Turkish Opposition Parties Grapple with the Kurdish Question
There are also strong indications that the Kurdish question in general, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in particular, will occupy a critical place on the Turkish political agenda in the run up to the elections. In an early sign of this development, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) publicly validated the beleaguered HDP as a legitimate political actor. Kılıçdaroğlu’s statements, made in a September 2021 documentary film, are striking given that Kurdish political representation has been contained and delegitimized by state institutions and other political parties since the early 1990s. Over the past six years, the HDP and its members have also been severely repressed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his drive to consolidate power. In June 2021, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ordered the HDP to stand trial for its supposed links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in an effort to close the party down.
Except for the HDP, Turkish opposition parties have been hesitant to comment on the state’s policies toward the large minority Kurdish population. They now find themselves forced back into the conversation about this critical political issue by new electoral realities. As polls show decreasing support for the ruling AKP, and there is increasing recognition that the HDP will be one of the key actors in the next elections, efforts to garner Kurdish votes are increasing. The main opposition parties, dubbed the “table of six,” seem to be in search of common ground on a variety of issues, including their presidential candidate for the 2023 elections. Since neither the ruling People’s Alliance—the AKP plus their partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—nor the opposition Nation Alliance are in a position to receive more than 50 percent of the votes without the HDP’s support, the opposition is attempting to maintain a delicate balance between dialogue with the HDP and avoidance of Erdoğan’s accusations of complicity with the PKK.
The Unresolved Kurdish Question
Turkey’s Kurdish question has its roots in the Kurdish population’s loss of their special status and autonomy during Ottoman rule. Several Kurdish rebellions took place first in response to late Ottoman policies of centralization and modernization and then in resistance to early Republican policies during the creation of the Turkish nation-state. After the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the state apparatus as well as the official state discourse turned a blind eye to the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Kurds began to express their political demands within leftist political parties and movements. The Workers Party of Turkey, established in 1961, was the first political party to acknowledge the existence of Kurds as a people and Kurdish ethnic identity in Turkey. Leftist and illegal revolutionary organizations proliferated among Turkey’s university youth in the 1970s, the PKK among them. Established in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish student at Ankara University’s Political Science Faculty, the PKK’s original goal was to create an independent Kurdish state in the region.
Turkey’s Kurdish question gained a new dimension when the PKK began armed attacks against Turkish targets in the early 1980s; military operations by the Turkish Armed Forces against the PKK continued through the 1990s. Later, between 1990 and 2008, several pro-Kurdish, left-wing political parties were founded that centered their agendas around the Kurdish question. Starting with the People’s Labor Party (HEP) in 1990 they took an ambiguous position regarding the PKK: They appealed to the same voter base as the PKK and condemned violence but they refused to label PKK attacks as terrorism. Eventually, most of these political parties were accused of supporting terrorism and closed by Turkey’s Constitutional Court.
The AKP government, after coming to office in 2002, attempted to resolve the Kurdish question through political means. The first effort was the Kurdish opening policy, which started in July 2009. Turkish political leaders never fully revealed the details of this policy. Yet, it was expected to involve measures such as restoring the original Kurdish names of some villages in the Southeast, opening Kurdish language and literature departments at certain universities or removing all the remaining restrictions on broadcasting in Kurdish. The Kurdish opening, however, ended abruptly with the Habur incident in October 2009, when 34 PKK members and their families entered Turkey from Iraq through the Habur border gate, wearing guerrilla clothes and making statements of no remorse for their previous acts.
The Resolution Process (2012–2015) lasted longer but brought no further success. This process involved direct talks between the PKK’s jailed leader Öcalan and Turkish state representatives. On March 21, 2013—in a message read out loud both in Turkish and Kurdish by two HDP members of parliament during the Nevruz/Newroz celebrations in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır in Turkey—Öcalan declared a unilateral ceasefire and called on the PKK to withdraw from Turkish territory. He announced that “a door has been opened from armed struggle to democratic struggle.” The Resolution Process aimed at disarming the PKK and reintegrating its members into society. Öcalan’s message was supposed to be the starting point of this process but instead it fell apart after the 2015 general elections and gave way to the renewal of armed conflict between the state and the PKK. Since mid-2015, Turkish security forces have been successfully carrying out counterterrorism operations against the PKK, both inside and outside the country, weakening the PKK both militarily and organizationally.
