Turkey’s Newest Party: Understanding the HDP

Reading time: 16 minutes
Teaser Image Caption
People gathering for a HDP meeting

For the last 30 years, the Kurdish movement has given birth to a myriad of organisations which included a mountain-based guerrilla (the PKK) as well as political parties[1] and other associations. If the state closes down one of these arms, it quickly resurfaces in a new form.  The base and backbone of this movement is its political wing. Its newest offspring is the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP – Halkların Demokratik Partisi) that received more than six million (13.12%) votes (80 seats) in the last election. With new elections looming in November and new clashes flaring up between the Turkish government and the PKK, the HDP’s future hangs in the balance as well.

What made the electoral success of the HDP possible was a strategy called “Türkiyelileşme” (transforming into a movement that represents the whole of Turkey) and the Gezi uprising in 2013. Türkiyelileşme meant turning away from a struggle for solely more rights for the Kurds and instead calling for the democratization of Turkey as a whole. But for many Turks who had long regarded the Kurdish movement as an organization of guerrillas joining such a big tent movement was not an option. It was the Gezi uprising that contributed - among other factors - to the change. Here different ethnic Turks found themselves side by side on the barricades with the Kurds. Also the way the Turkish media covered the Gezi protests led many Turks to doubt that likewise the coverage of what had happened in the Kurdish areas was not accurate. For the first time it became possible to form a party that would transcend the traditional boundaries of the Turkish and Kurdish left.

The hard turn taken by the Kurdish political movement towards a strategy of expansion and inclusion was only possible as it came with PKK’s founder Abdullah Öcalan's change of political direction. Öcalan, who is still the undisputed leader of the Kurdish political movement, is said to have moderated his views over the last years. While his PKK fought for an independent state for decades, Öcalan is now advocating an approach he has dubbed “Democratic Federalism”. Inspired by the works of American anarchist Murray Bookchin, Öcalan suggests that Kurdish communities should strive for autonomous governments. Kurds, Öcalan believes, should join forces with those who believe in democratic values, struggle for rights, justice and change.

In previous elections Kurdish candidates had run as independents in districts where the Kurdish vote guaranteed a win, now the HDP decided to field candidates as a party and in all districts of Turkey. What made voting HDP attractive for many was that due to a “the winner takes it all” design of the Turkish electoral system, only the HDP crossing the high 10% threshold allowed preventing an absolute majority by the government’s Justice and Development Party (AKP – Adalet ve Kalkıma Partısı). As the AKP’s declared goal was a 2/3 majority to turn Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential system, for many HDP voters their ballot became an option to stop Erdoğan from removing the last checks and balances on his rule.

The HDP used a diverse platform and candidate list, absorbing different special interest groups. [2] Not only was the number of female candidates unusually high - Armenian, Assyrian, Alevi and Yazidi candidates contributed to the very diverse picture. In addition Turkish socialist groups (and prominent individuals), conscientious objectors, environmentalists, and homosexual candidates were listed on the HDP ticket.  

On what the HDP is built

The party platform of the HDP is a leftist one with Marxist undertones. It perceives the human history as a “history of struggles” in the “search for equality, freedom and justice” and urges society to struggle against “racist, nationalist, militarist, sexist, conservative and pro-market forces.” The Marxist undertone is most clearly expressed in the following part:

“For a world in which no human being is a subject to another, no oppression and exploitation is present, no wars are experienced, oppressor-oppressed relations are ended, the whole of humanity lives equally, freely, humanely and justly in every sector of life without any discrimination based on language, religion, colour, race and sexuality… (Our party)… aims for a democratic popular government in which all obstacles against the labour struggle are removed, all peoples and faiths are free, the equality between women and men is achieved (…) on our lands where denial, oppression and assimilation prevails with all their exploitative apparatuses. Against the imposition of ‘a uniform Turkish nation in terms of ethnic identity, culture, language and religion,’ it defends a pluralistic social life based on equal and voluntary togetherness of differences; a goal of an emancipatory and democratic Turkey.” [3]

Another element of the party program is its subordination under  the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK, a body established in October 2011, bringing together  various parties that identify themselves as socialist, as well as trade unions, women, environmental and LGBTI groups and other civil society organizations and representatives from various religious minorities together as well as the Kurdish political movement). The HDP is a big tent organisation assembling various groups and movements with different decision-making mechanisms. Moreover, these organizations do not operate on the same scale or have similar structures. Groups similar to civil society initiatives without solid hierarchical structure exist side by side with organizations – that are mainly leftist – that are based on a rigid hierarchy.

The challenge for the HDP was and still is how to cater to such vastly different constituencies at the same time. How can it manage to appeal to conservative religious Kurds while at the same time fielding the first openly gay candidate? How can a party satisfy the demands of largely Kurdish peasants and an urban middle class simultaneously?

