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The Paradoxical State of Turkish Politics

Turkey’s political atmosphere is changing rapidly, so much so that it is now riddled with what many perceive as paradoxes.
Turkey politics news, Turkey presidential system, Turkey political parties, Recep Tayyip Erdogan news, Turkey elections news, Turkey parliament, Turkey PKK, Turkey Islamist parties, Turkey political alliances

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March 03, 2020 12:26 EDT

Recent developments in Turkish politics have left many baffled. More and more Kurdish parents in southeast Turkey are now rising up against the secessionist the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political wing, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to reclaim their children the PKK forcibly enlisted. At the same time, the main opposition, the secular Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), which was established partially on the premise of Turkish ethnic nationalism that was put forward by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, has now entered into a de facto political alliance with the HDP, which ironically believes that Kurds in Turkey have been oppressed by the very ethno-social policies Mustafa Kemal and his party introduced in the 1920s.

Furthermore, Meral Aksener, who formed the Good Party with the deputies seceded from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), clearly threw her support behind the HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas even though he has been convicted of abetting the outlawed separatist PKK. Finally, the CHP’s chairman, Kemal Kilictaroglu, whose party is historically known for its anti-American stance, criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for acquiring Russian S-400 missile defense system and thus souring Turkey’s relations with the United States.

What Is Erdogan’s Real Plan for Kurds?


So, why has Turkish politics become so paradoxical and perplexing? The answer lies in how, in 2017, a new presidential system replaced an old parliamentary one, changing the way the opposition behaves and helping radical leftist ideology to dominate the CHP.

Anyone But Erdogan

Under the parliamentary system, where there is proportional representation, President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was virtually invincible since its founding in 2002, winning all of the last six general elections. Except for the June 2015 general election, which saw a re-run because of a failure to form a coalition government, the AKP was able to assume the supermajority in parliament, rendering Turkey a single-party government.

Therefore, in the parliamentary system, the main opposition CHP had no chance of forming a government, mostly due to unfavorable demographic realities. This changed fundamentally with the introduction of the presidential system in 2017, which Erdogan spearheaded, where the parliament became marginalized, while the executive branch gained tremendous powers, including heading the government. Accordingly, in the new two-round presidential elections, a candidate is required to obtain at least 50%+1 of the popular vote in order to be elected. If no overall majority is reached, then a runoff is held between the two most popular candidates from the first round.

The first of such presidential elections were held in June 2018, where four major parties (AKP, CHP, HDP and the Good Party) nominated their own candidate, with Tayyip Erdogan being the strongest prospect. With what is now called the People’s Alliance, where the AKP and the right-wing Turkish ultranationalist MHP formed an official pact, Erdogan won the 2018 election with 52% of the popular vote. However, a win by a slight margin convinced the opposition that in a 50%+1 system, they may have a chance against him. Therefore, in an unprecedented turn in Turkish politics, the opposition began to coalesce around the idea “anybody but Erdogan.”

The opposition formed what is now called the Nation Alliance, where the CHP and the Good Party created an official pact, with the HDP and the Felicity Party (SP, Erdogan’s former party) throwing in their unofficial support. The Good Party, with its moderate Turkish nationalist ideology, did not want to enter into an official pact with the Kurdish nationalist HDP, which is known to be the outlawed PKK’s political arm.

The prospect of the new style of opposition was first tested in March 2019 mayoral elections. To ensure success, the Nation Alliance nominated only the candidates whose party had the highest chance of winning against the People’s Alliance. For example, in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu was the CHP mayoral candidate, and the HDP, the Good Party and the SP didn’t produce a candidate in order to show support for Imamoglu, with their constituents expected to vote for him. This tactic seemed to have worked. For the first time in 30 years, a party with a manifestly leftist and secular worldview won, with the support of the rest of the opposition, mayoral elections in Turkey’s four biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Adana. The last time this happened was in the 1989 local elections in which the leftist/secular Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP), which merged into the CHP in 1995, won all four cities. So, the appetite of the anybody-but-Erdogan opposition bloc for upending the president has brought together seemingly different political views creating a paradoxical picture in Turkish politics.      