The HDP’s emergence in 2012 had been a turning point in the history of the Kurdish political movement because it was established to be a radical democratic party rather than an ethnically oriented party appealing only to Turkey’s Kurdish voters.
The HDP’s strong performance in the 2015 elections was a watershed moment for Turkish politics. Its emergence in 2012 had been a turning point in the history of the Kurdish political movement because it was established to be a radical democratic party rather than an ethnically oriented party appealing only to Turkey’s Kurdish voters. The HDP’s moderation was especially apparent during the June 2015 parliamentary elections in their discourse of including all people and oppressed identities in Turkey. As a result, the party received 13.1 percent of the votes and obtained 80 seats (out of 550) in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. The success of the HDP, however, also made it a target of the governing AKP because the latter perceived it as a stumbling block to its political appeal among conservative Kurdish voters.
With the end of the Resolution Process in summer 2015 and as Turkey’s Kurdish question was re-securitized in the face of an accelerating fight against the PKK, many HDP members were targeted by the state with investigations, some were imprisoned and several elected Kurdish mayors—accused of connections to the PKK—were replaced with state-appointed trustees. Thus, the HDP was criminalized to a significant extent and its previous efforts to cast itself as a party of all citizens of Turkey was considerably damaged in the aftermath of the June 2015 elections. The emerging conservative-nationalist alliance between the far-right MHP and the AKP significantly contributed to this changing atmosphere since it increased Turkish nationalist discourse and practice in politics.
The government took further steps to weaken the HDP as a legitimate political party in the following months. On May 20, 2016, the Grand National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that stripped members of parliament of their immunity mainly with the goal of prosecuting HDP representatives. Fearful of being cast as supporters of the PKK, several CHP members of parliament also voted in favor of the amendment. Although this legislation had an impact on different political parties, the HDP suffered the most since 53 out of 59 HDP representatives in the Grand National Assembly were the target of 206 cases connected to terrorism charges. HDP’s co-chairs at the time, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, also faced legal proceedings and were arrested during this process. Since 2016, thousands of HDP members and administrators have been detained, prosecuted or jailed based on terror-related charges while the party itself is now on trial for alleged links to the PKK and charged with acting as its political front.
The Shifting Role of the Opposition Parties
Neither the Kurdish opening nor the Resolution Process included Turkey’s opposition parties, which was a major shortcoming of these initiatives. In both cases, there were, however, specific efforts to create societal acceptance. For example, in 2009, at the beginning of the Kurdish opening, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan met with diverse groups, such as journalists, writers and actors, to inform them about the state’s new policies. The AKP also published a booklet titled The Democratic Opening Process with Questions and Answers and posted it on the party’s website. In a similar manner, a few months after the beginning of the Resolution Process, a delegation of Wise People—including singers, businessmen and journalists—was created in April 2013 to convey the benefits of the process to the public in their respective regions and ease concerns about the peace efforts.
But the efforts to mobilize societal acceptance for the Kurdish opening and the Resolution Process stopped short of reaching out to the opposition parties. Their disagreements with the government’s policies, particularly within the CHP and MHP (which later formed the People’s Alliance with the AKP and became part of the governing bloc) had a negative impact on the fate of the peace efforts. Although the CHP is an important actor in Turkish politics (it has existed since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey and had been open to a possible political solution to the Kurdish question in the 1990s), it expressed strong opposition to the AKP’s Kurdish opening. The CHP portrayed this policy as an irresponsible act on the part of the government that might lead to the ethnic disintegration of Turkish society. The ultranationalist MHP, on the other hand, already had a very hardline approach to Turkey’s struggle against the PKK and has always been critical of the efforts to resolve the Kurdish question through political and peaceful means. In line with this position, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli asserted that the Kurdish opening would legitimize ethnic separatism and he even labelled the Kurdish opening a “PKK opening.”
But the efforts to mobilize societal acceptance for the Kurdish opening and the Resolution Process stopped short of reaching out to the opposition parties.
