Alwaght- Turkey is set to hold its presidential elections on May 14. Four candidates are running for the post but the main rivalry would be between the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a candidate of the six-party opposition coalition. With the failure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Republic People’s Party (CHP) to secure the majority, significance of political alliances has emerged more than ever. Although a majority of the parties have publicized their political stances and agenda ahead of elections, the Kurds who account for 20 percent of the population have not announced their positions yet, and due to close poll results, they can be a decisive factor in the presidential race.
People’s Democratic Party supporting Kilicdaroglu
The Kurdish-majority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) can play an important role in determining the political weight of the rivals. Being the third largest party in the Turkish parliament and intellectually and politically aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the HDP is not present in any of the two rival coalitions of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, but the senior members of this party lean to Erdogan’s opposition due to their feud to the president.
Medhat Sanjar, the Arab-decented co-chair of the HDP, in an interview with a newspaper openly said that his party will vote for Kilicdaroglu and called on the party’s supporters to remove Erdogan from power with their votes. Asked if he made a request for a privilege to Kilicdaroglu in return for this support, he said: “Absolutely we have not made such request and our only demand is to eliminate the foundations of discrimination. We see this election the most sensitive one in the history of Turkey and have two strategic goals. First, ending this monolithic regime and second, transforming into the most influential force in Turkey’s democratic change. For these two goals, we have decided to back Kilicdaroglu.”
Selahettin Demirtas, the leader of HDP who has been serving a prison sentence since 2016 for terrorism charges, has recently said that this party is the biggest supporter of the Kurds and represents about two-thirds of the Kurdish votes. Demirtas urged the opposition to reach consensus on a single person and beat Erdogan in the main vote.
Although Kilicdaroglu is trying to attract all the political factions opposed to Erdogan to his side, he has refused to form an official alliance with the HDP out of fear of Turkish nationalists who consider the party to be an affiliate of the PKK which Turkey labels as a terrorist organization. Still, leaders of the HDP have made up their minds and the only thing that is important to them at present is to remove Erdogan from power, although they do not have a positive view of Kilicdaroglu. In addition to the Kurdish leaders, many Kurds in Diyarbakir, the province with the largest Kurdish population, have also said that their only goal is to take down Erdogan and they will fight for this aim. Freedom and equality is the main demand of the Kurds, and they emphasize that if the HDP supports Kilicdaroglu, they will vote for it.
Part of the Kurds like other people of Turkey are suffering from high inflation rates and biting economic crisis and will vote for someone they think will rescue them from these dreadful economic conditions. They are fed up with Erdogan government’s policies against the Kurds over the past two decades and think that this time they have a good opportunity to remove him from power. Under the pretext of confronting the PKK terrorists, Erdogan has carried out large-scale attacks against the positions of Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq in the past years, and this issue has faced a severe reaction from the Kurdish leaders.
Erdogan’s chance for possible win
Though HDP’s support is a comparative advantage for Kilicdaroglu, from another aspect it can harm him. It is crystal clear that HDP is loathed by the Turkish nationalists and Kilicdaroglu’s turn to this party can add votes of the nationalists to Erdogan’s. In recent days, Erdogan attested 110 journalists and lawyers for charges of affiliation with the PKK to tell the powerful nationalist parties that he is the only man capable of meeting their demands and that under Kilicdaroglu’s presidency, the PKK-aligned parties will seize the power. Erdogan, well aware of the enmity of the HDP, has recently raised ban of the party and if the Supreme Court gives a green light, he will neutralize it by arresting its leaders.
Over the past two decades, always several million of the Kurdish citizens have been satisfied with the economic conditions. The Islamist Kurds have also been contented with Erdogan. But the PKK-aligned Kurds are heavily discontented with Erdogan and want no mark of him left in the political scene.
Masoud Azizoglu, a Turkish political analyst, suggests that both the government and the opposition parties are afraid to get close to the Kurds who have voting right. The leaders of the six-party opposition coalition do not want to be seen beside the Kurds and this silence of them helps Erdogan.
In order to defeat Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu needs support of the HDP, the iYi Party, and the secular nationalists in the Great Unity Party, but many members of the iYi Party are against Kilicdaroglu’s turn to the HDP. It is noteworthy that the main source of disagreement between the HDP and nationalist parties such as the iYi Party is that the HDP has been accused of collaborating with the PKK, which is internationally classified as a terrorist organization, and the convergence between Kilicdaroglu and the HDP will cause legitimacy crisis to his campaign among Turkish nationalists. For example, Yavuz Agiralioglu, a prominent nationalist party, panned Kilicdaroglu for visiting headquarters of the HDP.
Apart from the tough path of Kilicdaroglu in making a balance between the HDP and the nationalist iYi Party, Erdogan has managed to save his votes in the Kurdish majority regions. In the last two presidential elections in 2014 and 2018, Erdogan won about 40 percent of the votes in Kurdish-majority regions, despite the fact that his policy towards the Kurds has dramatically changed from a peace process to a security process. According to some experts, Erdogan also has strong synergistic ties with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and the conservative Kurdish Dawa party, which could work to his advantage in the upcoming elections.
Kurds not united
Though presence of the six opposition parties in a coalition built a consensus against Erdogan, it seems that only the HDP backs the six-party alliance and other Kurds are still undecided about entry to the election and supporting a side of competition. In fact, the announcement of the support of the HDP support to the opposition coalition cannot be seen as the full Kurdish departure from Erdogan support, as according to statistics, this party has only about 12 percent of the popular votes in the Kurdish provinces, and the local media talk about the possibility of the majority of the Kurds remaining neutral in the upcoming elections, something playing into the hands of Erdogan.
Christopher Houston, an associate professor of anthropology at Macquarie University, believes that the Kurds can increase the parties’ chances of winning the May 14 elections. Though the HDP has supported Kilicdaroglu, according to Houston, the Kurds of Turkey are not united politically and it is not clear what decision they will make until the day of the election. Some of the parties present at the six-party coalition are staunch opponents of Kurdish autonomy, decentralization and the creation of a multicultural environment in Turkey. Therefore, the Kurds feel no need to vote for these parties, says Houston.
On the opposite side, some experts cite the 2019 municipality elections in which the Kurds with a call from the HDP voted to Erdogan opposition, empowering the opposition to take control of major city councils in major cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Adana. Such a scenario can repeat itself this year to Erdogan’s detriment. The HDP secured about 12 percent of the votes in 2018 elections, but if banned, it can lose its base in the future.
Erdogan has proven that he reconciles even with his enemies to stay in power. To this end, two weeks ago, he visited Diyarbakir people and justified his actions against the PKK by arguing that the group does not support the Kurds. He further called it a terrorist group and assured that actions against the PKK are meant to protect security of the Kurds.
As a conclusion, two weeks to the elections, the votes of the Kurds and nationalists, both still weighing up the candidates, can be determining in the election results. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are vying for the undecided and the grey voters to raise their winning chances. The poll results and political analysts suggest that Erdogan has a smaller chance against his rival and the decisive Kurdish votes perhaps turn into the president’s Achilles heel and take him down after two decades of being the unchallenged strongman of Turkish politics.