Could Kurds Be the Liberal Alternative Turks Have Been Looking For?
Selahattin Demirtas during the 2014 presidential elections.

Turkey’s first tangible democratic push came from the Islamist camp in 2002 when the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The second could come from an unlikely source: the Kurds.

Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has called on his followers to lay down their arms as part of a peace process to end a 30-year insurgency. "I invite the PKK…to make the strategic and historic decision to abandon the armed struggle," he told Sirri Sureyya Onder, a politician from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).[1]

Ocalan’s call could improve prospects for peace and boost the HDP’s chances to cross the 10 percent electoral threshold required to enter parliament. If the HDP, whose support currently hovers around 8 to 9 percent, manages to pass the threshold, it is likely to secure around 60 seats in parliament, making the Kurds the kingmaker in Turkey’s faltering democracy.

The Kurds have often been treated as victims of authoritarianism and have rarely been seen as agents of democratization. For many in Turkey, Kurds have either been “traitors” who want to divide the country or “underdogs” unable to change the rules of the game legitimately.

Yet if the HDP plays its hand wisely, the Kurds could pick up where the AKP has left off as a driving force of democratization. They have much to learn from the early years of the AKP, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considered an “agent of change.”

When Erdogan swept to power 13 years ago, he presented himself as the man who would put Turkish democracy back on track after the lost decade of the 1990s when Turkey was plagued by political and economic instability. Unlike his Islamist predecessors, he ran on a pro-EU agenda of liberal reforms, promising to curb the military’s political power. He turned the AKP into a catchall party uniting Islamists, conservatives, liberals, and business groups that wanted to see the military divested from politics. Under Erdogan’s leadership, the AKP carried out economic and political reforms that challenged the privileged position of the Kemalist elite, including the military, and opened up political space to groups that had been marginalized by the Kemalist state. In what many considered the boldest attempt to solve the Kurdish issue, the AKP launched the “Kurdish opening” in 2009, which promised to devise a plan to address the Kurds’ grievances. 

However, in the last few years, the AKP and Erdogan have turned increasingly authoritarian. The brutal suppression of protests, increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, and corruption scandals have exposed an increasingly illiberal face of Turkey under the same leader who received so much adulation. As a result, many argue that the old type of Turkish authoritarianism, under which military and bureaucratic leaders called the shots, is being replaced by a civilian autocracy with a populist and majoritarian understanding of politics.

The AKP has indeed become the largest stumbling block in Turkey’s democratic consolidation. Yet the party is still the most popular in the country, and the secularist CHP and the nationalist MHP are unable to provide a liberal and democratic alternative. The HDP, however, could fill the vacuum and become the liberal alternative that the country so desperately needs.

The HDP has already revised its strategy in an effort to appeal to all segments of Turkish society, not just the Kurds. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas ran a successful campaign in Turkey’s presidential elections last summer. His appeal to non-Kurdish segments of the country and his inclusive rhetoric focusing on the urgent need for rule of law, accountability, freedom of expression, and democratic consolidation won him praise and votes from such groups as the LGBT community and workers. He also managed to gain votes from the Black Sea region and the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal cities—places that have traditionally been out of reach for the pro-Kurdish parties.

The HDP under the leadership of Demirtas is well placed to fill the liberal space left by the AKP in Turkish politics and contribute to Turkey’s democratization. It can mobilize an anti-AKP coalition uniting liberals, youth, marginalized groups, and parts of the CHP base that have been alienated by the CHP’s incompetence in mounting an effective opposition to the AKP.

In a smart move in this direction, Demirtas recently called for the repeal of a draconian internal security bill that the AKP firmly supports, signaling that his party is willing to take on not just the Kurdish question but also issues that are of interest to Turkish society as a whole. Demirtas’ opposition to Erdogan’s presidential dreams also makes the HDP an attractive alternative for those who are skeptical about a presidential regime under Erdogan. Indeed, the real litmus test for the HDP will be its stance vis-à-vis Erdogan’s plan for a presidential Turkey.

Many believe that Erdogan has been conducting peace talks with the PKK in order to secure Kurdish support for the presidential regime. Ocalan, who is beholden to Erdogan’s willingness to negotiate, has in the past expressed some support for the presidential system. So far Demirtas has expressed his opposition to presidentialism. If he can avoid the temptation to flip flop and join in a Faustian bargain, for the sake of both the eventual resolution of the Kurdish issue and of the country’s democracy, he and the HDP might occupy a huge liberal space in the country’s political landscape. As a smaller party the HDP will never come to power and establish a majority to govern. Yet in Turkey’s current political landscape, the Kurds could block Erdogan’s presidential ambitions and tip the balance of Turkish politics in favor of liberalism and democracy.

[1] Ayla Jean Yackley, “Kurdish Rebel Leader in Turkey Calls for Disarmament Congress,” Reuters, February 28, 2015,