and opposition and government alliances nearly equal in the polls, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its predominantly Kurdish base may be poised to shape the future of Turkish politics.
The HDP is under significant pressure. An active closure case could shut the party down at any time. Every sitting HDP member of the Turkish Parliament is under criminal investigation, and two MPs elected in 2018 have already been stripped of their seats and jailed. Out of 65 municipalities won by the party in the 2019 local elections, the government has seized control of all but 6, disenfranchising millions of voters.
But the HDP is the latest iteration of Turkey’s most embattled and resilient political tradition, which has used innovative strategies to weather party closures, mass arrests, threats, and even armed violence in its efforts to give Kurds a voice in Turkey’s political system.
The policy choices that the government of Turkey has made to co-opt or repress the pro-Kurdish political movement currently represented by the HDP have had major domestic and regional impacts in the past. The steps it might take going forward to crush the HDP or split a potential opposition coalition that could include it, as well as the policy choices that the opposition might propose to attract potentially decisive support from HDP voters, could be just as impactful.
To understand possible trajectories for Turkish democracy and foreign policy in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2023 elections, it is essential to understand the history of the pro-Kurdish political movement that the HDP came from and its vision for the future.
1. What is the pro-Kurdish political movement?
The pro-Kurdish political tradition is the only political movement in Turkey to represent the interests of Kurds who prioritize their Kurdish identity and advocate for collective Kurdish interests within the country’s existing political system.
It has been represented by no less than 10 separate political parties since 1990, when the People’s Labor Party (HEP) was established. Turkey’s Constitutional Court banned five of these parties on anti-state charges. Two dissolved themselves to avoid closure cases, one restructured, and two are active today.
Pro-Kurdish parties are the primary target of authoritarianism in Turkey because they represent organized political activity on behalf of Kurdish identity and interests.
Turkish law and state structures are organized around the prevention of such political activity, both explicitly through provisions that deny, restrict, or criminalize Kurdish political and cultural expression and implicitly through top-down centralization and broad restrictions on dissent that are disproportionately used against Kurdish communities. This is one of the primary drivers of the armed conflict between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
With the exception of a brief democratic window during the 2013-2015 Turkey-PKK peace process, the government of Turkey has pursued a strategy of sustained repression to exclude pro-Kurdish parties and their supporters, activists, members, and politicians from democratic politics.
This strategy, by design, involves serious human rights violations targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnicity and political opinion: hundreds of enforced disappearances and dozens of extrajudicial killings; tens of thousands of arbitrary detentions; pervasive torture; and the consistent denial of the right to political participation, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, among other fundamental rights and freedoms.
2. What do pro-Kurdish parties want?
Pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey support a political solution to the Kurdish question by peaceful means within Turkey’s existing borders, alongside universalist progressive demands related to the expansion of democracy and civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. They understand the ‘Kurdish question’ as a political problem dating back to the establishment of the modern Turkish state, not a problem of national security or counter-terrorism.
The policy proposals that derive from this vision and differentiate these parties from other political forces in Turkey focus on three main areas: legal and constitutional reform, administrative decentralization, and support for peace talks between the government and the PKK.
Legal and constitutional reforms that pro-Kurdish parties propose fall into two categories. Many are broadly pro-democracy, challenging expansive, unaccountable state power and restrictions on individual and collective rights and freedoms in Turkey. Every pro-Kurdish political party since 1990 has argued that the 1982 constitution, which was written under the direct influence of the military, gives too much power to the government and too little to the people.
Pro-Kurdish parties also oppose Turkey’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation and its bans on “insulting” government officials, security forces, and Turkish identity, arguing that these are used by the government as de facto bans on non-violent dissent and criticism.
Others challenge specific restrictions on Kurdish rights and identity. Prohibitions on the use of non-Turkish languages in education, politics, and public administration are a primary grievance of Kurds in Turkey and a target of the pro-Kurdish political movement. Pro-Kurdish politicians often engage in a form of civil disobedience by using Kurdish, as well as other minority languages like Armenian and Aramaic, to communicate with their constituents despite bans.
The definition of the “Turkish nation” used in the constitution, which conflates Turkish nationality with Turkish ethnicity, is another major issue. The constitution obligates the Turkish state to serve the Turkish nation as defined in these terms, and stipulates that all citizens belong to this nation. The pro-Kurdish political movement, in turn, argues that any constitutionally recognized conception of the nation, citizenship, and national identity must denote membership in a multiethnic and democratic political community within the country of Turkey, not Turkish ethnicity alone.
Pro-Kurdish political parties argue that administrative decentralization is also necessary for a political solution to the Kurdish question. Turkey is a unitary state whose central government has a high degree of power over local governments. The most powerful local official is the state-appointed provincial governor, and the central government constitutionally retains the broad power of “administrative tutelage” over all municipalities.
