As new Istanbul election approaches, Kurdish voters emerge as kingmakers

The HDP said it will remain behind Imamoglu in the rerun election.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Pivotal role. Co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party Pervin Buldan (L) and Sezai Temelli (R) sit next to HDP Vice-President Azad Baris during a news conference in Istanbul, last February.(AFP)
Pivotal role. Co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party Pervin Buldan (L) and Sezai Temelli (R) sit next to HDP Vice-President Azad Baris during a news conference in Istanbul, last February.(AFP)

ISTANBUL - Three weeks before a rerun election in Istanbul that could shake his government, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggled to attract a key group in the electorate: Kurdish voters.

Istanbul’s estimated 1.5 million voters of Kurdish descent are emerging as kingmakers in what is expected to be a close race between Binali Yildirim, the mayoral candidate of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition contender who won the original election in March.

Imamoglu stunned the government with his victory that came after 25 years of rule by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors. Following pressure by Erdogan’s government, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council ordered a rerun for June 23. Polls indicated that Imamoglu was leading Yildirim by 1.7-5 percentage points.

A new defeat in Turkey’s biggest and wealthiest city would undermine Erdogan’s grip on the country after more than 16 years in power and would boost morale for an opposition that is confident it can, at last, beat the AKP at the polls. Turkish media reported growing dissatisfaction within the AKP, while Imamoglu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has become the new star of Turkish politics.

“The Kurdish vote is going to be decisive, with the margin between the candidates being so narrow,” Halil Karaveli, an analyst at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, said via e-mail. Imamoglu’s win over Yildirim in the March 31 election was by less than 14,000 votes out of more than 8.3 million votes cast.

Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), supported Imamoglu in March to prevent a victory by the AKP and its partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The HDP said it will remain behind Imamoglu in the rerun election. HDP Co-Chairwoman Pervin Buldan told lawmakers from her party that Imamoglu could score a big victory on June 23. “They won’t understand it any other way,” she said about the government. “Let them wait and see.”

Pollster Bekir Agirdir of the Konda institute said that about 80% of Kurdish voters in Istanbul were siding with the opposition.

Imamoglu has been trying to keep the Kurds on his side by expressing admiration for Selahattin Demirtas, a former HDP leader who has been in jail since 2016. He also visited a fast-breaking dinner organised by Istanbulites hailing from the Kurdish region. CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu called for a law securing the right of Kurdish children to have their language taught in schools.

The strategy seems to be working. Sahismail Itik, an official at the headquarters of the HDP’s Istanbul branch, said he expected most Kurds to support the opposition against the AKP and MHP.

“Many HDP members, including lawmakers, party officials and mayors are in jail,” Itik said. “It is impossible for the HDP to look warmly at the AKP in that kind of situation.”

Relations between the HDP and the AKP have not always been tense. Starting in 2013, Erdogan’s government conducted talks with the pro-Kurdish party and with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West, to find a solution to Turkey’s long-running Kurdish problem. Negotiations broke down when a ceasefire collapsed amid fighting between the PKK and Turkish security forces in the summer of 2015.

Since then, the government has put pressure on the HDP, describing the party as the PKK’s political arm.

“Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued a lynch campaign against the Kurdish movement and especially against the HDP,” he said.

Erdogan has allied himself closely with MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli, who is opposed to negotiations for a political solution of the Kurdish question. A new military intervention into northern Iraq to destroy PKK camps there, begun in late May, demonstrated that the government is sticking to its hard-line policies.

There are signs that the government is trying to balance this approach with a softer line towards the Kurds ahead of the Istanbul poll. Ankara recently allowed lawyers of Ocalan, who is revered by many Kurds, to visit their client on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul for the first time in eight years.

Karaveli said the permission for the lawyers was granted with a view to the Kurdish. “Bahceli-Erdogan are being ‘nice’ to Ocalan with this in mind,” he wrote, adding that the government did not necessarily need to convince Kurds to support its candidate Yildirim.

“The pro-HDP Kurds don’t have to vote for Binali Yildirim,” Karaveli wrote. “He’ll probably secure victory if a hundred thousand HDP sympathisers stay at home on Election Day. Kurdish neutrality is a realistic hope” for the Erdogan government.

A statement by Buldan suggested the HDP was aware of that possibility. One priority of the HDP campaign in Istanbul would be to motivate around 200,000 party supporters who stayed home during the election in March to go to the polls June 23, reports quoted her as saying.

Imamoglu is also counting on a growing dissatisfaction of Turks with the Erdogan government as the country is battling a severe economic and moving away from democratic standards and towards authoritarianism.

“Turkey has continued to move further away from the European Union,” the EU Commission said in its annual report, released May 29, on Ankara’s progress towards membership. Accession talks had “effectively come to a standstill,” the report said.

In an effort to improve his government’s image, Erdogan rolled out a judicial reform package to strengthen democratic rights. “We regard freedom of speech as the most important precondition of democracy,” he said.

Critics are not convinced by Erdogan’s announcement. Turkish prosecutors began more than 60,000 criminal investigations because of alleged insults against Erdogan in the last two years, Yaman Akdeniz, an academic and cyber-rights activist, wrote on Twitter.