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Analysis

Erdogan’s challenger faces delicate balancing act to win over Turkey's Kurds

The compromise that salvaged Turkey’s opposition bloc from collapsing this week lays the ground for enlisting Kurdish support as well, but not without fragilities and risks on the way.
Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during a rally, Istanbul, Turkey, May 21, 2022.

Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces the tough task of enlisting crucial Kurdish support for his bid to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan without antagonizing nationalist voters in the diverse opposition bloc that nominated him as a joint candidate in the upcoming elections.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose mainly Kurdish base is seen as a kingmaker in the May polls, has expressed readiness for dialogue with Kilicdaroglu in what is emerging as the opposition’s strongest challenge yet to Erdogan’s two-decade rule. Yet collaboration with the HDP, which risks being outlawed for alleged links to armed Kurdish militants, remains a hot-button issue for the six-party Nation Alliance, which includes nationalists hostile to the HDP.

The alliance came back from the brink of collapse on Monday after its second-largest member, the nationalist Good Party, backed down from objections to Kilicdaroglu’s nomination as a joint candidate. The Good Party, however, remains staunchly opposed to letting the HDP join the alliance or negotiating any HDP terms in return for its support. Nevertheless, the party’s leader Meral Aksener has left the door open to individual contacts between Kilicdaroglu and HDP leaders.

Amid his sagging popular support, Erdogan could count on two scenarios to win reelection. The first is the Good (Iyi) Party abandoning the opposition alliance — a prospect that appeared imminent last week when Aksener fired broadsides at her allies for insisting on Kilicdaroglu as a presidential candidate. But after a weekend of political drama, she stepped back in return for the nomination of her favorites — Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas — as vice presidents. 

The second scenario that could help Erdogan is to keep the Kurds and the opposition bloc apart. One way to achieve that would have been to draw the Kurds closer to the ruling party by proposing a new peace process on the Kurdish issue, even if a token one, but Erdogan’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is precluding such an option. Alternatively, many Kurds worry that escalatory tactics could be used to fan political tensions and polarization around the Kurdish issue to undermine any collaboration prospect between the HDP and the opposition bloc. 

Some wonder whether Erdogan could try to use Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as he did in the 2019 local polls, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayoral races in Ankara and Istanbul to Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP). In a desperate attempt to make use of Ocalan’s influence and deter Kurdish support for the opposition, the government at the time got Ocalan to pen a letter urging the HDP to stay neutral. The move, however, failed as HDP voters heeded an opposite appeal by former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is also behind bars, and helped the opposition win. 

“The government might try its luck again, but we don’t expect Ocalan to go along,” a source close to the PKK told Al-Monitor. “We don’t believe Erdogan could launch a new opening [to the Kurds].” 

The Kurds are cautious against any moves that could raise tensions, the source said, recalling that the PKK declared a cease-fire after the Feb. 6 earthquakes in southeastern Turkey. 

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s March 6 meeting with top army commanders brought to mind another scenario that could stir nationalist passions ahead of the elections — a fresh Turkish military operation against Kurdish-held areas in Syria. Yet the US and Russian red lights to Ankara remain unchanged. Moreover, a military operation might backfire with the public at a time when the devastation of the quakes requires a massive mobilization of resources.

Still, one could hardly rule out provocations at home. The racist attacks against Amedspor, a soccer club from the mainly Kurdish southeast, during a recent match in the northwestern city of Bursa show that Turkey’s ethnic fault lines remain under strain. Erdogan’s ally, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, went as far as to “salute” Bursa’s fans for their “nationalist stand,” while AKP and MHP lawmakers blocked a HDP proposal for a parliamentary probe into the attacks. 

Essentially, the compromise that salvaged the opposition alliance smoothed the way for the Kurdish vote as well. Kilicdaroglu has been the most agreeable candidate for the Kurds, while the Istanbul and Ankara mayors enjoy bigger popularity in other segments of the opposition. 

The HDP had said it could field its own candidate for the presidential race, but following Kilicdaroglu’s nomination, HDP co-Chair Mithat Sancar was quick to congratulate him and invite him to talks. Sancar signaled that the HDP would back Kilicdaroglu to help him win in the first round of the vote should the parties agree on a democratic agenda — a formulation that appears aimed at finding a minimal common ground that would not annoy the nationalists in the opposition bloc.

Aksener has said she will not object to a CHP-HDP dialogue, but rejects discussion on any HDP demands or a role the party in the joint government that the opposition alliance is promising to form if it wins the elections.

CHP parliamentary whip Ozgur Ozel said Wednesday that Kilicdaroglu would not ostracize anyone and was planning to visit the HDP. 

In an open letter from prison earlier that day, Demirtas, who remains hugely influential over Kurdish voters, called on Aksener to review her objections. “To resolve our problems, we embrace no other method than dialogue in a peaceful and civilized manner and on the ground of democratic politics,” he wrote. “Is there any other method you propose?” 

Other wings of the opposition bloc, including former associates of Erdogan, have voiced support for contacts with the HDP. 

At the end of the day, the Kurds could back Kilicdaroglu without insisting on any concrete assurances in return. They know that extracting a promise on resolving the Kurdish issue is beyond reach at present, but would like to at least see some acknowledgement of partnership from the alliance. Though the joint policy paper of the Nation Alliance fails to even mention the Kurdish problem, the Kurds hope that a victory for the opposition could lead to a degree of normalization, the release of political prisoners, the removal of government trustees from mayoral offices that were originally won by Kurdish politicians and, ultimately, a political atmosphere where the resumption of efforts to resolve the Kurdish question could be discussed. 

Fielding its own candidate instead of backing Kilicdaroglu could produce a high political cost for the Kurdish political movement. Having suffered extensively under Erdogan’s rule in recent years, it cannot afford to face accusations of indirectly helping Erdogan to win reelection. The optimistic forecast is that, despite her tough rhetoric, Aksener will tacitly shelve her reservations to dialogue with the HDP. Of course, she could turn those reservations into constraints limiting Kilicdaroglu’s wiggle room.

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