This article is part of a longer report from MEI's Turkey Program on Turkey in the aftermath of the March 2024 local elections, What Comes Next for Turkey? Prospects for Change on the Political, Economic, and Foreign Policy Fronts


Since the collapse of the Turkish-Kurdish Peace Process (2013-15) following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's first major electoral setback in the June 2015 general elections, the Turkish government has continued to approach the Kurdish issue as merely a security challenge. The resumption of the violent conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has not only dashed the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue but has also provided the nationalist conservative ruling bloc led by President Erdoğan with grounds for increasing oppression against the Kurdish political movement. Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), now the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM), pursued a policy of implicit cooperation with the Turkish opposition, led by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), until the aftermath of the general elections in May 2023. Viewing the election outcome as the collapse of this long-standing strategy, DEM Party appeared to have opted for a “third way” approach, aiming to distance itself from both the ruling and opposition blocs so it could act autonomously. However, the recent local elections, held on March 31, 2024, which saw a major victory for the CHP, introduced a new dynamic for all political actors and questions in Turkey, including those concerning the DEM Party and the Kurdish issue more broadly.

Although efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue can be traced back to the early 1990s, the first serious opportunity presented itself following the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, when the PKK unilaterally declared a cease-fire. At that time, Turkey was also officially recognized by the European Union as a candidate for full membership in the bloc. The EU accession process led Ankara to take some significant steps toward democratization in the early 2000s, but this period without conflict did not translate into a peaceful resolution process. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government subsequently initiated two new negotiation efforts: the Oslo Process (2008-11) and the Peace Process (2013-15). During both, Erdoğan's government negotiated with the PKK at various levels in an attempt to reach a peace settlement. Meanwhile, the Kurdish issue evolved beyond just a domestic political concern for Turkey. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011 transformed it into an international matter, requiring consideration of regional geopolitical factors by all relevant actors. As a result, the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue is currently more challenging and complicated than ever.

The reasons why these past attempts failed are well beyond the scope of this piece; however, it is widely accepted that the limits of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey is a contributing factor.1 Between 2007, when it re-entered parliament after a long absence, and 2015, when it made unprecedented gains by crossing the 10% electoral threshold for party representation, the Kurdish political movement in Turkey grew significantly stronger. Nevertheless, at no point during any of the peace processes could pro-Kurdish parties play a role commensurate with their political strength. Peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey depends heavily on regional geopolitical dynamics in Iraq and Syria.2 A decision by the DEM Party to take a more active role could be a game changer though, potentially helping to break the current impasse. What this role might entail and whether the DEM Party is capable of playing it effectively are key questions. This piece will explore these issues by examining the experience of the HDP over the past decade, as well as the debates following the May 2023 general elections and March 2024 local elections.

A man flashes a “V” sign as members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a protest against the detention of HDP members, in Istanbul, on September 25, 2020. Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.
A man flashes a “V” sign as members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a protest against the detention of HDP members, in Istanbul, on September 25, 2020. Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.


The 2013-17 Period: Rise and Partial Decline

During the 2013-15 Peace Process, the HDP’s influence grew significantly, even though it wasn't directly involved in the negotiations. Founded in 2012 as part of Öcalan's "Turkeyfication" project, the HDP differed from its predecessors by focusing not only on the Kurdish issue but also on broader problems in Turkey, particularly democratization.3 It aimed to be a political umbrella party encompassing both the mainstream Kurdish political movement and various Turkish left-wing groups. By early 2014, the HDP had become the main actor of the Kurdish political movement.

The August 2014 presidential election, which pitted Erdoğan against a weak opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, was the HDP's first major hurdle. A former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, İhsanoğlu was a strategic choice aimed at attracting conservative voters, but he lacked public recognition. The HDP's charismatic co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş seized the opportunity, capitalizing on the momentum of the Peace Process and his own popularity to woo opposition voters disenchanted with İhsanoğlu. His dynamic campaign secured nearly 10% of the vote, exceeding expectations and raising hopes for the HDP's future.

