The resounding success of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s recent election has raised hope for the pro-Kurdish movement in the country.
While the HDP took 13% of the vote, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority, holding onto just 258 of the 276 seats it needed to secure another term of one-party governance. It has been suggested that the reversed fortunes of the AKP are largely a result of Erdoğan’s plan to take power further away from the parliament and bolster his own position if his party won.
The HDP is the result of an alliance between the Democratic Regions Party (BDP) and other smaller pro-Kurdish groups on the left of the political spectrum. Its charismatic cleader, human rights lawyer Selahattin Demirtas, promotes a broad, pro-European and social justice agenda. But the party is also particularly committed to achieving reconciliation between the Kurds and the wider population in Turkey.
By reducing support for the AKP, Turkish voters have clearly rejected Erdoğan’s presidentialist, neo-Ottoman project, but will Demirtas succeed in advancing matters on the Kurdish front?
The Kurdish question has been on the political agenda since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres offered the Kurds the possibility of independence from Turkey under the auspices of the League of Nations. But that never materialised.
The Turkish War of Independence unfolded between 1919 and 1923 and a new, secular Turkey emerged. Having fought the allies and rejected the Sèvres settlement, Turkey became intent on suppressing any form of ethno-cultural diversity in the name of an ideologically rigid nationalism that admitted no minorities in the country other than a handful of religious groups of non-Islamic faith. And even these groups were less than fully protected.
The rise of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the 1970s led to a violent conflict with the military in the south-east of the country, and an additional wave of repression for the Kurds more generally. Several pro-Kurdish organisations have been banned ever since, resulting in a string of decisions against Turkey by the European Court of Human Rights.
The violence declined with the capture and imprisonment of PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. But it was not until recently that the government officially began talks (initially mediated by Norway) with the PKK and other pro-Kurdish representatives – and a ceasefire was announced.
Since 2002, the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the European Union has led the Erdoğan government to give ground to the Kurdish minority. Kurdish culture and identity was allowed to be acknowledged in TV broadcasting and even to be taught in schools.
Despite this progress, the prospect of a permanent political settlement has remained elusive. But, now that the HDP has secured a place in parliament, a new constructive phase in the peace process could be on the horizon.
The HDP has moved away from the separatist ambitions formerly associated with the Kurdish movement. It is now firmly and openly embracing the language of democracy and human rights as a basis for reconciliation within Turkish society.
Several pro-Kurdish organisations have come to support democratic regional autonomy for Kurdish provinces. Other forms of cultural autonomy have also been suggested for more dispersed Kurds living in western Turkey or adjacent areas. This could include national councils to represent their interests or cross-regional advisory bodies.
The HDP is expected to back some of these aims. In its election manifesto it pledged to support self-rule through regional assemblies, as part of its plans to resolve the Kurdish question.
The stakes are high and at the heart of this political debate will be the chances of fostering a pluralist and inclusive notion of Turkish identity that is capable of accommodating pro-Kurdish, non-separatist visions for the future of the country.
Many hope that international human rights standards and time-honoured constitutional models in Europe and beyond will provide a context for supporting such a transformative process.
Neither exclusionary nationalism nor separatism have proved workable but this vision of the future could offer a viable alternative.