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Alevis split on Turkey's presidential elections

Alienated Alevi voters may hand Erdogan the presidency.

On Aug. 10, Turkey will go to the polls to choose its first “people’s president.” That is, for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, the president will be elected by popular vote. Unlike general or municipal elections, this election presents an opportunity for “direct representation”; that is, all votes cast anywhere will have the same weight, and all candidates will receive the exact number of votes cast for them only.

In general elections with a 10% threshold — the minimum vote required to secure representation — millions of votes cast for small parties that don't pass the threshold are essentially redistributed among the big winners. This process has magnified the vote and seat share of big winners in the Turkish parliament. In addition, in this election, for the first time diaspora Turks will be able to cast votes. These three factors make the upcoming election or elections (should the vote go to a second round) even more interesting to watch.

The process of “direct representation” makes identity a more crucial factor as well. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken pride that — through its promises of democratization and strengthening personal rights and freedoms — it has attracted votes from across the board. “We receive 50% of the Kurdish votes” has been a potent statement quite frequently repeated by AKP officials and mainstream media alike.

There is one group AKP has approached several times unsuccessfully: the Alevis. In the last three years, the AKP has lost the little Alevi support it might have had following its foreign policy failure in Syria and its handling of the Gezi protests. (All the fatalities of Gezi were young Alevis). Lacking accurate information on the number of Alevis in Turkey, we could report that numbers range from 7 million to 13 million.

Given that many Alevis opt to hide their identity, pundits estimate that their vote share is 6-20%. 

In addition, about 2.8 million votes are expected from Turkish citizens abroad.

In every European country, Alevi associations are well organized. It has been strange to see that several Alevi associations from Europe made it to prime time news with high frequency for the first time when they declared they would not support the opposition’s joint candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Several Alevi associations told the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main opposition party, that Ihsanoglu was unacceptable to Alevi voters.

While pro-government media and pundits devoured the “We do not support Ihsanoglu” headlines, a good portion of Alevis have announced their support for the third candidate in the race, Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP). Demirtas faces two obstacles in the larger Alevi community. First, many voters do not believe he can win, assuming a vote to Demirtas is a vote lost, or — even worse — one to Erdogan’s benefit. Second, although there are Kurdish Alevis, most Alevis from Central Anatolia are apprehensive about voting for a “Kurdish” candidate or “Kurdish” party, fearing the Kurds will cooperate with the AKP at the end and ignore Alevis.

For decades, Alevi voters have overwhelmingly (over 70%) voted for left-leaning parties, yet now reiterate on different platforms that the main opposition party should no longer take their bloc's vote for granted.

Talking to several Alevi representatives, we can see that the Alevi vote will be more divided than ever before; however, this may not be to the advantage of the most popular presidential candidate, Erdogan.

The European Alevi Women’s Federation’s Vice President Filiz Caglar Selcuk told Al-Monitor, “Alevis both in Turkey and the diaspora are divided into at least three groups. They are contemplating the consequences and making mathematical calculations about the potential outcomes of the upcoming elections.”

Selcuk broke down the three groups: “The first group has decided to vote for Ihsanoglu in both rounds of the election, as their first goal is to prevent an Erdogan victory. The second group will vote for Demirtas in the first round, assuming he cannot make it into the second round, and then they would vote for Ihsanoglu. The last group would vote for Demirtas for the first round, and boycott the second round of elections.”

Ali Kenanoglu, head of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Culture Association, told Al-Monitor, “The most important determinant for Alevi voters is the opposition to Erdogan.”

Kenanoglu explained the complexity of the matter with a poignant anecdote: “An acquaintance told me, ‘Even if my father’s murderer was in the race against Erdogan, I would vote for the murderer. Because yes, he killed my father, but that is just one Alevi. But Erdogan’s policies have led to the murder of many Alevis, and many more could be expected.’ This is the mood of the Alevi community. Hence, Alevis will overwhelmingly support Demirtas in the first round, and in the second round whoever is in the race against Erdogan will be their candidate.”

Hatice Altinisik, HDP deputy chairwoman responsible for “people and their beliefs,” told Al-Monitor, “The only democratic candidate who respects the rights of women, minorities, as well as Alevis, is Demirtas. He is the only one who can openly advocate Alevi demands from the government and stand up against the status quo. He is the only candidate who represents the ‘left’ in this election.” Altinisik reflects the views of not only Alevis, but also left-leaning and secular voters who have important reservations about the joint candidate, Ihsanoglu.

Demirtas definitely goes out of his way to embrace the Alevis, who have been ostracized by the government. The mother of Gezi victim Berkin Elvan, who was booed at one of Erdogan’s rallies, was at one of Demirtas’ gatherings. Demirtas asked the crowd to applaud and respect the mourning mother, an Alevi. This was a heart-warming moment not just for Alevis, but also for supporters of the Gezi movement. However, Demirtas, despite a quite impressive election campaign, also raises doubts in the minds of Alevi voters.

Selcuk, the European Alevi Women's Federation official — who resides in the Netherlands — highlighted these doubts. She told Al-Monitor, “Although Demirtas has a strong rhetoric, some of the HDP messages are confusing. For example, one of the HDP members, Pervin Buldan, went on the record to say, ‘For the sake of the peace process, we will support Erdogan in the second round.’ In addition, when we look at Demirtas’ track record, we see that even though he asks for the abolition of the Religious Affairs Directorate, he has voted repeatedly for its budget increases, so we remain doubtful of his sincerity.”

Going over the Alevi concerns and the reaction of mainstream media to candidates other than Erdogan, a couple of points stand out: First, the Alevi vote, particularly for the first round, is divided. Second, this split is not necessarily a gain for Erdogan, because either way it will be counted against him. However, what could be a serious advantage for Erdogan is if “some” Alevi and left-leaning voters were alienated and did not turn out to vote or cast a null vote (an empty vote, as it is called in Turkey). 

Given the high level of mobilization among AKP supporters, if the opposition disintegrates and shies away from the ballot, Erdogan’s victory will be prompt and overwhelming. Erdogan’s campaign tacitly savors this possibility and focuses on negative campaigning, not just to increase its vote share, but also to deter potential opposition voters. The open secret is that alienated voters, not the undecided, could be the deal-breakers in this election.