In June 2015, capitalizing on Demirtaş's electoral success, the HDP contested elections directly. The party abandoned its previous strategy of running independent candidates to bypass the 10% parliamentary electoral threshold. It was a gamble — and failing to clear it could significantly weaken the Kurdish political movement. Further complicating matters, the relationship between the government and the Kurdish political movement had become strained. Despite the ongoing Peace Process, widening trust gaps and President Erdoğan's criticism of HDP-organized demonstrations to protest the government’s decision not to assist the defense of Kobane against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in October 2014 signaled its fragility. Unsurprisingly, the AKP did not welcome the HDP's decision to run as a party since its success in Kurdish regions would cost the ruling party seats, hindering Erdoğan's push for an executive presidency.4 This ironically galvanized opposition voters, who saw the HDP's success as vital to their own cause. After a contentious campaign, the HDP defied expectations by surpassing the electoral threshold with over 13% of the vote, stripping the AKP of its parliamentary majority for the first time.5

While garnering 13% of the vote was a significant achievement for the HDP, this political strengthening did not translate into a more influential position within the broader Kurdish political landscape. Following the resumption of violent conflict between the TSK and the PKK after June 2015, the HDP under Demirtaş struggled to do more than issue statements of condemnation. The party’s inability to take on a more proactive role alienated a segment of its voter base. This was reflected in the November 2015 elections, when the HDP's support dropped slightly, with the party securing only 10.8% of the total vote.6

The PKK's renewed violent attacks were a clear message to the HDP as well — that the PKK remained the dominant force within the Kurdish political movement. The HDP under Demirtaş had few, if any, effective means to counter this message. Meanwhile, the failed 2016 coup gave rise to an alliance between the AKP and the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), emboldening the government to further criminalize the HDP. In November 2016, a wave of arrests targeted prominent Kurdish politicians, including HDP co-chairs Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. The government then appointed trustees to manage most HDP-controlled municipalities.

The HDP's electoral success, drawing support from a large majority of Kurds and a wider segment of Turkish voters, presented a clear dilemma. This victory seemingly imposed a burden on the HDP, led by Demirtaş, to become a key player in shaping the fate of Turkey’s Kurdish issue. However, Öcalan's continued influence and the ongoing PKK insurgency created significant obstacles. The HDP's perceived inability to claim the central role created by its victory at the ballot box contributed to its subsequent decline.

The 2017-23 Period: Supporting the Mainstream Opposition

Turkey's transition to an executive presidency in 2017 ushered in a new era of alliance politics, with two competing blocs emerging: the ruling alliance of the AKP and the MHP on the one hand, and a highly fragmented opposition bloc on the other. Just like the rest of the opposition, the HDP campaigned against the constitutional referendum in the "No" camp, although there was no joint action by the opposition. Excluded from the opposition alliance due to the secular nationalist Good Party’s (İYİ Parti) objections, the HDP nonetheless saw solidarity from CHP voters. The CHP backed the HDP to reach the 10% threshold, while the HDP implicitly pledged support for the CHP's candidate, Muharrem İnce, in a potential presidential run-off. Despite securing 11% of the vote, the HDP saw a decline in Kurdish cities, likely due to its perceived inaction after the renewal of violence.

In the 2019 local elections, the HDP focused on reclaiming lost municipalities and boosted the opposition, particularly the CHP, in western Turkey. This marked the party’s first unilateral opposition support. HDP ex-leader Demirtaş' call from prison to support the HDP in the east and southeast and back the CHP in the west swayed voters, and the strategy paid off: The HDP regained control of its lost municipalities and the CHP won the major western cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, in addition to its long-time stronghold in Izmir.

The opposition's success in the 2019 local elections, achieved through cooperation with the HDP, threatened the ruling bloc. Fearing a repeat in the 2023 general elections, it intensified pressure on the HDP by carrying out arrests and reinstalling trustees in municipalities the party won. This aimed to sow discord within the opposition and prevent effective cooperation. Despite not seeking a formal alliance, the HDP, with imprisoned ex-leader Demirtaş as a key advocate, signaled an openness to supporting a joint opposition candidate against Erdoğan.

This was a time when Demirtaş, by far the most popular politician among the Kurds, actively engaged in daily politics via social media remarks carried by his lawyer. He boldly addressed sensitive issues, distancing the HDP from the PKK and criticizing armed struggle with newfound force. These remarks, far more captivating than the HDP's, fueled talk of a rift between Demirtaş and both the party and the PKK.

Finally, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader and opposition alliance presidential candidate, secured support from Demirtaş and the HDP, which was evident in the first round of elections on May 14, 2023. However, he received fewer votes than expected, and his accord with the ultra-nationalist leader of the Victory Party (ZP), Ümit Özdağ, before the presidential run-off created huge frustration among Kurds. Nonetheless, the majority of the HDP's base still backed Kılıçdaroğlu in the run-off, which he ultimately lost with 48% of the vote. Kurdish political frustrations stemmed not just from Kılıçdaroğlu, but also from the HDP's (under the banner of the Green Left Party, or YSP) disappointing performance, with 8.8% of the vote. While a slight decline was expected due to the lowered threshold for parliamentary representation (which fell from 10% to 7%) and the Workers’ Party of Turkey’s (TİP) independent run, the results suggest a significant loss of support in both western and Kurdish cities.

