Turkey’s Kurds may decide Erdogan’s electoral fate

To boost its support among non-Kurdish, urban Erdogan critics, the HDP is fielding high-profile candidates.
Sunday 27/05/2018
In the face of pressure. Supporters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party hold up placards reading “Free Demirtas” in front of Istanbul’s courthouse, on May 21. (AFP)
In the face of pressure. Supporters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party hold up placards reading “Free Demirtas” in front of Istanbul’s courthouse, on May 21. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - In Turkey’s polarised political landscape, Kurdish voters are likely to play a decisive role in elections next month.

Numbering around 10 million people — approximately 17% of Turkey’s electorate — Kurdish voters could hand victory to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or prevent the 64-year-old leader from crowning his career by securing far-reaching executive powers, boosted by a parliamentary majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Opinion polls indicate Erdogan’s success in parliamentary and presidential elections June 24 is far from assured. The country is split between supporters and critics of the president, putting the Kurds into a possible role as kingmakers.

One reason Erdogan is struggling is the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), seen at around 10% in polls, a critical juncture because Turkey’s election rules say a party needs at least 10% of the nationwide vote to secure seats in parliament. The HDP won just under 11% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in November 2015, a result that gave the party 59 seats.

With the HDP and the AKP being the biggest political rivals in the Kurdish provinces of eastern and south-eastern Anatolia, a failure of the HDP to overcome the 10% hurdle would boost the AKP’s share of deputies, said Gunes Murat Tezcur, a professor of Kurdish political studies at the University of Central Florida.

“If the HDP fails to cross the threshold, most seats [from the Kurdish region] will go to the AKP,” Tezcur said in an interview. That way, Erdogan’s party and its political partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), could be certain to keep their majority in parliament. However, if the HDP re-enters parliament, the opposition will almost certainly have the upper hand in the chamber.

The HDP also poses a challenge for Erdogan in the presidential vote. Erdogan needs more than 50% of the vote for a first-round victory but is facing a crowded field of competitors that could force him into a run-off on July 8.

The HDP’s former chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, is among Erdogan’s challengers and could score more than 10%, some polls suggest. Demirtas is conducting his campaign from a prison cell in north-western Turkey, where he has been in pre-trial detention since late 2016. Erdogan critics say the government is trying to keep a strong competitor out of the race.

“Demirtas will be popular in the Kurdish areas,” Tezcur said. “He can mobilise people because he has strong name recognition.”

Before his detention, Demirtas opened the HDP for non-Kurdish, left-leaning voters in Turkey’s big cities and won 10% of the vote in the 2014 presidential election. Tezcur said a similar result for Demirtas was possible this time.

To boost its support among non-Kurdish, urban Erdogan critics, the HDP is fielding high-profile candidates. One of them is Ahmet Sik, a prominent investigative reporter with the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, who has resigned from his newspaper to run for the HDP as a parliamentary candidate in Istanbul.

The HDP said it will support Muharrem Ince, presidential candidate of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in a second round if there is a run-off. Ince has visited Demirtas in prison and has publicly called for the HDP candidate to be released so he can campaign.

Erdogan’s decision to send Turkey’s military into neighbouring Syria to fight the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin area could decrease Kurdish support for the AKP. The president used a television interview in April to tell Kurdish voters that the Afrin operation was not directed against Syria’s Kurds but against “terrorists there,” adding that the YPG had non-Kurdish fighters from Western countries such as France in its ranks.

“My Kurdish brothers in this country need to know that we had no quarrel with our Kurdish brothers in Afrin,” Erdogan said.

Many conservative Kurds have favoured the AKP over the HDP in the past but some Erdogan critics say the ruling party lacks concrete proposals for progress in the Kurdish region, which includes some of Turkey’s poorest districts.

A peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West, broke down three years ago, triggering fresh fighting in an area devastated by decades of conflict.

There is no sign of a new peace push, something that Erdogan’s opponents see as a chance for themselves. “Kurdish supporters of Erdogan are extremely unhappy,” Abdullatif Sener, a former deputy prime minister under Erdogan and now an opposition candidate for parliament, told the Mezopotamya news agency.

Given the stakes, government critics in Turkey say they are concerned that the government could manipulate the elections in the Kurdish region. “Especially in rural areas, pre-prepared ballots for the AKP and [Erdogan] can easily replace” actual ballots, said one Turkish academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Another problem is the displacement of many voters by fighting in the Kurdish area in recent years, which can make voter registration difficult.