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Turkey’s opposing camps seek to broaden base ahead of May elections

The rapprochement between Erdogan’s People’s Alliance and the Kurdish Islamist Huda-Par, seen as the successor of Hezbollah, annoys nationalists, while the move toward arch-conservative New Welfare alarms women. 
Chairman of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C).

IZMIR, Turkey — As the date for Turkey’s crucial dual elections was officially set for May 14, the two main alliances started the week with efforts to broaden their electoral base as they trampled over political fault lines.  

The moves for broadening the electoral base come as several polls compiled by Reuters show that the opposition's presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has up to a 10% advantage against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Kilicdaroglu, picked as the opposition candidate amid unexpected drama last week, said on Monday that preparations were underway with his meeting with the co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The meeting with the third largest party in parliament — and a likely kingmaker in the two-horse presidential race — is expected to occur this week. But unlike Kilicdaroglu’s overtures to left-wing parties earlier, it may create fractures with his reluctant ally, Meral Aksener of the Iyi Party. Aksener said that while she had no objections to a meeting between the HDP and Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), the HDP had no place in the opposition’s alliance known as the Table of Six. Kilicdaroglu retorted that he would visit the HDP as the opposition’s presidential candidate, not as CHP chair. 

On the other hand, Erdogan turned to two Islamist parties, the Free Cause Party (Huda Par) and the New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah). Last week, Erdogan met with Kurdish Islamist Huda Par’s chairman Zekariya Yapicioglu for the second time this year. After the meeting, Yapicioglu announced his party would not select a presidential candidate but would support Erdogan’s candidacy. On the same day, two senior members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) visited the headquarters of New Welfare, meeting with its chair, Fatih Erbakan — the son of former premier Necmettin Erbakan, the president’s mentor. 

“We thank Huda Par for extending their support for Erdogan’s presidency,” AKP spokesman Omer Celik said after AKP deputy chair Ali Ihsan Yavuz visited Huda Par headquarters on Monday once more to talk further on the alliance. “Talks with both parties are underway, continuing in a positive atmosphere.” 

Huda Par’s support of the Kurdish cause may be problematic for Erdogan’s People’s Alliance’s existing right-wing allies, namely Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the minuscule Great Unity. Huda Par was established in 2012 by the members of Mustazaf-Der (Solidarity with the Oppressed Association), who were affiliated with Kurdish Hezbollah, an extremist Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant group active in the 1990s. Hezbollah abducted more than 100 rival Islamists and Kurdish activists, tortured and buried them in what was dubbed “grave houses.” Yapicioglu said in a TV program last year that he did not consider Hezbollah a “terrorist group.” Moreover, the party’s charter calls for Kurdish to be recognized as the second official language —  a request that is anathema to Turkish nationalists.  

Bahceli, who toured the quake zone with Erdogan over the weekend, kept quiet on Huda Par. But nationalist parties outside the alliance attacked it immediately, with provocative statements to Bahceli. “There is no difference between alliance with the Huda Par and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States),” Dogu Perincek, the fiercely secular and anti-West leader of the Vatan Party, said Sunday. “Cooperation with them is unacceptable. I do not see how Bahceli stands for it.” 

CHP spokesperson Faik Oztrak accused the AKP Monday of “being so desperate” to join forces with the political extensions of the terrorist organization that murdered police chief Gaffan Okan, Islamist feminist writer Konca Kuris, human rights activist Izzettin Yıldırım and journalist Halit Gungen. 

“This is a risky move on the part of Erdogan, though it should be remembered that Huda Par supported Erdogan’s presidency in the 2018 elections as well,” Berk Esen, associate professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, told Al-Monitor. “Besides causing a rift in the existing alliance, it may lose votes to Erdogan overall, including Kurdish votes in the southeast.” 

In the 2014 municipal elections, Huda Par won 4% in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast;  5% in Bitlis; and 7.8% in Batman. However, it scored less than 1% in the last elections.  

The debate on Erdogan’s feelers with New Welfare, on the other hand, irked women both within the AKP and beyond. New Welfare, which has lobbied fervently for Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European accord that tasks its signatories with measures to prevent violence against women, also wants to abolish Article 6284, a penal code article that offers state protection to women facing abuse at home.  

Shortly after the news of the meeting between the AKP and New Welfare, Melih Guner — head of the party’s radical youth wing — tweeted that the party’s conditions for any alliance with the AKP included the closure of LGBTI clubs, ending “indefinite alimony” to women after divorce and the abolishment of Article 6284. He later deleted the tweet and suspended his account after Family and Social Affairs Minister Derya Yanik replied that removing the article was not “open to discussion.” 

The New Welfare Party issued a hasty denial on “conditions.” But Ismail Saymaz, a journalist with a knack for obtaining official documents, posted a text allegedly showing the 30 conditions given by New Welfare to the AKP. It included not only the points mentioned by Guner but also the penalization of adultery.

“Normally, the small parties had little power in alliances, but because it is a close race, they have amplified their negotiating power,” Esen told Al-Monitor. A new electoral law lowers Turkey’s electoral threshold from 10% — the highest in the EU — to 7%, which is still very high according to the Council of Europe. 

“We are likely to face a lively time, with small parties taking part in the electoral alliances and hoping to get at least 3%, which makes them eligible for Treasury subsidies,” he said. 

Mahmut Ovur, a columnist from the pro-governmental daily Sabah, said that Erdogan’s People’s Alliance might reach out to center-right Motherland and center-left Democratic Left — two parties that were in power in the 1980s and 1990s but are insignificant today. 

Kilicdaroglu will likely watch the political path of Muharrem Ince, a CHP breakaway who lost in the first round to Erdogan in the 2018 presidential polls. The politician, who has since established his own party called Memleket, seems eager to come back, as he announced his candidacy for president once more. Pollsters maintain that he is popular with the disgruntled young people of Turkey, pointing out that a TikTok challenge of the “Ince Dance” based on the moves he had made on an election bus back in 2018 went viral.  

According to Turkey’s Electoral Board, there are 36 political parties eligible to participate in the May 14 elections. Only one-third are expected to participate, and fewer still will name their own presidential candidate. 

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