The YSP's poor showing in the May 2023 elections confirms that the Kurdish movement's post-2015 crisis persists. Its strategy of backing the opposition solely to weaken Erdoğan proved an escape attempt, not a solution. This fiasco for both the YSP and the opposition has sparked a serious internal debate across the Kurdish political landscape.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (C) and Peoples’ Democratic Rights Party (HDP) co-chairs Pervin Buldan (L) and Mithat Sancar (R) hold a press conference in Ankara on March 20, 2023. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.
Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (C) and Peoples’ Democratic Rights Party (HDP) co-chairs Pervin Buldan (L) and Mithat Sancar (R) hold a press conference in Ankara on March 20, 2023. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.


The May 2023-March 2024 Period: Internal Debate and Confusion

Following May 2023's electoral disaster, the YSP revamped its leadership in October 2023 and rebranded as the DEM Party. Internal reflection led the party to abandon its unilateral support for the opposition, seen by elites as the cause of their worst election performance over the past decade. Declining support in western cities and lower youth engagement7 than the general public signal a crisis in the "Turkeyfication" strategy and over the party's future more broadly.8 The party leadership felt their unwavering support for the opposition failed to offer a distinct political vision or energize their base. It also fueled President Erdoğan's crackdown on the DEM Party. In response, they adopted a "third way" strategy, carving out a distinct space separate from the opposition and allowing them to be in dialogue with the ruling bloc regarding the resolution of the Kurdish issue.

The DEM Party's departure from the opposition bloc was deemed heavily advantageous for President Erdoğan's ruling bloc in its bid to reclaim the major cities it lost to the CHP in the 2019 local elections. However, despite DEM's pursuit of a third way, the ruling bloc showed no sign of changing its approach to the Kurdish issue. While many believed Erdoğan might reconsider appointing trustees to DEM municipalities in the future if the party nominated candidates in major cities and didn't support the opposition in the March 2024 local elections, there was no public evidence of such negotiations beforehand.

Ultimately, the DEM Party fielded its own candidates in most major cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The possibility remained though that DEM voters would support other candidates in constituencies where the party wasn't competitive. This sparked a major disagreement within DEM's leadership. On the one hand, one faction, including prominent politicians Ahmet Türk and Leyla Zana, argued that renewed dialogue with President Erdoğan was the only path toward a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. They therefore called on DEM voters to fully support the party’s candidates, rather than those of the CHP, in western Turkey. On the other hand, another faction, which includes the party’s co-leader Tülay Hatimoğulları, believed that the president would not be open to dialogue and thus prioritizing efforts to weaken the ruling bloc in the elections remained the better option.9 Despite rumors to the contrary, Demirtaş, who stepped down from politics after the disappointing May 2023 elections, did not participate in this debate or address DEM voters directly. All of this was seen as a sign of discord and confusion within the Kurdish political elite.

In the March 2024 local elections, the CHP emerged as the country’s largest political party, retaining control of major cities and securing new ones. In key cities such as Istanbul, Adana, Mersin, and Antalya, where Kurdish votes were decisive, DEM supporters predominantly backed the CHP over their own party's candidates. These results suggest that despite elite-level debates within the Kurdish political movement, DEM voters, arguably Turkey's most politicized group, may have differing opinions. Nonetheless, the DEM Party did not emerge as one of the many losing opposition parties in these elections. It successfully reclaimed municipalities in Kurdish-populated cities from government trustees and even won new ones.

One of the main questions following the March 2024 local elections is whether the ruling bloc will again dismiss DEM mayors and appoint trustees. The decision of the provincial electoral board in Van, a Kurdish-majority city, to declare the AKP’s runner-up candidate as the winner, alleging irregularities regarding the candidacy of DEM’s nominee Abdullah Zeydan, who won the election in a landslide, gave the impression that the policy of appointing trustees would continue. However, after swift demonstrations by DEM supporters, the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) overturned the decision, declaring the DEM candidate the winner. This reversal may partly stem from the fact the election results caught President Erdoğan by surprise and constituted the biggest electoral defeat of his career. The successful widespread mobilization of DEM supporters to protect their democratic rights, which was unprecedented since 2015, must have also played a role. This has opened a window of opportunity for the Kurdish political movement to halt its decline and resurge.