With its votes constantly hovering around 10%, the Kurdish secessionist HDP was proven to be vital for the opposition. In the 2018 presidential election, for instance, HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas garnered 4.2 million votes, or 8.4% of the overall ballots. Ideologically, the HDP is the extension of the PKK, which was established in the 1970s on Marxist-Leninist principles, advocating armed insurrection in Turkey. In the same vein, the HDP exhibits elements of Maoism in local governance.

According to this doctrine, governance is decentralized, with power devolved to “democratic units” in descending order: cities, districts all the way down to neighborhoods, where organized communes manage daily life. Elected co-chairs preside over each of these entities. It is because of this Maoist ideology that the HDP itself, as well as its local municipalities, are overseen by co-chairs. Dan Wilkofsky, from the Navanti Group, states that this type of communal governance pattern is seen in parts of Syria where the PKK’s affiliate, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), are now in control.

Keeping HDP’s Marxist/Maoist tendencies in mind, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu appointed Canan Kaftancioglu as its Istanbul provincial head in 2018, a major political position. His goal was evidently to appeal to HDP constituents in Istanbul, which is known to be the world’s biggest Kurdish city, home to a million Kurds. In Turkey, Kaftancioglu is a controversial figure known for her pro-PKK and communist views. In her speech at the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) congress in 2018, Kaftancioglu encouraged her “comrades” to “rewrite the existing constitution of Turkey based on communist revolutionary ideas.”

Whereas the CHP is recognized to be Ataturk’s party, Kaftancioglu has occasionally denounced Ataturk’s view of Turkish nationalism. Furthermore, CHP deputies like Sezgin Tanrikulu, Ali Seker and Onursal Adiguzel are known to have attended the funerals of PKK members killed by Turkish law enforcement. The former vice chairman of the CHP, Erdal Aksunger, overtly stated his party’s need for an alliance with the HDP. This list goes on.

Spirit of ’68

It is important to note here that while the need for electoral success against Erdogan has been a major driving force in CHP’s desire to form an alliance with the HDP, there is a strong socialist and radical-leftist vein within the party that has prompted this accord. Those CHP members who claim to bear what is called ’68 Ruhu the spirit of ’68 —  have in the past, particularly in the 1970s, sympathized with the Soviet Union and advocated for a socialist revolution in Turkey. However, with the anti-communist military coup of 1980 and later the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, their dream of revolution fell through.

However, the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist ideas of an armed revolution began to fill the void within CHP ranks. In fact, it was the efforts of this ’68 generation within the CHP tradition that allowed the pro-PKK politicians to become members of parliament in 1991 for the first time in Turkey’s modern history. Today, it looks increasingly like the PKK and the HDP have become ideological beacons for those ’68 generation CHP members who have socialist revolutionary ideals. The current de facto CHP-HDP coalition has brought up such questions as to whether or not the CHP is still Ataturk’s party and whether the HDP is becoming so strong that it may swallow up the CHP in the future, later attempting to control the Turkish state.

This possibility disturbs those CHP members who are Ataturk nationalists and who see PKK separatism as a threat to Turkey’s future. It is important to remember here that while Ataturk needed Soviet backing in the first years of the republic, he, a Turkish nationalist, denounced communist revolutionary ideas. The growing ideological chasm between those “Kemalist nationalists” and pro-PKK/HDP socialists within the CHP is likely going to shape the future of the party. In the event of the CHP’s increasing intimacy with the HDP, it shouldn’t be surprising if disenfranchised CHP Kemalist nationalists secede from their party in favor of President Erdogan, whose nationalist views are closer to theirs. This may play an important role in the 2023 presidential elections.

