Turkey’s Kurds are sacrificing election wins but to what end?

For the first time in more than a decade, the economy — rather than terrorism — tops voters’ agenda.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Supporters of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party argue with riot police during a protest in solidarity with the jailed lawmaker Leyla Guven, January 12. (Reuters)
Escalating crackdown. Supporters of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party argue with riot police during a protest in solidarity with the jailed lawmaker Leyla Guven, January 12. (Reuters)

The race is on. With less than 60 days until local elections in Turkey, the mood — and it is dark — is that of a political dogfight.

The annual Social and Political Trends in Turkey survey by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University indicated that one-in-five citizens said they want to emigrate for good and one-third of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s voters agree the system has become more authoritarian than ever.

For the first time in more than a decade, the economy — rather than terrorism — tops voters’ agenda. Approval of both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party has dropped considerably, although the core base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains loyal. Anti-American sentiment is at 82% and the media are the least trusted institution.

The political dogfight, however, is mainly regarding the opposition’s view of Erdogan and his ultra-nationalist ally, the Nationalist Movement Party’s massive systemic engineering.

A high number of what have been called “fake” voters — some aged more than 120 years — have been discovered in many districts. There is also, as some legal experts say, the unlawful extension of tenure of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK).

This is seen by some to be preparation for the task of maintaining Erdogan’s hold on power. That the YSK categorically rejected complaints about voter registration was considered confirmation of fears expressed about the prospective vote, the opposition’s allegation that neither Erdogan nor the AKP will let go of power is going viral.

Erdogan is under increasing pressure due to worsening economic prospects but he seems as determined as ever to run the election campaign using his trademark tactics of polarisation.

He has tried to keep the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) from cooperating at the local level with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The crackdown on the HDP’s leaders and representatives is escalating. Blocking free debate as much as he can, Erdogan’s priority is to dispel any notion the results of the March 31 local elections can be interpreted as a referendum on his — already entrenched one-man — rule.

By any measure, the HDP is a political hot potato for the secular-nationalist opposition alliance of the CHP and IYI Party. The alliance is weak in the mainly Kurdish south-eastern provinces but fears that any move to close ranks with the HDP elsewhere would make it a soft target. Erdogan is masterful in his use of the Turkish nationalism card.

Still, given that the race is neck and neck in the big cities and in western Turkey, the opposition is anxious to attract HDP voters. If the main, so-called greater municipalities are won by Erdogan’s opponents, it will not turn the clock back towards democratisation but it will change things somewhat, perhaps opening the door to a slight softening of support for the president.

Against this background, the HDP’s recent move can only be considered a cunning gambit. After internal brainstorming sessions, the party announced it would not nominate candidates in the key cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Mersin, Adana, Antep, Urfa and Izmir. Almost all of them have an HDP voter base but, with the decision, the pro-Kurdish party’s urban support remains afloat.

This strategy runs some risks. For the first time, the traditionally secular and Kurdish voters are so frustrated with the political class that there is a strong undercurrent of disinclination to vote at all. There is a high percentage of undecided voters among them.

The HDP, however, seems confident. ”We trust our supporters and we shall see to it that up to two-thirds in those cities will cast their vote against the oppressors,” a top HDP figure said.

I am not sure of that. Given the political engineering by those in powers, the most realistic forecast would be of yet another disappointment for Turkey’s disunited opposition.

However, one point is clear: The HDP’s self-sacrifice in this election is a final act of despair. After April 1, there won’t be another election in Turkey until 2022.

Turkey’s political elites need to boldly and democratically tackle the Kurdish question at home.

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