Turkey’s third-largest political party, the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (HDP), announced over the weekend that it will field its own candidate in the critical presidential elections due to be held by June 18 concurrently with parliamentary ones.
The decision, relayed by HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan, is poised to have a profound impact on the presidential race. Opinion is divided as to who stands to benefit: the main opposition bloc known as the “Nation Alliance," which does not include the HDP, or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and far-right nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli and their “People's Alliance.”
In order to win in a first round, a candidate needs to secure more than 50% of the vote. Opinion polls currently show no candidate scoring that high — that is before undecided voters are taken into account — with some putting Erdogan behind likely contenders from the Nation Alliance. They are, in descending order, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the pro-secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the CHP's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Those who believe Erdogan will benefit argue that had the Nation Alliance openly embraced the Kurds rather than take the HDP’s support for granted, the opposition would have had a better shot at winning in the first round, provided its candidate was minimally palatable to Kurdish voters. In any case, the system is completely rigged in his favor, with the judiciary and the mainstream media, among multiple other levers, under the government’s thumb.
An HDP official told Al-Monitor not for attribution in order to speak freely, “For the past year and a half we have been begging the opposition to sit down with us, to forge a common strategy. Instead they ignored us, scorned us and believed we would do their bidding and mobilize our base in their favor.” The official continued, “The truth is that this opposition is every bit as fascistic as Erdogan and has zero inclination to do anything for the Kurds. Quite the opposite. Thus we say, ‘Let the fascists battle it out among themselves and we will go our own way.' If they think we are bluffing and will help them win as we did in Istanbul, they are in for a big shock.”
The official was alluding to June 2019, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) forced a redo of the Istanbul municipal election, which it had lost in March along with other key cities, including the capital Ankara for the first time since Islamist candidates took them in 1994. Responding to the HDP’s call, hundreds of thousands of Kurds cast their ballots in favor of Imamoglu, giving him a landslide.
The Nation Alliance has been holding the Kurds at arm’s length ever since, amid fears that Erdogan will use any overt cooperation between them to bolster claims that they are in cahoots with “the terrorists.” The HDP is facing closure over thinly supported charges that it has organizational ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The HDP official dismissed the idea that the alliance was driven by caution, noting that key members including Meral Aksener, the leader of the conservative nationalist Iyi or “Good” Party, had made their feelings about the Kurds clear. “She said she did not want to have anything to do with us,” the official recalled.
The broadening consensus is that Kilicdaroglu will run. As an Alevi and an ethnic Kurd, Kilicdaroglu “has the potential to sway Kurdish voters more than any other,” said Erdal Dogan, a prominent human rights lawyer who is also Alevi and Kurdish. Aksener has been seeking to thwart Kilicdaroglu because she apparently believes that Imamoglu, a Sunni from the Black Sea region from whence Erdogan hails, has a far better chance of winning. The less generous interpretation is that her Turkish nationalist bent is in play.
The danger posed by Imamoglu is widely seen as one of the reasons for the legal case mounted against the Istanbul mayor resulting in his conviction of insulting members of the Supreme Electoral Board, who he called "fools" for ordering a redo. Should an appeals court uphold the verdict, Imamoglu will be banned from political life.
The HDP accounts for 10-12% of the national vote and is widely seen as kingmaker.
Some contend, and Kilicdaroglu is known to be among them, that the HDP’s decision to run its own candidate will work in the opposition’s favor by maximizing its share of the vote in the first round. The Kurdish base is far likelier to be motivated by one its own than any of the opposition’s contenders and having displayed its loyalty, then vote for the opposition in a second round.
That is when the real bargaining will likely begin, with the HDP pushing for positions in a future government and reforms aimed at granting the Kurds many long-denied rights such as education in their mother tongue in state-run schools. Erdogan’s AKP could try to strike a deal of its own. But its escalating military campaign against the PKK and persistent criminalization of the HDP makes an agreement difficult. Short of a dramatic gesture like placing imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan under house arrest, the AKP has fewer cards to play, though the weakness of its nationalist ally means it will be forced to go along with whatever Erdogan decides. Ocalan has reportedly shunned the government's recent attempts to get him to weigh in its favor.
The HDP’s announcement that it was going solo came as the AKP continued to drop hints that it would hold elections ahead of their scheduled date. “We do not wish for this matter to be left until June. We want to go to elections before June and after Ramadan, for the ballot box to be brought before the people and for the people’s will to prevail,” AKP deputy chair Erkan Kandemir told the pro-government news channel A Haber Monday.
April is when tweaks to the electoral law designed to help Erdogan win the elections formally kick in. They include provisions that force smaller parties to field candidates on a joint list in order to score enough votes to surpass the threshold to win seats in the parliament. For example, a candidate from the tiny pro-Islamic Felicity party, which is part of the Nation Alliance, would in certain constituencies have to run on the CHP list, which may alienate its base. Another change is the lowering of that threshold from 10% of the national vote to 7%. This change is meant to bolster Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is melting in the polls. A turf war involving the murder of a popular MHP official that has been linked to other MHP members hasn’t helped.
In any case, few doubt that Erdogan will continue to seek to maximize his own advantage with wage hikes, cheap credit and above all continued pressure on the opposition that could turn uglier by the day.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly described Erdogan and the MHP's "People's Alliance" as the "Republic Alliance."