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Kurdish Party Wins Record Number Of Seats In Turkish Parliament


Let's zoom in on one feature of those Turkish election results. As Peter reported, a Kurdish party won a record number of seats in parliament. The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group. They are minorities in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Thirty years ago in Turkey, a Kurd could get arrested for speaking publicly in Kurdish, and for decades there's been an armed Kurdish insurgency and a Turkish counterinsurgency. So what does their big presence in the next parliament mean for the Kurds' future and for the country's future? Soner Cagaptay directs the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome to the program once again.

SONER CAGAPTY: My pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Is this a landmark for the Kurds of Turkey?

CAGAPTY: Absolutely, it is. For a long time, the Kurds ran on independent lists because their party was barred from the parliament due to a 10 percent electoral threshold they could not pass, so they could only gain about two dozen seats in a 550-seat parliament, which means everybody could ignore them. Now, through an alliance with the liberals, they have reached out to Turkey's ethnic and political minorities, gaining 13 percent of the vote, but more importantly, 80 seats in the 550-seat legislature. It makes them a player now. You cannot ignore the Kurds anymore in Turkey.

SIEGEL: Well, what's at the core of Kurdish politics? Does this advance the cause of either Kurdish separation from or autonomy within Turkey?

CAGAPTY: In Turkey, I think the trend has increased cultural and political rights for the country's Kurds. For a very long time, the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey aimed at autonomy and used violence. Recently, the group has renounced violence, including the Kurdish party, Peoples' Democratic Party, also known as HDP, and its mother party, known as Kurdistan Workers' Party - PKK - both of which are now in talks with the government in Ankara. So what is really interesting is that the Kurdish movement is now integrating itself into the Democratic fabric of the Turkish society.

SIEGEL: How important a figure is their party's leader, Selahattin Demirtas?

CAGAPTY: Incredibly charismatic. I would say he's probably the second-most charismatic politician in Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On his election campaign, he went on and played a Turkish instrument called a saz. It's like the Russian balalaika. That was his Bill Clinton moment. And I think it's really made him very popular and likeable across the board.

SIEGEL: In the past couple of years, we've heard a lot more about the Kurds in Iraq and Syria than the Kurds in Turkey. Kurdish fighters have been prominent in opposing ISIS in both those countries. What's the relationship between this prominent Kurdish role in neighboring countries and the Kurds of Turkey?

CAGAPTY: What has happened to the Kurds in Iraq that they have autonomy since 2003, and they're only part of Iraq in a theoretical sense. If you go into Iraqi Kurdistan, you fly into the airport in Erbil, the capital, and they'll stamp your passport with their own government stamp. This has excited the region's Kurds. For the first time, they're seeing the prospect of near-independence achieved by one of the Kurdish groups. Then, with the dissolution of Syria and its descent into civil war, we've seen the Syrian Kurds take over areas that they live in and establish autonomous cantons. Turkish Kurds are seeing these trends in two regional countries where Kurds are gaining political autonomy. The question is, can they follow that trend? It's going to be hard if you're talking about territorial autonomy Here is why - overwhelming majority of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria live inside their, quote, unquote, "Kurdistans." The majority of the Kurds in Turkey do not live in their territorial homeland. Turkey is a very middle-class, integrated country. Most Turks live in western metropolitan Turkey, Istanbul and the coast along the Mediterranean, like all Turks do. As a result of that, the idea of territorial autonomy in Turkey would not work because if you draw boundaries and say, here's the Kurdish area, most of the Kurds will be left outside of that area. So I think the solution in Turkey is really moving forward a country that has broad individual liberties and freedoms from everybody. And that's the direction that the Kurdish movement is going in as they have built an alliance with the liberals because the liberals are pushing for this kind of a vision as well.

SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also the author of "The Rise Of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century's First Muslim Power." Thank you.

CAGAPTY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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