Are Turkish Pres. Erdogan’s anti-PKK Campaign, Snap Elections Backfiring?

By Kubilay Yado Arin | (ISLAMiCommentary) | – –

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week called for new elections on November 1, after his government failed to form a coalition following the June poll in which his party —the AKP — failed to win a majority of seats.

His party’s iron grip on government would have been greatly restricted by either a coalition government with the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the talks failed due to deep divergences on foreign and education policies and disagreement over the amount of power allotted to the Turkish president — or the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose gains in the June election deprived his party of its majority.

So, with new elections, Erdoğan is hoping for a second shot at holding onto power.

But economic and political uncertainty in Turkey has increased in recent weeks as Turkey grapples with an immense rise in violence between security forces and Kurdish rebels. Opponents have accused Erdogan of escalating the conflict against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in a bid to win nationalists’ support and discredit the HDP.

Selahattin Demirtaş — the leader of the HDP whose constituents include not only Kurds but socialists and other leftist factions, as well as minority groups including women, the poor, the unemployed, non-Muslims, gays and the disabled — has repeatedly called on Kurdish militants and the Turkish military to agree to an unconditional ceasefire.

In protest of the renewed conflict that ended the two-year-old peace process, several mayors in Kurdish-controlled municipalities dared to declare self-rule (öz yönetim). They were arrested. Erdogan regards Kurdish demands for minority rights and self-rule as a threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey and he’s accused HDP lawmakers of separatism and links to Kurdish rebels. All this may further hamper Demirtaş’ peace-brokering initiatives.

Demirtaş has no room for political manoeuvering as Turkish deputy prime ministers Yalcin Akdogan and Bülent Arinc or Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have put conditions on peace talks Demirtaş cannot fulfill, such as asking him to give up any kind of Kurdish demands for autonomy.

If he gives in to these demands, he risks losing face and his standing and reputation within the Kurdish minority community. Turkish officials know this very well and have tried to get the HDP to loosen its bonds with both Kurdish nationalists and Turkish liberals.

Mediation efforts, on Demirtaş’ part, with KCK (the PKK’s outlawed political wing) representatives in Brussels on August 10 was a smart move. In doing so, the KCK leadership confirmed its commitment to democracy and the peace process.

Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP co-chair (photo courtesy VOA)

Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP co-chair (photo courtesy VOA)

Without Demirtaş the KCK would not have sent a signal to Turkish authorities that they are ready for a return to the negotiation table. But Erdoğan rejected this strongly as he wants the arms ‘buried under concrete’ and ‘not one terrorist left in the country.’ It therefore comes as no surprise that the coalition talks — which the HDP called as vital as the peace talks — failed. Demirtaş and the HDP’s political future depend on a return to the negotiating table. Erdoğan is aware of this and won’t give the Kurdish representatives a chance to play the honest broker.

Now, as the Kemalist CHP and the neofascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) refuse to take interim cabinet posts, the AKP finds itself dependent on members of the pro-Kurdish HDP and non-aligned parliamentarians. So far, only the HDP has accepted ministerial posts in the power-sharing interim government that will rule the country until the November poll. That puts the AKP in the awkward position of governing with members of a pro-Kurdish party that it ruled out as a coalition partner. Notably, since the prospect of forming a government with the HDP, however brief, is an unsettling prospect for Prime Minister Davutoğlu (who was asked by President Erdoğan to form the interim cabinet), he only invited HDP lawmakers of Turkish origin into this temporary power-sharing arrangement.

HDP-logo.svgThe HDP ministers invited were Ali Haydar Konca, Levent Tüzel and Müslüm Dogan, none of which, according to Gülenist newspaper Today’s Zaman, “are Kurdish, and all are from western Turkey, even though the HDP received the overwhelming majority of its support from the country’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast.” Konca and Dogan, who are Alevis (a heterodox religious minority), accepted the invitation. Tüzel, a far-left activist (and ethnically Turkish) member of the HDP, turned down the offer, faulting Davutoğlu and Erdoğan for ‘chaos’ and the escalation of violence.

This kind of caretaker government is unprecedented in Turkish history; never before have Turkish parties failed to form a government and a snap election called. While the Kemalist CHP and the neofascist MHP — with the exception of one MHP lawmaker (the son of the MHP’s founder) who gave up his party membership to become minister in the interim government — rejected the offer as ‘immoral’, HDP co-chair Figen Yüksekdag announced the HDP would participate at at any ‘cost.’

The Kurds are appalled with the Turks for excluding them, but the HDP did say it would allow it’s non-Kurdish members (mentioned above) to join this interim government with the AKP, with the hope of preventing further bloodshed.

While one can hope the AKP will appoint an ethnic Kurd from the HDP to appease increasing tensions with this minority, the participation of the HDP in the temporary government is already highly contentious, particularly as Turkish jets are bombing Kurdish militants. Ankara has declared more than 100 temporary military zones across the Kurdish east.

Pro-Kurdish ministers in cabinet could cost the ruling AKP crucial votes in November. Already a survey by pollster Metropoll on Aug. 24 showed a rise in HDP support to 14.7 percent from the 13.1 percent it won in June, while the AKP is said to be still short of the votes it would need to form a single-party government. In early elections, The HDP is now predicted to become the third most supported party, even passing its archrival the neofascist MHP who vehemently oppose peace talks with the Kurds.

To boost his popularity, Erdoğan presents himself as a strong war-time president capable of saving the nation from terrorists of all colors. Like in the Hollywood movie “Wag the Dog”, where an unpopular US president fabricates war to win reelection, Council on Foreign Relations Steven Cook faults him for restarting a war to boost his party’s popularity among voters following a mantra that crises create opportunities.

Critics also allege that Erdoğan and his entourage are also guided by Clausewitz famous dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”

The warmongers need to acknowledge that their manipulative strategy — of having used the ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc as justification for reigniting their war with the PKK — has backfired as Turks see casualties rising by the day. The overwhelming majority of Turks wants reconciliation with Kurds.

The single-party rule of the AKP is gone, in any case, and cannot be regained by attacks on the HDP.

A recent survey by ANAR, which is known by its proximity to the AKP, found that the snap elections will not bring a return to the single-party government of the AKP. Rather the AKP would lose further votes dropping from 40 to 37%. The Kemalist newspaper Cumhuriyet concludes from the survey that this is reflective of the AKP’s responsibility for the renewed conflict, and predicts that all three opposition parties will raise their share of votes, inhibiting an executive presidency and reinstalling parliamentary checks and balances.

Whether it changes the course of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds, is an open question.


Kubilay Yado Arin is a Visiting Scholar at Duke University’s Middle East Studies Center (July 2015 – June 2016). A Kurdish scholar, his research focuses on conservative think tanks in the US and Turkey, US-Turkish relations, EU and US foreign policy towards the Middle East. Previously he was a Visiting Scholar at Middle East Technical University and Portland State University (PSU). In January and February 2015 he started postdoctoral research on his current book project “Think Tanks in Turkish Foreign Policy” at UC Berkeley and at PSU, which he plans to continue at Duke’s Middle East Studies Center. This year I.B. Tauris will publish his book on “Turkey, the US and the EU: The New Foreign policies.” If interested in these and other of his publications, visit

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ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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