Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The difficult relationship between the Kemalist CHP and the Kurdish HDP

Translation- Republican People's Party
Supporters cheer as the Istanbul mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) delivers a speech during a rally on June 14, 2019 at Bayrampasa district in Istanbul. Photo AFP

Will the CHP take the election result, achieved through the support of the HDP, as an opportunity to finally abandon its rigid attitude towards the Kurds?

By: Gülistan Gürbey

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) was able to win the mayoral election in Istanbul (31 March and 23 June 2019) and at the same time experienced how important cooperation with the Kurdish-progressive People`s Democratic Party (HDP) is to generate political strength.

It should be emphasized that the support of the HDP was decisive for the CHP’s victory. Their support made CHP’s victory possible in the first place because the HDP did not nominate its own candidates in major West Turkish cities in order to help CHP candidates win the elections. The party leadership called for CHP candidates to be elected. This ensured that Ekrem Imamoglu also received the votes of many Kurdish voters in Istanbul. Of approximately 4.6 million votes that Imamoglu received, 911,000 were HDP votes.

The struggle for Kurdish voters in the repeat of the mayoral election in Istanbul on 23 June 2019 was in full swing. Both the CHP and the ruling Party for Justice and Development (AKP) tried to win them over and payed particular attention to the non-voters (more than 1.5 million) and the Kurdish voters. The AKP was not focusing its strategy on large-scale rallies, but wanted to specifically solicit these votes on the ground, e.g. through home visits. In order to send a positive signal in the competition for Kurdish voters, the government abruptly lifted the eleven-year ban on visiting the lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and imprisoned since 1999, at the beginning of May. For the first time in eleven years, the lawyers visited Öcalan in early May 2019. Shortly before the elections on 23 June, the AKP government again drew the “Kurdish card”: In order to influence the HDP voters, a statement by Öcalan was used as an excuse, in which he allegedly called on the Kurds to be neutral.

Nevertheless, the AKP did not succeed in winning the election. The CHP candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, emerged as the clear winner with a lead of around 9 percent (Imamoglu: 54 percent, Binali Yildirim: 45 percent).

The CHP’s electoral success triggered an atmosphere of optimism within the party. At the same time, the pressure on the CHP has increased because the success has also raised expectations among the population and the HDP hopes for more support in the Kurdish cause.

The HDP as a touchstone at the scales

Translation- Kurds
One of the lawyers of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, Rezzan Sarica, holds a press conference on May 26, 2019 in Istanbul. Photo AFP

The electoral success of the CHP also reveals the role of the HDP as a key factor in the balance: despite its status as a Kurdish-regional party, the HDP has become a key factor and can no longer be ignored. As a legal party and the third strongest opposition party in the Turkish parliament, the HDP has been suffering from state repression since a long time, with the result that it is significantly weakened and hardly capable of acting. The AKP government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the success of the HDP in the parliamentary elections in June 2015, the war course against the PKK since July 2015, and the failed military coup of July 2016 to successfully dismantle the HDP and carry out comprehensive purges across the political and civil society spectrum of the Kurds. Since then, numerous arrests and bans have taken place. Not only the leadership is affected, but also the local level of the party. Thousands of activists have been arrested, more than 90 HDP mayors have been arbitrarily deposed and placed under state administration. Party leader Selahattin Demirtas and co-president Figen Yüksekdag as well as other HDP MPs have also been imprisoned since November 2016 and face years of imprisonment.

Despite repression and containment, the HDP managed to become an important factor in the elections and thus a serious democratic political force in Turkey. Beyond marginalization and repression and unequal electoral conditions, the HDP not only managed to make a decisive contribution to the CHP’s victory and to make its key role visible as a touchstone at the scales. Above all, it was able to recapture many of the mayoral offices in the Kurdish southeast that had been placed under state administration. But shortly after the local elections, the High Electoral Authority rejected the victory of six HDP mayors on the grounds that the HDP mayors concerned had previously been dismissed from public service by decree and were therefore unsuitable for the office. The HDP rightly criticized the decision as “arbitrary” because the High Electoral Authority had not raised any objections during registration and had admitted the candidates to the election.

Dilemmas of CHP – between authoritarian Kemalism and democracy

Above all, the question is whether the CHP will take this result, achieved through the support of the HDP, as an opportunity to finally abandon its still dominant rigid attitude towards Kurds and the HDP in favour of genuine social democratic liberalization and integration of the Kurdish demands. This would give CHP more opportunities. But so far the CHP is still a long way from this and avoids any public articulation to enter into cooperation with the HDP.

This is mainly due to ideological reasons. The CHP is the historically grown party of the founder of the Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and sees itself to this day as the guardian of Kemalism as a state ideological maxim. This maxim is determined above all by the primacy of a rigid Turkish nationalism, which since the foundation of the modern republic strives for an authoritarian, omnipotent and in the core centrally organized Turkish nationalist secular unitarian state. This ideological element regards the Kurdish question per se as a danger to Turkish national and territorial unity and prefers an anti-Kurdish attitude. Even if the social basis of the party contains social democratic and Kurdish elements, the Kemalist nationalist forces within the party continue to dominate. Because of this dominance, the party has not yet overcome the basic ideological orientation in its core. Although the CHP has ruled several times in the past decades, it has never dared to take decisive steps in the Kurdish question. In its so-called reports on the situation in the Southeast, the party focused one-sidedly on socio-economic neglect as a conflict-promoting factor, ignoring the political dimension of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

As the main opposition party, it consistently criticized the AKP government’s peace process with the PKK, which was a taboo break in the history of the modern republic. Furthermore, the CHP remained silent on the repression and marginalization of the HDP and even voted for the lifting of the immunities of mandate holders in May 2016. At the same time, it vehemently supported the AKP government’s military invasions of the Kurdish territories in northern Syria and northern Iraq to combat the PKK and Kurdish gains. Even the silent alliance with the HDP in the mayoral election was not publicly articulated except for thanks to the Kurdish voters who elected Imamoglu.

Thus, the CHP still floats between authoritarian Kemalism and the desire to advance democratization and the constant effort to reconcile these opposites. The difficult relationship with Kurds and the HDP is embedded in this context. As long as the CHP does not resolve this dilemma and does not replace its ideological-authoritarian canon of values with a liberal understanding of the state, nation and protection of minorities, a substantial contribution to the democratization of the country and to the solution of the Kurdish conflict cannot be expected. As a result, selective cooperation with the HDP can be expected with regard to the HDP as well. The elites of the party are still faced with the ongoing challenge of overcoming the historically developed ideological fundament of the CHP and putting it on a genuine social democratic agenda, as it partly understands itself.

Remark: This article was originally published by in July 02, 2019.

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