Could this party change Turkey's political landscape?

The left-wing HDP party could stop Erdoğan seizing even more power

June 05, 2015
Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples' Democratic Party © Emrah Gurel/AP/Press Association Images
Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples' Democratic Party © Emrah Gurel/AP/Press Association Images

“We will not make you president. We will not make you president. We will not make you president."

When the leader of Turkey's left-wing HDP party Selahattin Demirta spoke those words during a parliamentary group meeting in March, people had little idea that one of the shortest speeches in Turkey's political history could prove so effective.

Demirta's promise heralded an election campaign—Turkey’s general election is this Sunday—whose main political objective is to stop Turkey's current president Recep Tayyip Erdoan from further increasing his presidential powers. Erdoan—who was three times Prime Minister of Turkey before he became President—wants his country’s system to more closely resemble that of America or France, giving him greater executive authority. The key question about this Sunday's election is whether the HDP leader Selahattin Demirta's can turn his impressive rhetoric into reality.

This is the first time the HDP (founded in 2012) has entered a general election. The latest polls show the party's share of the vote somewhere between 9.5 and 11 per cent, with the ruling AK Party’s around 43 per cent and the Republican People’s Party around 26 per cent. The Turkish election system means the HDP will need 10 per cent to enter parliament. If the party manages that, Erdoan's ruling AK Party will still rule, but they would not be able to pass the constitutional changes which would bring about the presidential system. If the HDP fails to get 10 per cent, Turkey may have the presidential system Erdoan wants, following a constitutional referendum sometime next year. The question is whether an environmentalist, anti-capitalist, left-feminist, LGBTI-defending, anti-nationalist political programme like the HDP’s can get 10 per cent support.

Where does the HDP come from? Many foreign outlets even get the party's name wrong, let alone its ideology. HDP stands for Peoples' Democratic Party, not People's. Its identity politics, shared largely by Erdoan, argues that Turks (Türkler) are a people and Kurds (Kürtler) another: together they constitute the peoples of Turkey (Türkiyeliler). During Ottoman rule Kurds had local administrative powers and partial autonomy; they were then forced to deny their ethnic identities during republican rule which equalled Kurdish identity with backwardness.

In the 1980s the Turkish state's oppression became intolerable for the Kurds, especially in the infamous prisons in Diyarbakr where Kurds were subjected to systematic torture. This resulted in an armed uprising, beginning in 1984, whose objective was the formation of a Marxist-Leninist independent state in southeastern Turkey. In the 1990s, the Soviet-inspired revolutionary rhetoric of the movement changed when its chief political theoretician Abdullah Öcalan reengineered the party line. At this point, unlike most Turkish socialists, Kurdish leftists started seeing modernity itself as a problem. Turkish soldiers burning their villages, destroying forests and nature were forces of an imperial-minded civilisation whose heart of darkness Kurds witnessed every day. Öcalan used postmodernists like Jacques Derrida while putting forth a new, decentralised, anti-imperialist and anti-modern society based on collectivism and environmentalism.

What people seem to like about the HDP nowadays is not so much its postmodern discourse as the wisecracking, witty charisma of Demirta. Unlike the main opposition party the CHP, which built its campaign strategy on pitching "mega city" projects designed to boost the country's green energy production and international trade, Demirta chose to go after Erdoan personally. This is despite the fact that the president is not running in the elections—last August, Erdoan handed the roles of prime minister and party leader to Ahmet Davutolu, a professor of international relations. Erdoan himself won't face re-election until 2019.

Even his biggest adversaries accept that Erdoan is a skilled rhetorician. His hectoring tone has proved a winner—liked and imitated by some, despised and feared by others. Demirta, who is 19 years younger than Erdoan, is an equally self-confident figure. On CNN Turk last week he played saz, a traditional stringed instrument, and sang folk songs. He often cracks one-liners in interviews. When Prime Minister Ahmet Davutolu made a quip about his secular politics using his first name (Selahattin means "devout" in Arabic), saying he will no longer call Demirta by his first name, Demirta responded, deadpan: "We were not quite expecting this. We have built our election campaign on the possibility that the prime minister would call me Selahattin. We don't know what to do now, but we are looking for a solution. We have not been able to sleep for three days."

When I went to a family gathering on Mother's Day, my cousins were repeating Demirta's jokes as if describing a scene from the latest episode of the popular American comedy Louie. Many families in Turkey are divided between young fans of Demirta who repeat his quips, and more conservative followers of Erdoan. Demirta and Erdoan represent two different attitudes, two different temperaments in Turkey's society.

Although at loggerheads at the moment, Demirta and Erdoan have a shared history—not only during last year's presidential elections where Demirta got 9.76 per cent to Erdoan's 51.79. They worked together in the resolution process between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels. Following a truce in 2013, Demirta and other deputies visited Öcalan in his prison cell; three days later Öcalan announced his wish for disarmament and an end to armed struggle. The extremely fragile nature of this process, which aims to put an end to the armed conflict, meant that Demirta offered only a lukewarm support to the Gezi uprisings in 2013. On the one hand he supported the protestors (who objected to government plans to build a shopping mall in a public park); but he also warned against the danger of events getting out of control and toppling the government or instigating a military coup. Both events would have put the resolution process at risk.

The outcome of the race between the HDP and the AKP is hard to predict but impossible to ignore. Even if the HDP does not make it to parliament it has changed the political conversation beyond return. Last week, in a carefully worded editorial, The Economist newspaper endorsed the HDP on the grounds that their presence in the national assembly would reduce the chance of the AK gaining a supermajority and also give the Kurdish peace process a welcome boost. Not every day does a staunch defender of free market capitalism support a party that promises to put an end to that ideology if it comes to power.