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Kingmaker party gives tacit backing to Erdogan rival in polls

Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has courted Kurdish voters in the May 14 election
— Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party said Wednesday it would not field a presidential candidate in May elections, giving tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's secular rival in the crucial vote.

The decision by the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdogan vote, boosting the chances of the opposition's joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the past three national elections, the HDP was widely seen as a kingmaker in the tight race.

"We will not field a candidate in the presidential elections," Pervin Buldan, the party co-chairwoman, told reporters.

"We will fulfil our historic responsibility to end one-man rule in the upcoming elections," she said, condemning Erdogan's consolidation of power over his two decades as prime minister and president.

The HDP's decision strips Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a key voting bloc in what is widely seen as Turkey's most important election of its post-Ottoman history.

Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted AKP party enjoyed some support from Kurdish voters earlier in his rule.

His government once worked with HDP politicians in an effort to put an end to a decades-long fight by Kurdish insurgents for an independent state that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

But Erdogan now accuses the HDP of being the political wing of the PKK militants, trying to dissolve it through the courts ahead of the May 14 parliamentary and presidential vote.

The leftist party denies the charges and says it is being singled out for its fierce criticism of the government's social and economic policies.

- Erdogan's toughest test -

Erdogan prides himself on having never lost an election and enjoying a people's mandate for some of his controversial policies.

But the upcoming vote is shaping into his most difficult election test yet.

The opposition alliance includes some of Erdogan's former allies as well as right-wing and Islamic parties that could eat away at his more traditional base of support.

Some analysts believe that the HDP's decision not to outright endorse Kilicdaroglu also threatens to hurt Erdogan.

The Turkish leader has attempted to portray his election rival as a supporter of the Kurdish militants.

The HDP also stayed out of 2019 municipal elections that saw opposition leaders sweep to power in Istanbul and Ankara for the first time since the 1990s.

On Wednesday, HDP co-chair Buldan never directly mentioned Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant who has led the traditionally secular CHP party since 2010.

But she left few doubts about whom Kurdish voters should support, accusing Erdogan's government of "leaving the people of Turkey without air" with its repressive policies.

"In order to implement democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, we are determined to bring this government... to account for the great destruction it has caused," she said.

- Jailed party members -

The HDP has already seen dozens of its current and former members and local officials jailed in a crackdown that followed a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

They include the party's former co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, a talented campaigner and public speaker who launched his second presidential challenge against Erdogan in 2016 from behind bars.

Demirtas told AFP in written comments in January that he wanted the HDP to back the joint opposition candidate for president instead of fielding its own.

The HDP was excluded from a six-party opposition alliance that has rallied around Kilicdaroglu's candidacy.

The anti-Erdogan alliance includes staunchly nationalist politicians that refuse to work with the HDP.

Meeting with HDP leaders on Monday, Kilicdaroglu promised to remove restrictions on the Kurdish language and address other Kurdish concerns.

"We are living in the 21st century. Dissolving a party is not right," Kilicdaroglu said Monday.