Failure of pro-Kurdish HDP to enter Parliament could spell trouble

March 28, 2015, Saturday/ Zaman / AYDIN ALBAYRAK / ANKARA – If the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is unable to overcome the election threshold in the upcoming general election, there is the risk that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) may push for cantons to be established and that mass protests will take place in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast, with the settlement process entering shaky ground.

“They [PKK] will take advantage of the situation to build a canton system, arguing that the political system has lost its legitimacy for them,” İbrahim Güçlü, a Kurdish intellectual who does not subscribe to the PKK’s ideology, told Sunday’s Zaman. For the first time, the HDP, which is affiliated with the PKK, will run as a party in the general election on June 7 instead of fielding only independent candidates as in past elections to circumvent the 10 percent election threshold.

Last year, the PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU, attempted to establish canton-like autonomous administrations similar to those in Syria in some parts of southeastern Turkey such as the towns of Cizre, Silopi and Yüksekova.

“Fighting may ensue as the state will not remain indifferent to such a move,” Güçlü cautioned, which would mean the end of an already precarious settlement process launched to resolve the country’s Kurdish issue and terrorism problem.Kurds in Syria, taking advantage of the civil war in the country, have established three autonomous cantons in the northern part of the country and which are on Turkey’s border.

According to the election law, a political party needs to obtain more than 10 percent of the vote to be represented in Parliament.Candidates from Kurdish parties, the HDP’s predecessors, were only able to receive 6.5 percent of the vote in the past election in 2011, which makes the HDP’s move rather risky. There are also concerns that the PKK may push for violent, uprising-like mass protests particularly in the Southeast of the country as was the case during the Oct. 6-8 events of last year.

Between Oct. 6 and 8, 2014, thousands of PKK sympathizers took to the streets to protest the government’s unwillingness to militarily assist the Kurdish militants defending the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Around 50 people were killed after the protests turned violent, a significant number of them by the protesters themselves. Following the demonstrations, which spread to many cities, Interior Minister Efkan Ala reportedly admitted during a ruling party meeting that the government had at times lost control in some cities during the protests.

HDP Co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, back in January when he first announced that the HDP would compete as a party in the elections in June, tried to dismiss any possibility of violence should the party remain out of Parliament by failing to surpass the election threshold. “If we cannot surpass the threshold, [then] we will work outside [of Parliament]. Why should blood be shed because we are not in Parliament?” said Demirtaş, adding that the legitimacy of the political system would be questioned by Kurds should the HDP remain outside of Parliament. But the possibility of Kurdish violence cannot be disregarded should the HDP not be elected to Parliament. Hüsamettin Zenderlioğlu, an HDP deputy, speaking somewhat bluntly during the Nevruz celebrations in Bitlis nearly two weeks ago, said, “If this party fails to pass the threshold in June [elections], if this party loses to the ruling party, then all hell will break loose.”

After the settlement process was launched at the end of 2012, it was widely accepted that the PKK was in a better position to organize widespread public protests thanks to its urban structure, the activities of which had been mostly ignored by the authorities for the sake of the ongoing peace talks.

“The protests on Oct. 6-8 were a dress rehearsal for future uprising-like protests,” Atilla Sandıklı, the president of the İstanbul-based Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (Bilgesam), told Sunday’s Zaman after the protests.Last year, sympathizers of the PKK were involved in many demonstrations in southeastern Turkey, blocking highways in the region, digging ditches and declaring self-rule in the neighborhoods of some towns.

The peace talks between the government and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, have been on precarious ground for some time now as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said he was against any further steps being taken by the government as part of the settlement process since the PKK has failed to lay down its arms as promised. In a rare violation of the cease-fire in place since the process was launched, the Turkish military returned fire from the PKK on Wednesday targeting three military posts in Hakkari province.

What encouraged the HDP to take part in the upcoming elections as a party may be the success of HDP Co-chairman Demirtaş during the presidential election last year. Although independent Kurdish politicians affiliated with HDP obtained a total of around 2.8 million votes — which amounts to 6.5 percent of all votes — in the last parliamentary elections in 2011, Demirtaş managed to receive 9.8 percent of the vote in the presidential election last August, or 3.9 million votes. According to many recent opinion surveys, the HDP might just surpass the election threshold with a slight margin or receive around 9 percent of the vote in the June elections. Should the HDP find itself left out of Parliament by a hair’s breadth, tensions among HDP voters may run high. Some provocative remarks would be enough to push the masses into protests that may end up in violence, as was the case in Ağrı following local elections last year.

When claims of rigging were leveled by HDP members following local elections in Ağrı, a predominantly Kurdish city in eastern Turkey, HDP sympathizers in the city took to the streets and many people were wounded during protests.

HDP Co-chairman Figen Yüksekdağ, in an interview on the Habertürk news channel at the end of last month, also challenged the election threshold, saying, “If the HDP cannot pass the threshold, the legitimacy of the elections would be questioned.”The moment HDP figures publicly announce, following June 7, that they do not consider the elections legitimate, mass protests cannot be ruled out in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast and in some major cities such as İstanbul and İzmir, which have significant Kurdish populations.

Cemil Bayık, the head of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that encompasses the PKK, was also moderate in his comments in the event the HDP is left out of Parliament. “The HDP would continue to do politics outside of Parliament,” Bayık, who is based in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, recently said in a statement to the Taraf daily. But his next remark vaguely implied that mass protests could not be ruled out: “It [the HDP] would push Turkey for early elections.”

To force Turkey to enter snap elections after the elections in June, it is possible that widespread mass protests, which might turn violent, will be organized. Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, a Kurdish politician who resigned from his posts in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) at the end of 2008, does not feel that violent protests would take place even if the HDP is left out of Parliament. But Fırat, who will run on the HDP ticket in the upcoming elections, also believes the legitimacy of Parliament would be questioned by Kurds in such a scenario.

“Kurdish deputies from the ruling party do not represent Kurds. They would not be welcomed in the towns in southeastern Turkey,” Fırat, who previously served as AK Party deputy chairman, he told Sunday’s Zaman. If the HDP is left out of Parliament, the ruling party is expected to have all its deputies in southeastern Turkey elected as the other opposition parties have very weak voter support in the region. The HDP is hopeful that it will pass the threshold thanks to support from some left-wing voters and from Kurds who previously voted for the ruling AK Party. Some Kurds who are dissatisfied with the steps taken by the government so far on the settlement process may vote for the HDP in the upcoming elections. By passing the 10 percent election threshold, the HDP believes it will evolve into a nationwide party and will change the general political picture in the country. The party also believes running in the elections as a party will motivate its voters to go to the ballot box, since voter turnout was low in the country’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast in the 2014 presidential election. The HDP is currently represented by more than 30 deputies in Parliament. Should it get more than 10 percent of the vote in the upcoming elections, it is expected to have more than 50 deputies.