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News Analysis: The 'Nice Boy' Defeats Erdogan

Selahattin Demirtas
Selahattin Demirtas

At the height of Turkey's overheated and insult-laden parliamentary election campaign last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan mocked Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the mainly Kurdish Democratic Party of Turkey's Peoples (HDP) -- considered the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- by calling him "that nice boy."

For 12 years, Erdogan was running from one victorious election to another, thanks mainly to his performance on the economy and trade, and getting more arrogant and authoritarian with each result that made him and his party the absolute winner -- no need for coalitions or bargaining. Even in the mainly Kurdish-populated provinces of southeastern Turkey, the ruling party was raking in considerably more votes than the Kurdish party.

After 12 years, though, Erdogan's ruling AK Party failed to reach two goals that the president personally had set. The first was his main goal: to achieve the absolute majority of 400 out of 550 deputies needed to change the Turkish Constitution in order to change the government system to a presidential one -- and give Erdogan himself absolute power. In the June 7 election, AKP got only 258 seats. In that result lies the second failure: Erdogan's party fell short of the majority needed to rule alone. Turkey has to go back to coalition governments.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) did well, but far from well enough. Two junior opposition parties achieved the best results, relatively speaking, and both are nationalist: one Turkish nationalist -- the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahceli -- and the other Kurdish nationalist, led by "that nice boy." Each won 80 seats, earning the role of a kingmaker in the revived chess game of Turkish democracy.

So, a one-party government run by Erdogan's AKP is out of the question, although AKP still is the Turkish parliament's strongest party and will start negotiations with other political parties on a coalition. It is not yet clear yet what kind of coalition and who with whom. In a statement, Turkish nationalist MHP leader Bahceli indirectly ruled out his party's interest in a coalition: "A coalition of [the ruling] AKP with [the Kurdish] HDP is the most natural solution, or the coalition of AKP, CHP and HDP," he said on June 8.

Much contributed to the success of the Kurdish HDP Party under Demirtas's leadership. Maybe the main factor was that under the guidance of PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, both the PKK and HDP, for the past year or so, have not limited themselves to addressing only the ethnic Kurdish population of Turkey. Especially in this election, HDP began to appeal to voters as "Turkey's party," representing "the interests of Kurds as well as Turks, Sunnis as well as Alawites," according to Demirtas. Meanwhile, the military, clandestine wing, PKK, led by Abdullah Ocalan, agreed on a cease-fire and entered indirect talks with the Turkish government on a peace and reconciliation plan between Turks and Kurds.

Peaceful Alternative

This could end 35 years of civil-war-like military actions between the PKK, still considered in the West to be a terrorist organization, and the Turkish military. It could ease decades of ethnic hatred and remove the risk of the PKK declaring independence for parts of Turkey -- eventually in chorus with northern Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian Kurds -- leading to Turkey's disintegration.

It could also present an alternative of peace and coexistence in a region driven by ethnic and religious hatred, separatism, and military crackdowns.

After the first election results were announced late on June 7, Sirri Sureyya Onder, a prominent Turkish member of HDP, called on party supporters not to "lose themselves in the drunkenness of the victory and pour into the streets" but keep their "cool heads" to preserve the peace and stability of the country and its political life.

There are interesting lessons to be drawn from the Turkish parliamentary election:

* The primarily Kurdish HDP and its leadership increasingly left purely ethnic politics behind and tried to become a national party for all citizens of Turkey, regardless of ethnicity and religion. In a sign of this shift, when Demirtas's driver was shot dead last week in an attack during a peaceful demonstration in southeastern Turkey, he called for calm and an investigation into the killing -- he did not use the slaying as a platform for wild anti-Turkish or antigovernment rhetoric.

* Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian and "Putin-style" behavior and leadership, as well as his slipping focus on economic progress and increasing ethnic-Turkic and religious Sunni rhetoric, alienated many Kurds and Turks alike. In southeastern Kurdish provinces of Turkey, HDP became the majority party. Many Turks who did not necessarily sympathize with the Kurdish goals, but wanted to prevent Erdogan from further cementing his absolute power, voted for the Kurdish HDP. This path, if continued, will strengthen a policy of dialogue and governance in Turkey beyond ethnicity and religion -- something that has been missing, especially in the last few years.

* Most Turkish analysts and columnists have portrayed HDP's Demirtas as the star of Sunday's parliamentary elections. Turkey's ultranationalists, gathered in Bahceli's MHP, have long since turned their backs on violence and creating political tension. The primarily Kurdish Democratic Party of Peoples' Unity has embarked on that path, too. Much will depend on whether they stick to peace, dialogue, and reliance on democratic elections. After all, this is what has made them kingmakers in the Turkish parliament.

Maybe both parties are the key to success in Turkey and a model for others in the region.

Abbas Djavadi is an RFE/RL regional director

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