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Just as the CHP, the HDP too contains a few paradoxes. The HDP’s declared party manifesto emphasizes such socialist values as workers’ rights, ecology, egalitarianism, women’s and LGBT rights. Furthermore, the HDP declares itself anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, while at the same time advocating equality for all. However, contrary to its socialism-laden manifesto, in practice the party pursues politics resembling right-wing nationalism. The HDP often uses, in its verbal and written statements, such ethnic terminology as “Kurdistan,” “north Kurdistan” (referring to Turkey’s southeast), “Kurdish nation” and “Kurdish unity.”

The HDP essentially practices ethno-nationalism while at the same time advocating far-left, socialist values. In the same contradictory vein, the HDP’s military wing, the Maoist and anti-capitalist PKK, has entered into a military alliance in Syria with the United States — the global driving force for capitalism. Paradoxically, in 2016, the PKK established its Syrian Rojova project, or the Peoples’ United Revolutionary Movement, that is made up of a number of Marxist/Leninist/Maoist organizations calling for the destruction of capitalism and the United States.

New Face of the Kurdish Question and Secularism

Another paradoxical fact is that President Erdogan appears to have done more to solve Turkey’s Kurdish issue by entering into a controversial negotiation process with the PKK and granting cultural rights to the Kurds during the peace process between 2013 and 2015. Additionally, Erdogan formally apologized for the killings of Kurds under CHP single-party rule in 1933. Yet the pro-Kurdish HDP never renounced its staunch opposition to Erdogan, entering into a de-facto alliance with the CHP, which never assumed the responsibility for the killing of Kurds under its rule.         

One of the most striking recent developments in recent Turkish politics is the rise of Kurdish mothers against the PKK and its political wing, HDP, which can be explained by the changing political and security environment in Turkey’s southeast. The collapse of the peace process in 2015 was followed by what was then called “trench warfare,” in which the PKK, using the strategy of denial, declared autonomy in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish cities — Cizre, Nusaybin, Sur and Sirnak. The trench warfare period resulted in a decisive crushing of the PKK by Turkish law enforcement and the ensuing restoration of state authority in the above-mentioned cities.

A further blow to the PKK came in 2017-18, when Turkey launched cross-border operations in Syria, which ended the presence of the PKK-affiliated YPG in Syria’s Afrin province. Turkey’s absolute military dominance over the PKK in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria has emboldened those Kurdish parents who want to reclaim their children from the PKK. Historically, most Kurds in southeast Turkey have varied their support between the government and the PKK based on the fluctuating power pendulum between the two. The fact that government presence has been stronger than ever in southeast Turkey has emboldened those parents against the PKK.    

Finally, the new presidential system has had Turkey’s secular establishment reevaluate its view of the ideology. Before the praetorian-secular Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) was “civilianized” in the late 2000s, the CHP in tandem with TAF was known to be radically secular. For instance, the headscarf was banned in state institutions, and displays of faith in public spaces were frowned upon. With the new election system, the CHP softened its perception of secularism to appeal to the conservative constituency. Hence, during the 2014 presidential election, it nominated Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an Al-Azhar alumni and the former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as Erdogan’s challenger.

Furthermore, in the 2018 presidential election, Muharrem Ince, the CHP’s candidate, boasted that his sister has worn a headscarf for 40 years, and that Turkey’s “headscarf problem” is a thing of the past. Finally, during the 2019 mayoral elections, the CHP accentuated Mayor Imamoglu’s Islamic past in promotional videos showing images of him reciting the Quran.

Turkey’s political atmosphere is changing rapidly, so much so that it is now riddled with what many perceive as paradoxes. The new presidential system has created a culture of alliances in which once unthinkable political collaborations are becoming common occurrences. Ataturk’s party, the CHP, is openly courting the HDP, who many believe is conspiring to dismember the very state Ataturk established. Additionally, the secessionist HDP is throwing its support behind the CHP, which it ironically argues is the architect of the “oppressive system for the Kurds.” Once the radically-secular CHP now courts Islamist constituents. These “paradoxes” have serious implications for the future of Turkish politics, particularly in regard to the 2023 presidential election and should be watched closely.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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