The HDP’s electoral platform

This challenge becomes apparent in the electoral platform of the HDP. This manifesto draws from a radical democratic and leftists discourse:

“The concern for the present and the fear of the future make the lives of us all unbearable. The absolute power of the state and capital turns our lives upside down and objectifies society and nature. It denies, ignores and oppresses our existence, identity, desires and needs. While it builds a security wall around the political power’s absolute dominance, it renders nature, people and society insecure. While it gives the market and political power an armour of impunity, it tries to establish unhindered regulation over our private lifes. The HDP is fighting for radical democracy. [...] for people to become an organized force that will govern their own lives. It regards the empowerment of society as the basis of equality, freedom and equal citizenship. It aims to give society the power and decision making authority over production and working conditions. [...]. In order to be able to build a new life in which the conditions of existence and the lifes of society’s each and every constituent are protected by the society as a whole, we need real democracy.”[4]

In its electoral platform the HDP puts a special emphasis on what it calls the “oppressed and ignored sectors of society”; workers, women, youth[5] and the poor. The HDP promises to work against malpractices which are common in Turkey such as workplace violations[6] and for making housewives “invisible labour” visible. Some of the promises are rather grand for an opposition party, such as the promise to work to end poverty and unemployment, to provide free education and health services or to guarantee a secular education. It is no surprise that the section on economic policy likewise comes from a left perspective. The text is peppered with sections on expanding social security, supporting union organization and phrases such as “self-sufficiency in agriculture,” “cities worth living in”, “healthy housing” and “people-oriented transportation”.

A special section is dedicated to the Kurdish question and minority rights in general. The HDP aims to prevent the state from imposing an identity (read: a Sunni-Turkish identity that both Kemalists and the AKP favour) and supports the right of the individual to develop her own identity, culture and most of all her mother tongue “within a framework of autonomy”. The HDP further promises to support prayer houses for the Alevi minority[7], to stop treating nature only as sources for raw materials and to implement the right to housing and transportation “in conditions that are compatible with human dignity.” While the HDP’s manifesto is relatively silent on how to realize Kurdish aspirations for self-rule (through independence, autonomy or at least a strong decentralisation) it mentions empowering local governments: “... terminate the tutelage of central administration over local governments.” (The ratification of the European Charter for Local Self-Government, including its annexes, was another promise in the manifesto.) The manifesto envisaged the abolition of all non-democratic laws and institutions such as the National Security Council (MGK – Milli Güvenlik Kurulu[8]) that were products of the military coup in 1980. The HDP aims for a new constitution that eradicates the mentality of a “single nation (under a) single religious denomination”. It advocates for the abolition of the electoral threshold, as well as introducing a quota for women on all administrative levels.

When it comes to foreign policy the HDP plans to terminate what it claims is “support for jihadists” by the government.  It further promises to support the Palestinian cause, work for a just solution for the Cyprus-conflict and negotiated peaceful relations with Armenia. The HDP also plans to revive Turkey’s attempt to attain full EU membership.

The manifesto contained a number of new, radical suggestions for Turkey. One of these suggestions were “setting up ‘Truth Commissions’ with the aim of researching genocides, massacres, executions, disappearances and similar practices that took place in the past and uncovering the truth about these incidents”. Not only does the HDP as first legal party in Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide, it did also advocate for setting up truth commissions to deal with grave human rights violations committed during Turkey’s dark years of military rule and civil war.

Candidates and the process of dterminating candidates

Among the candidates on the HDP list were a mixture of candidates: veterans of the Kurdish movement, leaders of pre-1980 leftist organizations and youth movements, religious and dissident Kurds, women with headscarves, feminists, experienced politicians who had served in important positions in the CHP or the AKP, a former mufti, the former president of the Islamic Human Rights NGO Mazlum-Der, new and inexperienced young politicians, Alevis, Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians,  as well as relatives of individuals, like Kemal Pir, who is a Sunni Turkish member of the primary “cadres” of the PKK. The ratio of female representatives in the parliament is the highest in history (98 women; 18% of the parliament). The biggest role in this increase belongs to the HDP; 40% or 31 of HDP parliamentarians are women. This ratio is around 16% for other parties.

HDP’s candidates were not determined through primaries, but through a process of what the HDP calls “central inquiry”. In this process, if a candidate was suitable or not depended on consultations with Kurdish mass organizations, women and youth organizations, trade unions, associations and renowned individuals.[9] Final decision over a candidate rested then with the party leadership. Due to this procedure no debates over policy or strategy took place in which the candidates nor the party members were involved in the selection. A central election commission made up of fifteen people selected and placed HDP candidates from nearly 1500 applications on the lists. In the Candidate Selection Commission, the HDP’s co-presidents together with the HDK co-spokespersons, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP)[10] co-presidents and the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) co-presidents then finalized the list.

Although various constituents of the HDP movement had a say in the selection process, it was mainly a top-down affair and the will of the Kurdish political movement was dominant. The charge repeatedly levelled against the HDP, that it is not independent, but a branch of the KCK/PKK is not only based on this fact, but it makes a strong case for it.  

Difficulties facing HDP within the Kurdish liberation movement

It is obvious that the DBP and the DTK are the primary constituents of the Kurdish liberation movement. The PKK is generally referred to as the armed organization of the “Kurdish liberation movement,” which is a mistaken label, since the organization changes its name and structure occasionally.[11] KCK is the umbrella linking them all. The leaders in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq direct the KCK, the HPG and the PKK. The DBP and the DTK as legal organizations have elected executives. Abdullah Öcalan is the leader of the movement as a whole; he is generally referred to as “the leadership.”

