The recent Turkish elections saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose its government majority with a fall from 47% of the vote to 41%. It was no secret that Erdogan had intended to use the elections as a referendum to pursue his plans to change the Turkish system from parliamentary to presidential, essentially shifting the powers afforded to the Prime Minister to the President; currently himself. Many outlets have identified this as the root cause of the election defeat by highlighting, and rightly so, that Erdogan alienated some supporters who feared his increasingly dictatorial style. However this clouds the bigger picture and the key reason behind the AKP ‘defeat’, which is that the Kurdish bloc have lost faith in the AKP’s handling of the peace process and therefore deserted the party, effectively eliminating the AKP parliamentary majority.
To understand the significance of the Kurdish bloc, it is worth mentioning that in 2010, the Kurds secured 29 seats through candidates who ran as independents in order to avoid the 10% threshold rule required of parties. This time round, the Kurds succeeded in securing an incredible 85 seats, an increase of 56 seats. This begs the question as to who benefited from these 56 seats in the last election. According to Kurdish residents interviewed by the International Interest, the Kurds rallied behind Erdogan in 2010 on the basis that he, as a devout muslim, was well suited to conduct peace negotiations. The AKP therefore secured a resounding majority in the Kurdish areas which translated into an overall parliamentary majority. The recent elections saw AKP seats fall from 327 to 254, a loss of 63 seats. Given the Kurds sensitivity to the secular parties due to historical efforts to suppress Kurdish identity, the only logical conclusion is that this Kurdish majority previously reflected in the 56 seats deserted the AKP and rallied behind Salahettin Demirtas and the HDP.
The Kurds had placed great hope in the AKP in 2010 who were seen as a welcome breath of fresh air from the Ataturk influenced secular parties who sought to remove Kurdish identity through the emphasis of the ‘Turk’ identity. The progression of the peace process sanctioned by Abdullah Ocalan ensured that the AKP enjoyed support from a significant portion of the Kurdish population which allowed the AKP to secure a majority. However the stalling of the peace process as well as Erdogan’s inaction in Kobane, seen by many as a clear move on his part to ensure that the Kurds remained ‘weak’ enough to continue the negotiations, alienated and disillusioned many within the Kurdish community.
Such disillusionment became clear following the battle that raged in Kobane which was seen as tactless political maneuvering by Erdogan who sought to capitalize on the leadership struggle within the Kurdish ranks, by inviting Masoud Barzani and the Peshmerga of Iraq to save the town so as to damage Abdullah Ocalan’s standing amongst the Kurdish community. The result of this was that the HDP found resonance amongst the Kurdish community when it declared that Erdogan was self-interested and seeking only to preserve his own power. Such rhetoric that would not have succeeded in 2011 mobilized large sections of the Kurds to rally around Demirtas who has come to embody Kurdish hopes of a successful resolution to the peace process.
However this view taken by many amongst the Kurdish community of Erdogan’s conduct during Kobane is narrow and fails to take into account Erdogan’s ‘catch-22’. Intervention by the Turkish army in Kobane would have carried the flame of the war on ISIS into domestic territory and embroiled Turkey in a guerilla war that it is not equipped to win decisively. Secondly, the peace process could not have been saved even if Erdogan had entered to rescue the town. As the Kurds became stronger in Iraq-with the Peshmerga successfully driving ISIS out of its territory-and as the borders of Iraq and Syria disintegrated due to ongoing civil wars, many Kurds began to see a real possibility of carving out a Kurdish state amidst the chaos. Realising this, Ocalan’s party began to stall on the issue of de-militarization and the peace process suddenly began to hit complications as the Kurds sought to see how Kobane would play out. Fearing failure of the peace process, Erdogan refused to entertain the prospect of a stronger Kurdish position and sought to protect Turkey’s interests as a unified country rather than reinforce the Kurds militarily and place them in a stronger position to stake their claim for independence. In practical terms, this meant ensuring that the Kurdish forces suffered heavy losses so as to dampen any hopes of independence and force the Kurds back to negotiations.
Therefore in reality, an intervention by Erdogan would have exacerbated the complications of the peace process, and inaction alienated his Kurdish support base that resulted in a blow to his electoral support. This is not to belittle the growing fear amongst the Turkish population of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style. However the alienation of the Kurds was the key reason behind the drop in AKP support as opposed to any organized rejection of Erdogan’s plans to change the Turkish political system.