Cengiz Gunes | The role of the pro-Kurdish parliamentary opposition in Turkey’s Kurdish conflictBy Jelena Loncar on 6 August 2016
The pro-Kurdish parliamentary opposition central to ending the violent episode in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict
Author: Cengiz Gunes (Associate Lecturer, The Open University)
The pro-Kurdish political movement has firmly established itself as the main representative of the Kurds in Turkey during the past two years. This was achieved by mobilising a high number of Kurds and Turkey’s other pro-democracy political forces under a political platform demanding widespread democratisation and a peaceful end to the Kurdish conflict. Since the delicate ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) came to an end in the summer of 2015, the pro-Kurdish movement has come under increasing pressure from the state and Turkey’s increasingly nationalist and authoritarian AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. However, as I explain below in more detail, eliminating the pro-Kurdish representation is likely to backfire and further escalate the ongoing violence in the Kurdish conflict.
Targeting the pro-Kurdish movement
On 20 May 2016, the Turkish parliament passed legislation to lift the immunity of MPs, which is a measure designed by the government to end or at least significantly weaken the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party) representation in Turkey’s parliament. Currently there are 59 HDP MPs and in addition to the governing AKP there are two other opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) represented in Turkey’s parliament. Legal proceedings have already begun against a number of HDP deputies, including its co-presidents Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. Further measures to remove the elected pro-Kurdish mayors of the Kurdish towns and cities and replace them with pro-government trustees are expected to follow soon.
The declaration of a nation-wide state of emergency on 20 July 2016 in Turkey for an initial period of three months following the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 indicates that political instability in the country is set to continue. A significant contributor to Turkey’s current political instability is the Kurdish conflict and in the period immediately preceding the failed coup attempt, the Kurds were bracing themselves for further escalation in the violence between the state security forces and the PKK guerrillas that began to flare-up once more since the summer of 2015. In the past 6 months the security forces have targeted PKK strongholds in the southeast, which has led to huge destruction in cities and towns, civilian casualties and widespread human rights violations.
As part of the campaign against the PKK, the current AKP government also began to target the pro-Kurdish political movement currently represented in the parliament by the HDP. The pro-Kurdish movement is seen by the government as an extension of the PKK and is therefore identified as a legitimate target for suppression, and with these measures, the government hopes to strip it of its institutional base and remove it from being a barrier to the presidential system it plans to introduce.
The rise of the pro-Kurdish movement in Turkey
Since 1990, the pro-Kurdish political parties have been part of Turkey’s political system and have provided the Kurds with a channel to represent themselves and pursue their demands. However, the oppression that they have been experiencing, particularly during the mid-1990s, bears testimony to the difficulties Kurds face as they try to represent themselves via legal political channels and in the institutions of the state. Not only do many pro-Kurdish parties face closure, their MPs have been imprisoned, their activists arrested, tortured, and in some cases, murdered. The pro-Kurdish political parties have been subjected to numerous suppressive practices on the basis that they promote Kurdish separatism, resulting in the ban by Turkey’s constitutional court of the following parties: the People’s Labour Party (HEP) in 1993, the Democracy Party (DEP) in 1994, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) in 2003, and the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in 2009. The political and popular media discourses in Turkey treat pro-Kurdish political parties as separatist and against Turkey’s territorial integrity.
The pro-Kurdish political parties have been articulating Kurdish identity and national demands within the discourse of democracy and human rights. They put forward proposals to reform the existing political framework as a way to end the conflict by recognizing Kurdish identity and cultural and linguistic differences in Turkey. They have consistently emphasized the need to build an open, participatory and plural democratic society that respects human and cultural rights, and accommodates Kurdish rights and demands.
However, despite this suppression, the pro-Kurdish movement has been gaining more support in the past 5 years. In the 2011 general elections, 35 pro-Kurdish independent candidates managed to get elected as members of parliament. Having parliamentary representation enabled the pro-Kurdish movement to be more visible and broaden its appeal as well as the organisational network, which enabled it to represent a greater number of people in Turkey. In the local elections held on 30 March 2014, the pro-Kurdish movement consolidated its position as the leading representative of the Kurdish regions by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in many towns and cities. In total it won 100 councils, including the municipalities of Ağrı, Batman, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Iğdır, Mardin, Şırnak, Siirt, Tunceli and Van. Strong performance at the local election encouraged the HDP to take part in the June 2015 election as a party rather than supporting independent candidates in which it obtained 13.12% of the vote and 80 seats in the parliament. In the re-run of the election in November 2015, the HDP lost some of the support it gained in June election due to violence and state suppression but still managed to gain 10.76% of the vote and 59 seats.