People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) co-chairman Tülay Hatimoğulları Oruç (C) makes a press statement during a rally in Istanbul to protest the dismissal of Hakkari mayor Mehmet Sıddık Akış. Photo by Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) co-chairman Tülay Hatimoğulları Oruç (C) makes a press statement during a rally in Istanbul to protest the dismissal of Hakkari mayor Mehmet Sıddık Akış. Photo by Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.


The Post-March 2024 Period: What Lies Ahead?

While DEM voters in major western Turkish cities, where their party struggles in first-past-the-post elections, predominantly backed the CHP, the DEM Party's significant achievement lies in halting its decline across the Kurdish-majority region. This clearly reflects the Kurdish electorate's persistent opposition to the ruling bloc's policy of governing Kurdish cities through appointed trustees. However, a halt in the party’s decline does not signify a resolution of the DEM Party's crisis, which, as this piece argues, began in 2015. To regain its former strength, both in Kurdish-majority cities and across Turkey more broadly, DEM must address this crisis. This may require reclaiming its rightful role as the leading representative of Turkey's Kurds, even if that means challenging the influence of Öcalan and/or the PKK.

The DEM Party must also grapple with the evolving demographics and social fabric of the Kurdish population. Urbanization and educational attainment are both on the rise among Kurds. A significant majority now reside in urban centers, often their birthplaces.10 Additionally, the proportion of Kurds reporting harm from the violent conflict between the TSK and the PKK has nearly halved over the past decade, dropping from 50% to 30%.11 These trends suggest that the DEM Party's conventional post-2015 platform will likely struggle to resonate with future Kurdish voters.

The recent 2023 and 2024 elections, too, underscore the urgency for the DEM to address its post-2015 crisis. While its decline in the Kurdish-majority region appears to have halted, its consistent losses among Kurds in western Turkey continue to raise concerns about the party’s long-term viability in Turkish politics. In fact, a May 2024 Rawest Research poll indicates that a majority of Kurds nationwide remain dissatisfied with the DEM Party’s overall performance, expressing willingness for its further “Turkeyfication.”12 Notably, the growing Kurdish support for the CHP in 2023 and 2024 suggests that Kurdish voters across the country, particularly in the west of Turkey, have broader political concerns beyond the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.

For the time being, the DEM and the AKP remain the dominant forces in Turkey's Kurdish-majority region, but the CHP's impressive gains in the 2023 and 2024 elections suggest it is emerging as a credible alternative for Kurdish voters. Reflecting this trend, the Rawest poll shows that Kurdish voters across Turkey increasingly view CHP politicians like Ekrem İmamoğlu, Özgür Özel, and even Mansur Yavaş as more credible than President Erdoğan. If the CHP capitalizes on this momentum by solidifying its relationship with the Kurds and offering more concrete policy solutions on the Kurdish issue, the DEM Party should be aware that the CHP, under the leadership of young and charismatic figures like İmamoğlu and Özel, could become a focal point for secular, educated, and urban Kurds.

Most significantly, the Rawest poll underscores Demirtaş's enduring popularity as the leading politician among Kurds nationwide. Hailed as "the first-ever civilian leader of Kurds,"13 the data suggests Demirtaş has exceptional unifying power across various Kurdish segments in Turkey. Notably, his popularity surpasses that of the DEM Party itself. While the post-2015 crisis unfolded under his leadership, the unwavering loyalty of Turkish Kurds to both Demirtaş and the "Turkeyfication" project underscores their desire for strong political representation within Turkish politics. This again highlights the DEM Party's immense potential for regaining ground if it confronts its post-2015 challenges head-on.

The DEM's failure to address its post-2015 crisis not only led to its steady decline until 2023 but also provided ammunition for the authoritarian ruling bloc to intensify its oppression of the party. Continuing the current status quo, which makes the DEM Party appear overshadowed by the PKK, risks further decline and empowers the ruling bloc under President Erdoğan. The harsh court rulings against the civilian wing of the Kurdish movement, including Demirtaş, in the May 16th "Kobane case"14 and the government’s decision to remove the DEM mayor of Hakkari and appoint a trustee15 exemplify this danger. In the face of this growing pressure, the DEM Party's only chance is to stop being "a victim of the process" and produce a new politics based on the popular support it enjoys.


Edgar Şar is a Co-founder and the current Co-Director of Istanbul Political Research Institute (IstanPol). He received his PhD degree in political science from Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. His research interests include (de-)democratization, opposition strategies in authoritarian regimes, secularism and state-society-religion relations, and constitutional law. Dr Şar was previously a CATS Fellow at SWP Berlin, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and is currently a Research Affiliate at CEU Democracy Institute in Budapest.   

Photo by Mehmet Masum Suer/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.


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