Contrary to some predictions prior to the election, the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comfortably succeeded in winning the Presidential election (52.6%) without the need of a second round of voting. His party, the AKP obtained a parliamentary majority (53.7%), in coalition with the far-right MHP. However, the elections were held in an electoral environment characterised by a number of inherently antidemocratic limitations on opposition parties’ campaigns and the widespread occurrence of intimidation and violence. The experiences of the HDP exemplify some of the most blatant features of state led authoritarian interference in the campaign.
While the OSCE classed the elections as relatively free in terms of the actual voting, they were certainly not fair. They were held under the Emergency Rule declared by the government after the attempted coup in July 2016, government decrees which limited freedom of assembly and expression, were disproportionately applied in predominantly Kurdish, HDP voting regions. The government has almost completely monopolised the national media, imprisoning scores of independent journalists, using it as a platform to undermine opposition parties and uncritically endorse the AKP-MHP coalition. Regarding the presidential election, the Turkish public television station TRT conceded Erdoğan 181 hours coverage, the CHP’s candidate Muharrem İnce received only 15 hours while the HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş was only permitted 32 minutes. Erdoğan utilised this media position to vilify his opponents as terrorists in cahoots with the PKK and/or the alleged orchestrator of the coup attempt, Fethullah Gulen. The electoral law, passed in March this year, also removed a number of democratic safeguards related to the monitoring of the actual voting procedure as well as the counting process.
The HDP and the 10% electoral threshold
Although the generally unfair conditions affected all opposition parties, the HDP was the victim of pronounced discrimination and violence. Turkey has an electoral threshold of 10%, one of the world’s highest, which was deliberately incorporated into the electoral system to exclude smaller parties and minorities. The peculiarity of the system means that if any party does not reach the threshold, its votes are subsequently re-distributed to the party with second highest amount of votes in each individual electoral district. In the Kurdish region where the HDP obtains the overwhelming majority of its votes, the second party is consistently the AKP because it enjoys support from more religiously minded Kurds. Accordingly, if the HDP had slipped below the 10% threshold, the AKP would have won a huge seat bonus. The HDP was therefore specifically targeted, much more so than other opposition parties. Indeed, in a secret video recording of a private AKP meeting, Erdoğan exhorted his supporters to “tightly mark” suspected HDP voters and declared “if the HDP falls below the election threshold it would mean that we would be in a much better place“. Importantly, this targeting of HDP voters is not restricted to areas where the HDP is likely to win seats (as occurs in other sites of recurrent electoral violence such as India) but also occurred in areas where the HDP had no possibility of ever obtaining a seat, because the 10% threshold is assessed according to the number of overall votes received rather than as a proportion of seats obtained. Thus, explaining why HDP offices in places like Bolu and Kocaeli were attacked when they had no likelihood of any of its local candidates being elected.
Institutional Targeting of HDP
Intensified state repression of the HDP came about in the lead-up to the 2015 general elections and accelerated following the attempted coup in 2016. The HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş was arrested and has been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 on questionable terrorism charges. Eight other HDP deputies and 56 elected mayors are also imprisoned on similar grounds. In 2017, the state seized control over 82 municipalities governed by the HDP’s sister party in Kurdistan. Even predating the collapse of the peace process in 2015, the HDP and its predecessor parties and associated organisations have long been the focus of the state repression resulting in thousands of activists being detained due to alleged links with the PKK. During this electoral campaign alone, another 375 activists were detained. Unlike many of the HDP’s predecessor parties which were formally banned, the HDP remains legal and the state has adopted a more nuanced strategy of permitting it to exist and campaign, all the while arresting its members and rhetorically demonising it. The scale of the arrests has deprived the party of many of its seasoned activists with the knock-on effect of limiting its local organisational capacity in terms of campaigning and monitoring the actual voting process. The Supreme Board of Elections (SBE) also relocated polling stations, affecting 120,000 voters in rural Kurdish areas with a history of strong HDP support, to other villages up to 10 kilometres away. These villages are controlled by a pro-state paramilitary force, the Village Guards, which have waged a low intensity and bloody conflict against the PKK and the supporters of the Kurdish movement since the 1990s. The relocation was therefore a significant and deliberate disincentive to HDP voters.
Violence against the HDP
Aside from the institutional obstruction of the HDP’s campaign, it was also subject to widespread violence ranging from simple vandalism and intimidation, to assault and murder. While the 2015 election campaigns were marred by extensive violence against the HDP including a number of ISIS bombings, this campaign was characterized by slightly fewer reported violent incidents with dramatically fewer casualties. But an OSCE report still detailed that HDP was subject to 97 different attacks. The most notorious of which was an incident in Suruç close to Şanlıurfa, which resulted in four deaths. While the incumbent AKP deputy İbrahim Halil Yıldız was canvassing, he reportedly took umbrage at the reaction of a HDP supporting shop keeper, Esvet Şenyaşar. He returned to the shop two days later with a large contingent of armed family members, triggering a confrontation in which Yildiz’s own brother was fatally shot and the shop keeper’s sons wounded. The wounded were rushed to hospital where Yildiz’s entourage proceeded to kill them inside the hospital building and beat their father to death outside, in the presence of the police. Perversely, highlighting the bias of the media, this was presented by CNN Türk as a PKK terrorist attack on the AKP. The same Şanlıurfa area also reported substantial irregularities on the day of the actual vote with multiple reports of illegal block voting and of intimidation by armed men present at polling stations. Although the Suruç incident was an outlier in terms of deaths, it reflects the environment of impunity which pervades anti-HDP antagonism, wherein the police are unwilling or unable to protect HDP supporters while judicial bodies even punish them rather than the initial aggressors. Nineteen HDP supporters have been arrested in relation to the incident with no corresponding detentions on the other side. Interestingly, unlike the 2015 elections, there were also a number of incidences of violence against other parties: two CHP activists were stabbed when attempting to protect a HDP stall from attack by MHP sympathisers near Istanbul, an İyi party member and a voter were shot and killed in Erzurum while the Saadet party was subject to some physical harassment by MHP members in Ankara.
Impact of unfair conditions and violence
Notwithstanding the impediments with which the HDP was confronted, it still managed to pass the 10% threshold with 11.7% of the vote, an increase on the 10.76% it achieved in November 2015. Interestingly, it actually suffered relatively substantial vote decline in its Kurdish strongholds such as Diyarbakir (-6.09%), Mardin (-8%) and Muş (-9.67%). These losses were counterbalanced by an upsurge in support in Western Turkey, which could likely also be attributed to a degree of tactical voting by CHP supporters in order to bring the HDP over the threshold. These losses could be interpreted as evidence of Kurdish disillusionment with the HDP. However, in light of the dramatic weakening of the HDP party apparatus, the media campaign against it and the government endorsed environment of violence and intimidation directed against it, the HDP’s result should be viewed as a relative success.
Through Erdoğan’s renewed Presidency and his control, albeit in coalition with the MHP, of the parliament, the future is bleak for Turkish democracy. The AKP’s dependence on the MHP renders the outlook even more disheartening for the HDP and its Kurdish supporters. The MHP’s virulently anti-Kurdish agenda precludes any AKP concessions on the Kurdish issue, such as the release of political prisoners or the return of the seized municipalities to HDP control. Indeed, the influence of the MHP will likely lead to even greater commitment to Turkey’s military ventures in Kurdish territories in Syria and across the border in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Indeed, it likely marks a step toward the consolidation of a national fascist regime.