Emboldened by its success in the June 24 elections, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish HDP Party is looking to broaden its support beyond its traditional ethnic base — a move that could redraw the country's entrenched political borders.
Narrowly passing the 10 percent electoral threshold to enter parliament, the HDP’s success was tinged by some political fallout: Many of its officials were jailed, including nine parliamentary deputies, on terrorism charges alone. HDP also claims there was a media blackout on its campaign and it was a victim of voter suppression by the government.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP Party claim the HDP is a terrorist organization affiliated to the Kurdish insurgent group the PKK — a charge the party denies.
While the HDP’s support remained largely unchanged in its traditional electoral stronghold in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, its votes increased in large cities in the West inhabited mainly by Turks.
The HDP’s increase in votes is attributed in part to tactical voting by Turkish voters opposed to Erdogan’s ruling AKP. If the HDP had failed to enter parliament, its more than 60 seats would have been transferred to the AKP, which is its chief electoral rival.
HDP Honorary President Ertugrul Kurkcu, speaking in an exclusive interview with VOA, suggests the party’s success in broadening its support could become permanent.
“I believe this section of voters are going to stay with HDP if we can develop a more coherent line of opposition by bringing together both aspirations of the Kurdish people, as well as the democratic and left forces as it was in the origins of the Kurdish movement. I am very confident in saying that with the new elements coming we are going to find a new way of thinking,” Kurkcu said.
Some analysts remain skeptical over the HDP achieving a broader support among Turkish voters, pointing out many remain deeply suspicious over its relationship to the PKK. The decades-long insurgency by the PKK for greater Kurdish rights has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
“The expectations are they [HDP] reject the relations with PKK and condemn the PKK as a terrorist organization,” International Relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University said.
“If we were to say that we were against everything the PKK is doing this would not be convincing,” countered HDP's Kurkcu, “the brother of the former chair of our party is up in the mountains (fighting with the PKK). Everything is closely interrelated, it would not be convincing. Kurdish people don’t believe these people are terrorists. Who would believe their martyred son is a terrorist and would they appreciate a party that says he is,” added Kurkcu.
Nearly all of Turkey’s mainstream media regularly refer to the HDP as “terrorist supporters,” echoing President Erdogan’s line. Despite such a relentless campaign, Kurkcu believes the June election result suggests some people are ready to look to the future.
“New voters who voted for HDP did so knowing very well the HDP's position, HDP’s discourse, but also knowing HDP's potential,” he said.
Efforts to broaden the HDP’s political appeal comes at a time when some Kurds are calling for a harder line in response to ongoing government crackdown on the Kurdish movement.
“Many people in Kurdistan would love it if the HDP ran a fierce campaign for independence, but this is only 10 percent of our support, which is a reaction to the draconian policies of the government,” Kurkcu said. “I would not say there are many contradictions in the party over our new approach, but rather among some of our Kurdish audience, we will hear such voices, and we have to address them.”
The political environment facing HDP also remains a challenge. Erdogan has indicated he will ease up on the legal crackdown of the party.
The interior minister Suleyman Soylu this week declared there is no “HDP,” only the PKK.
“There is a political space for HDP’s initiative,” political scientist Cengiz Aktar said. “Whether the regime will allow this sort of opposition to itself, it needs to be seen. There are too many unknown elements.”