The Resolution Process was not much different. Both the CHP and MHP were strongly opposed to it, albeit with different motivations. Similar to its stance on the Kurdish opening, the MHP identified the Resolution Process as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. The CHP, however, whose leadership had changed in 2010, was mainly critical of the methods of the Resolution Process. More specifically, the CHP was primarily against the idea of initiating direct contacts and negotiations with the terrorist PKK and its jailed leader Öcalan. Thus, in the early stages of the process, leading CHP figures argued that since any effort to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question would require societal consensus, the resolution process had to be conducted within the framework of the Grand National Assembly. Indeed, CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu was not against the peace initiative as a whole and, as early as January 2013, he offered “conditional credit” to the AKP regarding the talks between the state representatives and Öcalan. This conditional support from the main opposition party was not welcomed by Prime Minister Erdoğan who responded, “What credit will you give? You, yourself, are in need of credit. What credit are you talking about?”
Although various internal and external circumstances eventually caused the failure of both processes, the absence of the opposition’s support was a major contributing factor. Crucially, as political scientist Cuma Çiçek noted in 2018, the exclusion of the opposition groups both inside and outside of the Grand National Assembly during the Resolution Process prevented these groups from “monitor[ing] the two sides and build[ing] democratic pressure for peace building.” Former HDP co-chair Demirtaş declared in September 2021, “We have tried a lot to include the CHP in the [Resolution] process and take the issue to parliament; however, we have always faced obstacles, barriers.” It soon became apparent that it was not possible to build broad societal acceptance for the peace efforts without any support from the opposition parties.
Turkey’s six leading opposition actors, which make up the table of six—the CHP, Good Party (İYİ), Felicity Party (SP), Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), Democrat Party (DP) and the Future Party (GP)—have now created a bloc against the ruling People’s Alliance. They banded together for the first time in October 2021 with the goal of running a candidate that can win the presidency and gaining a majority in parliament in order to initiate a process of transition back to a parliamentary system. Coming from different political traditions, members of the table of six have been trying to find common ground on various political issues. The Kurdish question is no exception. After Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks in September 2021, these parties have openly conveyed their positions on the HDP and the Kurdish question. For example, the Good Party, which constitutes the Nation Alliance together with the CHP, reiterated the legitimacy of the pro-Kurdish HDP and pointed to the latter’s representation in the Grand National Assembly as the basis of this legitimacy. In a similar manner, Felicity Party leader Temel Karamollaoğlu also identified the HDP as a legitimate political party and stated that “legitimacy is key” in discussions and efforts about the resolution of the Kurdish question. Leader of the Future Party, Ahmet Davutoğlu developed a more comprehensive perspective and identified all of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens as the main interlocutor in the efforts to resolve the country’s Kurdish question. Finally, Ali Babacan, leader of the Democracy and Progress Party, confirmed the presence of the Kurdish question in Turkey and pointed to the political arena as the primary place to solve this issue. In response to Erdoğan’s statement about the absence of the Kurdish question in Turkey, Babacan also stated: “Mr. President needs to ask the question of ‘Is there a Kurdish problem in this country or not?’ to our Kurdish citizens. He needs to sit down with them and hear out their problems.”
Thus, Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments about the HDP last September provided a window of opportunity for the opposition parties of Turkey to clarify their positions about the Kurdish question, the HDP and the HDP’s role in Turkish politics. These political parties have not yet presented any clear plan about how they will address Turkey’s Kurdish question if they win the next elections. Their decision to be present in these debates is a welcome development considering their long absence from this arena. The opposition parties’ current need to establish a working relationship with the HDP still carries a number of political risks and challenges, however, especially for the CHP as the main opposition party and leading member of the table of six and for the centrist-nationalist Good Party.
The opposition parties’ current need to establish a working relationship with the HDP still carries a number of political risks and challenges, however, especially for the CHP as the main opposition party and leading member of the table of six and for the centrist-nationalist Good Party.
The CHP has been making an important effort to appeal to Kurdish voters for the past few years through initiatives such as establishing an East Desk (albeit avoiding the term “Kurd”), sending a senior delegation to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government and visiting the southeastern city of Diyarbakır where Kılıçdaroğlu acknowledged that the party had not listened enough to Kurdish voters. Yet, its efforts remain limited due to fears of alienating its nationalist voter base as well as its main partner, the Good Party. The CHP is critical of several policies that the government has pursued vis-à-vis the Kurds, such as its reluctance to release the former HDP co-chair Demirtaş in line with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the replacement of the HDP mayors with trustees. But it has supported the government’s cross-border military operations in northeastern Syria and opposed the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in 2017. As for the Good Party, despite its identification of the HDP as a legitimate political actor last year, leading Good Party figures—including the party chair Meral Akşener—have called on the HDP to distance itself from the PKK. Furthermore, when the CHP representative Gürsel Tekin recently stated that HDP lawmakers could act as ministers in a future government, Good Party officials reacted angrily and Akşener declared, “[w]e won’t sit at any table where the HDP has a seat and the HDP cannot sit at any table where we have a seat.” It is unlikely that this ambivalent position and mixed messages will allow the two major parties of the opposition to establish a healthy relationship with the HDP for the 2023 elections.
