Turkey must find a way to manage what amounts to a Kurdish revolution. Will it attempt to meet the Kurds halfway, or take a nationalist turn?
On June 7, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, experienced his first electoral defeat—and a stinging one at that, his Justice and Development party (AKP) losing ten points and its majority in the parliament. This marks the end of Erdogan’s aspirations to rule Turkey single-handedly under a new, presidential constitution. With this election, the country has avoided slipping into an Islamist-Putinesque strongman rule but still faces many serious challenges. The first is handling Erdogan’s inexorable demise. Erdogan has little hope of reversing his slide, but he will not step aside easily. Turkey will also have to manage what was essentially a Kurdish revolution. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) more than doubled its support and will have a substantial presence in parliament. Will Turkey meet the Kurdish movement halfway and accommodate its demands, or will it take a nationalist turn and push back against the Kurds, with potentially dire consequences?
In the six months that he served as President, Erdogan essentially conducted a test-run of an executive presidency, but without the constitutional mandate for it. He refused to stay out of the day-to-day politics as the Constitution demands, and he chaired cabinet meetings, as well as campaigning overtly for the AKP. Erdogan wagered everything on a presidential system; clearly, the people did not like what they saw, and he lost. His party no longer has a majority in parliament, and any coalition government, even if it includes the AKP, is certain to reduce his influence in day-to-day affairs, including foreign policy. For four years or more, he will be the President in a parliamentary system. A consummate politician, he may yet reinvent himself, but in all likelihood, all he can really be now is a spoiler. It should be noted that one of Erdogan’s legacies is de-institutionalizing decision-making and concentrating it into his own, personal, informal power. Thus, Erdogan continues to have loyalists across the state bureaucracy, and at least for some time, he will be able to mobilize them to serve his goals.
Ironically, this downfall was his own doing. In early 2014, Erdogan faced a choice: remain Prime Minister, or seek the Presidency. His original plan, devised in 2010, had been to first change the constitution to a presidential system, then have himself elected President. But he spent 2011 consumed by health concerns, including what is assumed to be two cancer operations, and 2012 and 2013 were wasted in the intra-Islamic struggle with the Fethullah Gülen movement. The Gezi Park uprising of summer 2013 and the massive corruption allegations against his government later that year also prevented the launch of a new constitution—not least because parts of the AKP’s own parliamentary group opposed a presidential system. Against this background, the safe option would have been to remain Prime Minister and seek a fourth term. True, AKP by-laws limited office-holders to three terms, but Erdogan could easily have changed them. He remained popular, and could simply have cited a need to respond to popular demands. Had he chosen this route, he would almost certainly have retained his majority, and thus remained Turkey’s unchallenged strongman today. But power was not enough: he wanted absolute power.
In August 2014, Turks still gave him the benefit of the doubt: he managed to get elected President with 52 percent of the vote against two opposition candidates. (One of these was the young rising star of Turkish politics, HDP leader Selahattin Demirta?, who managed to get 10 percent of the vote, a breakthrough for a Kurdish candidate.) But by this time Erdogan was losing touch with reality. From 2011 onward, he gradually lost the support of key constituencies. Over time, he alienated Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia and descended into a deadly battle with the Gülen movement. Meanwhile, he parted ways with the more pragmatic and pro-European wing of his own party, led by former President Abdullah Gül, who publicly distanced himself from Erdogan’s rhetoric. Eventually, he also alienated many core party stalwarts that helped create the AKP.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Kurds. Erdogan had long courted Kurdish voters; in retrospect, his gambit to open peace talks with the PKK was in great part an attempt to gain the Kurdish vote for his presidential ambitions. But events across the Middle East changed the playing field. The creation of a self-ruling Kurdish region in Syria boosted Kurdish aspirations in Turkey as well. In the presidential election, Erdogan failed to win the Kurdish southeast, but he came in a close second to the HDP candidate Selahattin Demirta?, carrying almost 40 percent of the vote there. Then came the ISIS siege of Kobani. Erdogan refused to allow support for the beleaguered Kurds there, and this led to riots in southeastern Turkey that killed more than a hundred people. Only by bringing tanks onto the streets of Diyarbakir and appealing to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to calm tensions was Erdogan able to stabilize the situation.
Kobani convinced the Kurds of Turkey that Erdogan supported ISIS over Syria’s Kurds and was willing to let them be slaughtered. While their allegations are likely exaggerated, there is considerable evidence—as a Bipartisan Policy Center report detailed—that Turkey has turned a blind eye to the rise of ISIS, seeing it as a lesser evil to both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to the Kurdish PYD. This was too much even for Turkey’s more conservative, Islamist Kurds, who had supported the Islamist AKP over the secular, Kurdish nationalist HDP. Tribal chiefs brought their supporters for massive shows of support for the HDP, and on June 7 the electoral consequences were obvious. The AKP was basically wiped out in the southeast of Turkey, capturing just a sixth of the vote there.