A large part of the HDP’s electoral success in last year’s elections was due to the transformation in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict. The most significant aspect of this transformation was the dialogue process involving the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, the state officials and a delegation comprising of HDP MPs, and it achieved some milestones such as the unilateral ceasefire the PKK declared on 21 March 2013 and the PKK’s subsequent promise to pull its guerrilla forces out of Turkey. Also, the reduction in violence during the past 15 years has made a positive contribution to the reinvigoration of civil life in Kurdish majority areas of Turkey. The normalisation of political life contributed to a decrease in nationalist antagonisms in Turkey and opened up the space for the HDP to win votes from a larger section of the Kurds in Turkey as well as from Turkish socialists, feminists and other minorities, notably Alevis and Arabs.
The results for the local and national elections confirm that the pro-Kurdish political movement has firmly established itself as the main representative of the Kurds in Turkey, and the findings of a recently completed research project on the political attitudes of Kurds in Turkey, which I briefly discuss in this article, support this assertion. The findings are based on a survey completed by 209 Kurdish individuals from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds. The respondents were drawn from Kurds residing in Ankara, Diyarbakir, Istanbul and Van. Around 65 percent of people who expressed a political affiliation supported the HDP with the rest of the respondents supporting the AKP or other smaller Kurdish political organisations.
Figure 1: Political representation of Kurds in Turkey
The analysis of the survey reveals that Kurds view a diverse set of other actors, such as local governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as their representatives, including the organisations representing the business community and women. There exist a complex Kurdish political and civil society network in Turkey and Kurdish individuals use this network to represent themselves and further their interests.
Why the violent turn?
On 28 February 2015, the HDP delegation and government representatives jointly read out a ten point declaration in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, which was seen as a framework document for the future negotiations between the PKK and Turkey to end the conflict peacefully. However, in April 2015, signs of the troubles ahead appeared when President Erdoğan declared that he did not agree with the ten point declaration and that he did not approve of a negotiated end to the conflict with the PKK. The trust between the parties began to rapidly disintegrate in the subsequent months during the course of the election campaign. The AKP based its election strategy on preventing the HDP from entering the parliament, and portrayed it as a threat to democracy and as a supporter of violence and terrorism.
The rising Kurdish influence in Syria in the past four years has also played a role in the government’s actions. The establishment of Kurdish de facto autonomy in Syria under the leadership of a political party that has an ideological affiliation with the PKK has become a key concern for the government. Turkey is worried that the rise of the pro-Kurdish movement domestically and the consolidation of Kurdish self-rule in Syria will increase the Kurds’ power as a regional actor and permanently change the game in their favour. Its inability to accommodate Kurdish demands in Turkey and unwillingness of the government to pursue a peaceful political solution to the conflict means the only policy choice left is the exclusion and suppression of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria.
Rather than steering Turkey to stability, eliminating pro-Kurdish political representation will prolong the conflict and further undermine Turkey’s weakening democratic institutions. With the restrictions experienced in political space, the effectiveness of civil society organisations in participating in political processes and acting as a moderating force is also significantly reduced. The likely outcome is further radicalisation of a greater number of Kurds in Turkey and continuation of the current violent episode in the conflict.
This research is part of Governance of Diversity: Case of the Kurdish and Amazigh Communities in the Middle East and North Africa, a program funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC). The full findings of the research project will be published as part of an edited book.
 Ulson Gunnar (2016) ‘Failed Military Coup in Turkey: Chaos and Political Instability’, Global Research, Online < http://www.globalresearch.ca/failed-military-coup-in-turkey-chaos-and-political-instability/5536145> (accessed 5 August 2016).
 Jeremy Bowen (2016) ‘Inside Cizre: Where Turkish forces stand accused of Kurdish killings’, BBC News, Online <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36354742> (accessed 2 July 2016); Ceylan Yeginsu (2015) ‘Turkey’s Campaign Against Kurdish Militants Takes Toll on Civilians’, The New York Times, Online < http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/31/world/europe/turkey-kurds-pkk.html?_r=0> (accessed 2 July 2016).
 For a more detailed discussion see, Cengiz Gunes (2012) The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance (London and New York: Routledge), pp.152-75
 For a more detailed discussion see, Cengiz Gunes and Welat Zeydanlioglu (2014) The Kurdish Question in Turkey: New Perspectives on Violence, Representation, and Reconciliation, (London and New York: Routledge).
 Bianet English (2015) ‘President Erdoğan: What Dolmabahçe Agreement?’ Online <http://bianet.org/english/politics/174188-president-erdogan-what-dolmabahce-agreement> (accessed 02 July 2016).
 Cengiz Gunes and Robert Lowe (2015) ‘The Impact of the Syrian War on Kurdish Politics Across the Middle East’, Research Report, The Royal Institute for International Affairs, London.