This has negative impacts on local governance across the country: European institutions have criticized Turkey for failing to meet some of the standards of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which it ratified in 1992. In Kurdish regions, this policy has left communities ruled by those whom they perceive as outsiders hostile to their language and culture and unaccountable to their constituents.
Kurds have, however, been able to use the limited powers of municipal government to their benefit despite these structural disadvantages. Pro-Kurdish mayors and their constituents were able to implement some of their preferred policies after victories in the 1999 and 2004 local elections, despite a lack of parliamentary representation for pro-Kurdish politics and no country-wide action on the Kurdish issue during that time.
Taking these experiences into account, the pro-Kurdish political movement put forward a decentralization blueprint known as democratic autonomy. The concept has its roots in the theories of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder and leader of the PKK. As a governance model, it is characterized by flexible and decentralized institutions; an organized and engaged community that participates actively in political and social life to determine its future; and a baseline promotion of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic pluralism, gender equality, and freedom from economic exploitation.
Translated into policy terms by pro-Kurdish parties, this meant the creation of 20-25 regional administrations with elected legislatures and leadership that would coordinate between existing local governments and the Turkish parliament. The democratic autonomy proposal also promoted a broad philosophy of “less state and more society,” advocating for increased democratic participation within the formal structures of government and stronger political and social engagement outside of them.
Pro-Kurdish political parties also actively support peace talks between the government and the PKK in order to end active armed clashes and allow the Kurdish issue to become a matter of pure political debate, rather than one of war. This is the area in which they challenge Turkish establishment norms the most: no other major party openly called for talks when the pro-Kurdish political movement began to do so, and no other major party has called for a resumption of talks since the 2013-2015 process broke down.
Specific policy recommendations they make towards this endeavor address Turkey’s international relations as well as its domestic politics. Pro-Kurdish parties are regularly the only parliamentary opposition to Turkey’s internationally condemned cross-border military operations in Iraq and Syria, arguing that these only prolong the conflict and harm innocent people with no ties to the PKK in the process. HDP delegations have even visited conflict-impacted areas to meet with civilians and share their demands.
On the domestic front, they argue for several measures to make talks more likely, including an end to restrictions on legal meetings and family visits imposed on Ocalan to prevent him from communicating with the outside world. They believe that, as a recognized leader whom many Kurds support, his participation is essential to make peace work.
3. How is the HDP different?
The HDP is Turkey’s longest-lived and most politically consequential pro-Kurdish party. It represents a distinct evolution from its predecessors in three main ways.
First, it took the democratic aspirations of its predecessors a step further, openly reaching out to new non-Kurdish constituencies. The HDP was founded in October 2012 by the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), a coalition that included the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) as well as leftist parties, women’s associations, environmentalist groups, and associations representing other ethnic and religious minority communities.
It defines itself not in ethnic terms, but rather as “the party of all the oppressed and exploited.” It aspires to bring together all segments of society in Turkey who find themselves marginalized by the country’s established order.
In its program, it calls for the democratization of Turkey and a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question within the framework of democratic autonomy, but also for worker’s rights, women’s equality, the protection of the environment, an end to anti-LGBT discrimination, a foreign policy based on peace and cooperation, and many other progressive priorities.
It has lived up to these commitments in practice. At every level, its leadership and elected representatives come from diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and political backgrounds. It has internal measures in place to ensure gender equality and a commitment to including members of non-Kurdish ethnic minorities.
Second, it had the opportunity to participate in peace negotiations between the state and the PKK and to operate in a political environment free from armed conflict.
The HDP became the ‘party of the peace process’ soon after it was established. Historic negotiations between the state and the PKK began in late 2012 and early 2013. Every previous pro-Kurdish party had called for a political solution to the Kurdish question, but the HDP was the first to have an chance to participate in a serious attempt to end the war.
Its politicians rose to the occasion. Popular HDP figures, including co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, participated directly in dialogue with Ocalan and with senior PKK figures in the Qandil mountains. HDP politicians also consistently promoted peace and urged patience and non-violence among constituents when it appeared that talks were destined to fall apart and when rhetoric from other figures on both sides had escalated.
Negotiations allowed the pro-Kurdish political movement’s governance model to flourish, as politicians and activists could work without fear of imprisonment or state violence for the first time. Municipalities where pro-Kurdish mayors won in 2014 established popular assemblies, women’s councils, cooperatives, Kurdish language programming, and other practical structures that aligned with their theory on decentralization and democracy. Kurds were able to see, for the first time, what pro-Kurdish politics could look like in a democracy—and they voted accordingly.