Conversely, the big winner of the 2015 election was the pro-Kurdish HDP, which ran on a platform that sought to attract liberal and leftist Turks as well as its Kurdish base. The HDP swept the southeast, but managed to exceed all expectations and capture a full 13 percent of the vote. If the HDP had failed to clear the 10 percent threshold (which, ironically, was designed specifically to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament), then almost all the seats it won in the southeast would have gone to the AKP, the only other party to have a presence there. That could have handed Erdogan the supermajority he needed to enact a new constitution. Aware of this, and for tactical reasons, hundreds of thousands of Turkish voters determined to deny Erdogan that prize voted for the HDP. This probably amounted to a quarter of the party’s vote.
Thus, going forward, Turkey will face political instability in Ankara while dealing with an assertive and emboldened Kurdish movement. Indeed, the HDP will now use its newly found support to demand answers to the questions it has been raising for several years: What is the Turkish state willing to give the Kurds on the issues that matter most to them: decentralization, education in the mother tongue, and the definition of citizenship, currently tied to the concept of “Turkishness” (whereas the HDP seeks a bi-national re-arrangement of the country)?
The AKP deserves credit for lifting the taboo on discussions of the Kurdish issue, and for gradually liberating language laws, among other things. Yet in the several years that negotiations between the AKP and the PKK have been ongoing, the government has failed to publicly (and allegedly even in negotiations) provide concrete proposals for compromises to meet Kurdish demands. This has led the HDP to conclude that Erdogan has simply been stringing the Kurdish movement along. Yet until now, Erdogan and the AKP could lay claim to represent the many Kurds who voted for it. But now, the HDP enjoys the near-total backing of Turkey’s Kurds, and it is therefore unlikely to accept the current state of affairs much longer. Its leaders will certainly raise their demands in the incoming parliament.
Meanwhile, the first challenge for this parliament will be to form a government. A coalition excluding the AKP is unlikely, because it would have to include two polar opposites: the Kurdish nationalist HDP and the Turkish nationalist MHP. As for the AKP, it could form a government with either of the two, or with the center-left Republican People’s Party. Thus, the AKP faces the choice of partnering with fundamentally different political movements.
A year ago, an AKP-HDP coalition would have seemed likely—but that was before Kobani and Erdogan’s sharp nationalist turn. It should be noted that in recent months, a rift opened between Erdogan and the AKP government on the Kurdish peace talks: Erdogan criticized them, while the government appeared determined to continue. Thus, an AKP-HDP coalition glued together by the prospect of a real peace deal is conceivable, but only if the AKP is able to sideline Erdogan from the party. This is a possibility in the longer term, and would be good for Turkish stability. However, most of the AKP parliamentarians are still personally loyal to Erdogan. That is likely to change over time—Erdogan is already described as a liability to the party—but that process will probably take months rather than weeks.
The alternative is a coalition with the right-wing MHP. On paper, this coalition makes the most sense: the AKP and MHP share a similar base, the difference being largely the diverging emphasis between religion and Turkish nationalism. Once Erdogan let the military back in from the cold to fight his rivals in the Gülen movement, he moved in an increasingly nationalist direction. It may thus be more natural for the AKP, especially if Erdogan initially remains informally in charge of the party, to make common cause with the MHP and the military to check and roll back Kurdish nationalism. That, in turn, could prove very dangerous: the riots over Kobani showed just how much of a tinderbox southeastern Turkey is.
The third and final option might seem the most unlikely: an AKP coalition with its very antithesis, the secularist CHP, once created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This appears the favorite option of Turkey’s business community. However, it is difficult to see the denominators that could provide a base for a lasting governing coalition. Such an arrangement, like all options on the table, runs the risk of being short-lived; bets are already on regarding how long it will take until early elections are held.
The conventional wisdom is that the Turkish military has been sidelined from politics, but lately, it has reared its head on the Kurdish issue in a public way unseen since the 1990s. The General Staff in August 2014 publicly expressed its displeasure over the peace process; in the case of Kobani, it vociferously resisted any assistance to the beleaguered Kurds. This augured what Halil Karaveli calledan “anti-Kurdish alliance of Erdogan and the generals.” Throughout modern Turkish history, the military has tended to fill any vacuum left by politicians; the crumbling of the AKP’s single-party government could generate exactly that type of vacuum. No one should be surprised if, behind the scenes, the military gradually begins to take on a stronger role, particularly concerning foreign and security policy, and especially the Kurdish issue. Such a role, indeed, might complicate any prospects of an arrangement with the HDP.
Turkey has escaped the prospect of dictatorship, but it will still have to pay the price for Erdogan’s polarizing politics, which have exacerbated ethnic, sectarian and ideological divisions in society. The President himself has been cut down to size, but it remains to be seen how the dynamics between Erdogan and his party develop. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was largely sidelined during the electoral campaign; it remains to be seen if he will be able and willing to challenge Erdogan and pull the AKP out from under his shadow. With international markets already concerned about Turkey’s highly leveraged and fragile economy, Turkish leaders will have to tread carefully to avoid political and financial instability. The question is whether they are up to the task.
Svante E. Cornell is director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with Johns Hopkins University–SAIS and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. He is the publisher of the biweekly Turkey Analyst.
By Hendrik Müller
By Halil M. Karaveli
By Nicklas Norling
Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s recent calls  for the Kurdish militants to end the armed struggle  inside Turkey seemed designed to show that they were on the brink of a peace deal. It didn’t work. The likelihood of a formal peace settlement has never been worse, and for now this may suit both the PKK and the Turkish government.