The HDP in the Future of Turkish Politics
CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s 2021 comment that the HDP is a legitimate political actor, followed by supportive comments from other opposition parties, constituted an important development in Turkish politics. Controversy was immediately created by HDP member of parliament Sezai Temelli’s rebuttal to Kılıçdaroğlu—in which he identified the PKK leader Öcalan as the main interlocutor in the resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish question. He then had to acknowledge that these comments reflected his personal views, and not those of the HDP. Indeed, both the HDP’s current co-chair Mithat Sancar and also the party’s imprisoned former leader Demirtaş (and its presidential candidate in the 2018 elections) repudiated Temelli’s comments and affirmed that the HDP constituted a legitimate interlocutor in any effort to resolve the Kurdish question. In a similar manner, while the HDP’s 11-article declaration of September 27, 2021 for the upcoming 2023 elections framed the Kurdish question as “the most entrenched problem that Turkey needs to address,” it also reiterated that “the HDP was ready to play a constructive role for peace and a democratic solution [of the Kurdish question].”
Several challenges lie ahead for the HDP that are likely to constrain its freedom of political maneuvering. On one hand, the ruling People’s Alliance continues to equate the HDP with the PKK and points to the HDP as a hidden member of the opposition bloc in order to weaken and delegitimize the bloc in the eyes of the public. For this reason, the opposition avoids any public dialogue or negotiation with the HDP. On the other hand, the HDP has an ongoing closure case before the Constitutional Court and from time to time it receives pressure from its political base (and reportedly from the PKK) to withdraw from the Grand National Assembly and local administrations to protest its repressive treatment in Turkish politics. Regardless of this pressure, the HDP seems determined to remain in the political arena for the time being. HDP representatives have openly declared that they are not interested in being part of the table of six, but that they are open to collaboration with the opposition for a joint presidential candidate. The role of the HDP in the 2023 elections, as well as in any future effort to resolve the country’s Kurdish question, will be determined by the extent to which it handles these multiple pressures effectively and establishes itself as a party of Turkey and not only Kurds.
In the AKP’s previous efforts to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question, the HDP and its predecessor parties confined their positions to a side role and left the stage mainly to Öcalan and the PKK. The recent developments show that this might be changing. Starting with the CHP, several opposition parties appear willing to grant the HDP a more central role in Turkish politics. The broader political atmosphere in the country is conducive to such a change, considering that all sides of the political spectrum need Kurdish votes—especially for a possible opposition victory in the 2023 elections. Both the opposition’s table of six and the HDP are under immense pressure, however, from the Turkish nationalists’ widespread conviction that the HDP constitutes the political front of the PKK. Thus, any public cooperation between the opposition parties and the HDP is likely to be harshly criticized by the People’s Alliance. This situation causes the major opposition parties to pursue at best an ambivalent attitude toward the HDP and toward any open dialogue and negotiation with it. Thus, the coming months present both important opportunities and challenges for the HDP to speed up its efforts to position itself as a party of Turkey and overcome the isolation and criminalization it has faced since 2015 as well as for the opposition’s table of six to establish a working relationship with the HDP.
[Özlem Kayhan Pusane is associate professor of international relations at Işık University in Istanbul.]
 “CHP Issues AKP ‘Conditional Credit’,” Hürriyet Daily News, January 8, 2013.
 “Erdoğan Ended Resolution Process Just 10 Days Before Planned PKK Disarmament, says Demirtaş,” Duvar English, October 18, 2021.
 “Babacan Advises Bahçeli to Visit Southeastern Turkey to Understand Kurdish Issue,” Duvar English, October 4, 2021.
 Burhanettin Duran, “The Main Dilemma in the Turkish Opposition,” Daily Sabah, September 11, 2022.
 “HDP Tutum Belgesini Açıkladı: 11 Maddelik Deklarasyonda İttifak ve Kürt Sorunu Mesajları,” Independent Türkçe, September 27, 2021. [Turkish]