Third, its popularity has challenged the Turkish government’s power—directly contributing to the AKP’s only two electoral losses in the past 10 years. Erdogan’s first electoral setback since coming to power in the early 2000s was the parliamentary election of June 2015, when the AKP lost its majority for the first time. The second was the Istanbul mayoral election of 2019, when AKP candidate and former Vice President Binali Yildirim lost to opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. The HDP was an integral part of both losses, making it a greater threat to Turkey’s rulers than any pro-Kurdish party that came before it.
In 2015, the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish party to contest parliamentary elections as a party, rather than as part of an alliance or bloc of independent candidates. It easily surpassed the 10% electoral threshold with 13% of the nationwide vote—6,058,489 votes in total—and became the second-largest opposition party in the Turkish parliament, with 80 total seats.
Had the HDP failed to cross the threshold, Turkey’s electoral rules would have given more seats to candidates from the ruling AKP, which came in second in most regions where HDP candidates won. But as the results stood, the AKP did not have enough seats to form a government on its own for the first time since 2002.
In 2019, the HDP chose not to run its own candidate in Istanbul. It instead advised its voters there—who numbered more than one million in the 2018 parliamentary elections—to support Imamoglu in order to hand the AKP a defeat in a city that it had controlled since 2004 and that had launched Erdogan’s political career in the 1990s. This strategy worked: Imamoglu won by a narrow margin of just a few hundred thousand votes.
4. How has Erdogan’s government responded to the HDP’s success?
Erdogan’s government responded to both HDP-facilitated defeats by intensifying and expanding authoritarian practices. The 2015 parliamentary setback was the primary domestic impetus behind the government’s abandonment of peace talks with the PKK. While developments in Syria and decisions by a variety of actors on all sides had already threatened the negotiations, the fact that they had created a more democratic political atmosphere that benefitted pro-Kurdish parties and their message of democracy, pluralism and decentralization made them unsalvageable.
Erdogan used the resumption of conflict with the PKK to punish the HDP and its base, prevent them from challenging AKP rule again, and ensure that no other political force would have an opportunity to do the same. Indiscriminate attacks by government forces on populated urban centers where pro-Kurdish parties had won supermajorities, like Sur, Nusaybin, and Cizre, were the most violent element of this strategy. The United Nations documented the displacement of up to half a million people and crimes including “massive destruction, killings and numerous other serious human rights violations” in these military operations.
The government began to imprison and remove democratically elected officials in Kurdish regions around the same time, disenfranchising millions of voters. Arrests of elected pro-Kurdish mayors began in August 2015. In May 2016, the Turkish parliament voted to remove the immunities of HDP MPs. More than 20 Kurdish municipalities were seized by the state and placed under the rule of unelected trustees in September 2016, and 12 HDP MPs, including co-chairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were arrested in November 2016. By March 2017, more than 80 pro-Kurdish municipalities had been seized by the state.
Escalating violence and the destruction of local democracy put Kurdish regions under de facto military rule. As a result of the crackdown, nearly tens of thousands of HDP-affiliated individuals have been detained, torture and police brutality have increased in prevalence, and dozens of media outlets and civil society organizations that operate in Kurdish regions have been shut down, among other examples of serious rights violations.
The response to defeat in 2019 was more muted, illustrating the difference in authoritarian tactics applied to Kurdish and non-Kurdish opposition and to Kurdish-majority and Turkish-majority regions. The government canceled the initial results of the Istanbul mayoral race. Rather than seize the municipality and appoint a trustee, however, it set a re-run election for June 2019.
Recognizing the role that HDP voters had played in the upset, the AKP scrambled to convince them to stay home in the second vote. At one point, they published a decontextualized letter from Abdullah Ocalan that was misinterpreted by pro-government media to seem as though it called for Kurds to sit the election out.
The HDP and its base were not misled. Instead, they doubled down on their call for tactical support for the CHP to ensure an AKP loss. Kurdish voters turned out for the opposition once again in the re-run, and Imamoglu’s margin of victory shot up from less than a percentage point to nearly 10 percentage points.
Once the HDP revealed that it could still contribute to major AKP losses despite the pressure of the post-2015 crackdown, a second wave of repression began. After the Istanbul rerun, the government began a new campaign of seizures of municipalities that the HDP had won back by itself 2019, beginning with the removal of the mayors of the Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van metropolitan municipalities.
In June 2020, two HDP MPs, Leyla Guven and Musa Farisogullari, were arrested. Months later, Turkish prosecutors launched a case accusing more than one hundred people—including many current and former HDP politicians—of terrorism and other violent anti-state activity based on six-year-old social media posts in support of protests criticizing the government’s perceived inaction against ISIS in Syria.