The current clashes between Turkish security forces and PKK elements in south-east Turkey have put the HDP under immense pressure. While for the Turkish government this seems to be part of its election campaign – trying to push the HDP below the 10% threshold and ramping up its own credentials with Turkish nationalists – what motivation is driving the PKK is doubtful. It seems that apart from frustration about the government’s actions in stalling the peace process, the PKK is also using the opportunity to reign in the HDP. 

Both HDP and PKK have gone to great length to declare that there is no direct connection between the two. However before and after the elections several statements by KCK and PKK officials made clear that they see themselves on top of a line of command over the HDP. The HDP has tried to withstand this pressure and especially with the recent declaration of its chairman, that the PKK should stop its attacks immediately, proven that the HDP does not see itself as the extended arm of Qandil. However it cannot be denied that of course the HDP is part of the organisational structure of the Kurdish movement that also brought forth the PKK. If they were not, why else did the government use HDP emissaries as go-betweens in the negotiations with the PKK and Öcalan? However the HDP also is in a dilemma as it has both to withstand attacks from other parties and the government blaming them for exactly the involvement the government previously benefitted from, but at the same time, they have to represent their non-Kurdish constituencies as well. Some of the fields the HDP will work on might not be in line with what Qandil thinks. Also for some of the people that support a “Turkey-wide” HDP, the main motive is the termination of armed struggle for good. Qandil can simply not be interested in a strong, independent civil Kurdish party that could make the PKK more and more superfluous and in which others than PKK cadres are calling the shots. If the peace process at some distant point should manage to produce a sort of autonomy with posts and resources to be distributed, the PKK – as other liberation movements have shown - might see itself entitled to some of the spoils.

Difficulties facing the HDP as a party with support across Turkey

Apart from outside attacks and the difficulties with the PKK, the HDP faces further problems from within. The primary force behind the HDP’s election success was religious Kurds that turned away from the AKP. However it also received more votes than the nationalist MHP in Istanbul and 10.5% of the votes in Izmir. The HDP as a big tent movement has to satisfy both the pious Kurdish peasant and the metropolitan feminist. However while both voted for the HDP, they might lack a common basis to discuss anything further. For the two of them the HDP represents two complete different things. The plurality and diversity of the people who came together to form the HDP created a plurality, that never existed in Turkish politics before. However the same phenomenon is also a potential source for trouble.

Among the supporters of the HDP there is a special group that adds to this trouble. A type of metropolitan constituency that thinks that it is entitled to shape the political future of the HDP.  This voter circle, however, is well educated, influential and vocal. Its capacity to shape public opinion is high. The negative influence of this constituency might push the HDP towards initiatives that limit its popularity and space for manoeuvre.

If and how the HDP can sustain the momentum it generated in the elections remains to be seen. But if it does, it carries the potential to contribute to the transformation of Turkish politics.

Based on and written with substantial input from “HDP’S SUCCESS CAN CREATE A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TURKEY” by Ümit Kıvanç


[1] Over the years the Kurdish party has borne several names and was shut down several times since its foundation in 1990 as the People’s Labour Party (HEP)

[2] The emphasis of the HDP on pluralism and diversity influenced the CHP as well. The founding party of the republic won a seat for an Armenian candidate and a Roma candidate from Izmir for the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey. An interview with Özcan Purcu is quite helpful in grasping the meaning of this initiative: http://www.iha.com.tr/video-chpli-roman-aday-sevincten-hungur-hungur-agladik-55672/.

[3] For the party documents see: www.hdp.org.tr.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The party states that not only free internet for every youth would be a fundamental right, but also that every young person would receive a 200 TYL (approx 60 €) stipend, the voting age would be lowered to sixteen and that local youth councils would be established.

[6] Including the neglect of safety procedures in agriculture, industry and mining which in 2014 alone have cost 1570 workers their lives.

[7] While Turkey’s mosques receive support from the state, Alevis, Turkey’s biggest religious minorities receive no such support for their places of worship.

[8] The MGK is a civilian-military consultative council. While it has lost much of its importance since a reform in 2003, it continues to be influential. While today the majority of its members are civilians from within the ranks of the government, for several decades it was the most important channel for the military to influence government policies.

[9] The news story by Zeynep Kuriş from DİHA includes an ample amount of details about the candidate selection process of HDP: “Candidates of HDP are determined by tendency inspection” http://www.bestanuce1.com/179395/rss.php.

[10] The Democratic Regions Party (Demokratik Bölgeler Partısı –DBP) is the successor of the main Kurdish party the BDP. The Democratic Society Congress (Demokratik Toplum Kongresi –DTK) is an assembly of Kurdish civil society organizations aligned with the party.

[11] This mistake originates in the fact that initially the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – Kurdistan Worker’s Party) represented the armed movement. However currently the organization‘s armed wing ist he HPG (Hêzên Parastina Gel – People’s Defense Forces).