The ongoing closure case was filed in March 2021. Proceedings remain active, and the party could be shut down at any time.
5. What happens next?
Despite repression, the HDP remains the most popular party in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority provinces, the second-largest opposition party in the Turkish parliament, and, in terms of votes, the most popular legal Kurdish party in the Middle East. Its commitment to a “democracy-first” approach to peace and the Kurdish question remains as strong as ever, and its voters are well-positioned to shift the 2023 balance. Recent data from research company MetroPOLL shows the HDP polling at 12.3% in a general election and Selahattin Demirtas polling at an astounding 15%—twice his 2018 vote share—in a presidential election.
The pro-Kurdish political movement retains several options that would allow it to circumvent a sixth party closure. Pro-Kurdish candidates could compete as the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), which has been active since 2014 and does not currently face closure. However, this party is seen as less universalist and more Kurdish issue-focused than the HDP is—possibly diminishing its appeal to some HDP voters. A new party could be established, though recent changes to Turkey’s electoral law that require parties to organize and hold conventions in more than half of Turkey’s provinces before holding elections may make that impossible depending on the time frame between the closure case and the election. It could also revert to its previous strategy of running blocs of independent candidates.
The organized base of the pro-Kurdish political movement remains active enough to make it unlikely that the political bans imposed in the HDP closure case will impact the ability of a successor party or alliance to field enough candidates, regardless of which strategy is chosen.
Ultimately, the pro-Kurdish political movement’s continued relevance is all but certain. The behavior of the government and the opposition, however, will be more consequential.
The Istanbul rerun, the seizure of dozens of Kurdish municipalities, and the abandonment of the peace process after the June 2015 elections show that Erdogan’s government does not respect election outcomes that do not favor the AKP, particularly when the HDP is involved. They also show that Erdogan is willing to use force domestically to hold or retain power.
If the 2023 vote results in a narrow loss for Erdogan and his bloc—which is more likely to happen if HDP voters refuse to vote than if they decisively support the opposition—it is likely that the government will refuse to respect the outcome of the election. It is possible that some degree of political violence and civil unrest could result. If Erdogan wins legitimately, immediate violence is less likely—but Turkey will remain on its militarist and autocratic trajectory, with chances for an off-ramp even slimmer than they are today.
If the opposition can rise above its most restrictive nationalist tendencies and make a genuine appeal to the HDP and its voters, the likelihood of a 2023 victory too decisive for Erdogan to steal is higher. To attract this support, it would likely have to align with at least some basic pro-Kurdish policy points on peace and democratization.
This could lead to real democratic change and action on the Kurdish question. It would also align with some new shifts in Turkish public opinion. Recent polling has shown that, for the first time, a majority of Turkish citizens oppose cross-border military operations—likely due to their massive economic impact at a time when many struggle to put food on the table. Another survey found that one-third of Turkish citizens think the Kurdish issue impacts the economic crisis, and that half believe it impacts the state of democracy in their country.
To some degree, the CHP-led opposition bloc appears to have recognized the electoral benefit of HDP support and the impact of decades of failed attempts to seek a military solution to the Kurdish question on Turkey’s worsening economy and deteriorating democracy. The CHP voted against the authorization for cross-border military operations in Iraq and Syria for the first time in 2021. Around the same time, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the Kurdish issue could be solved in parliament with the HDP.
However, the bloc includes its fair share of nationalists who toe the state’s line on the Kurdish question despite critiquing Erdogan’s government on other matters. CHP politicians came out in support of Turkey’s most recent cross-border military operation in northern Iraq in April, despite voting against such operations less than a year before. And the far-right opposition IYI Party, whose leader served as Interior Minister during the height of anti-Kurdish repression in Turkey in the 1990s, is even more hostile to basic Kurdish demands. Both parties have voted to lift the immunity of HDP MPs, facilitating their removal from parliament and prosecution.
The democratization plan the bloc put out in February 2022 is much less ambitious than the democratization plans put forward by pro-Kurdish parties, and does not address the Kurdish question at all. That said, it does include some reforms that would likely benefit Kurds and the pro-Kurdish political movement—including an end to the presidential system, less restrictive laws on political parties, and a promise to end state seizures of municipalities.
If the opposition cannot make a credible appeal to the pro-Kurdish political movement’s voters, the 2023 elections will likely be closer, increasing the likelihood of an Erdogan victory, a potential overturned election, and the resulting negative outcomes of both. Recent comments from the CHP on the threat of election-related violence from AKP-linked military contractor SADAT suggest that the opposition is aware of this threat.
As such, the future of electoral democracy and stability in Turkey could hinge on the HDP’s resilience and the opposition’s ability to appeal to key pro-Kurdish demands and promise legitimate progress on the Kurdish question.