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Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party won’t field challenger to Erdogan, boosting opposition’s chances

The pro-Kurdish HDP announced that it will not field a candidate in the May 14 presidential elections and will run under the banner of the Green Left Party to circumvent a potential closure and political ban that it faces.
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman and presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C).

ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the most united front against him in his two-decade rule after the country’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced Wednesday that it would not field a candidate in the May 14 presidential election.

Flanked by the leaders of HDP-allied leftist parties, HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan explained their decision, citing a “historical responsibility” in the fateful polls. 

“We are facing a historic turning point that will shape the future of the country and society. … We declare here that we will not nominate a candidate to run in the presidential elections,” said Buldan. 

She made no mention of Turkey's main opposition candidate Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu's name, but she signaled that their decision is aimed at supporting him.

“We will fulfill our historical responsibility toward the one-man rule in the presidential elections,” she said. 

Turkey's second-largest opposition party's decision comes as a major boost to Kilicdaroglu’s electoral chances against Erdogan as several opinion polls suggest a tight race. The main opposition party formally filed on Wednesday Kilicdaroglu’s application for candidacy in the elections.

Kurdish voters, including HDP’s 6 million or so supporters, stand out as the top kingmakers of the upcoming elections. The government has largely alienated the majority of HDP supporters by jailing dozens of HDP leaders, politicians and officials over their alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants fighting the state for self-rule since 1984.

The party itself also faces the threat of closure pending the Constitutional Court’s decision. Aiming to circumvent a potential closure and political ban, the party announced Wednesday that it would run under the banner of the Green Left Party.

Several elected mayors in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast were replaced by government-appointed trustees. The party’s former co-chair and leading Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas, has been behind bars since November 2016 in defiance of rulings by Turkey’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, which found that his rights had been violated.

The government’s draconian crackdown on the Kurdish political movement left little sway for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to woo HDP supporters, but had it fielded a candidate, its some 6 million electorate could have opted for their party’s contender at least in the first round of the vote. 

“It’s a very critical move,” Berk Esen, associate professor of political science at Istanbul's Sabanci University, told Al-Monitor. “Following this statement, a bloc vote of at least eight or nine points will go to Kilicdaroglu.”

Esen said the opposition won the local mayoral elections in 2019 through the tacit support of HDP supporters, and now that formula would be tried all across Turkey. 

Aiming to counterbalance the HDP’s political influence, the AKP-led ruling bloc recently forged an alliance with Huda-Par, an ultra-Islamist Kurdish party that has roots in the country's outlawed Hezbollah militant group. 

According to Esen, the ruling alliance can also embark on new ventures to woo conservative Kurdish voters who might shy away from supporting a leftist alliance that the HDP runs with.

The HDP’s move marks the latest in a string of political blows that the AKP’s ruling alliance has suffered over the past week. First, the bloc’s efforts to include the tiny Islamist New Welfare Party failed when New Welfare Party leader Fatih Erbakan announced his candidacy to run in the presidential elections instead of supporting Erdogan. Then, Erdogan’s attempts to bring the country’s former deputy premier, Mehmet Simsek, back into the fold were unsuccessful. As a British-trained economist and former deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, Simsek’s resignation in 2018 over Erdogan’s unconventional view that high interest rates cause high inflation caused significant reputational loss for the government.

Particularly Erbakan’s move has shown that Erdogan has been unable to consolidate the Islamist voters, Esen noted. 

"When Kilicdaroglu's candidacy was first announced, I thought each side had a 50-50 chance. At this point, I picture some 65 to 35 in favor of the opposition,” he added.

Yet the HDP’s tacit support of Kilicdaroglu is a tricky business for the opposition bloc, which also includes the nationalist Iyi Party along with four other small parties. 

Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener has been walking on a tightrope in a bid to distance the party from the pro-Kurdish HDP in a bid to keep its nationalist voters who are unhappy with the AKP-allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). 

In an apparent protest of the HDP’s move, Yavuz Agiralioglu, Iyi Party’s Istanbul lawmaker, announced Wednesday that he would not run in the parliamentary elections. In a strongly worded statement, Agiralioglu lashed out at the CHP for meeting with HDP officials.

Expansion of such cracks might bring the opposition bloc, also known as the Table of Six, to the verge of collapse once again as the alliance still reels from the previous escalation between Aksener and the other five leaders in the bloc over the candidacy of Kilicdaroglu earlier this month. Agiralioglu and another Iyi Party heavyweight, Koray Aydin, have reportedly stopped short of adding their signatures to Kilicdaroglu’s nomination file. 

“I hear HDP officials calling the Turkish state a 'murderer.' They are quite daring. … Yet you could not show this audacity to the PKK even once,” Agiralioglu said, using the initials of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Erdogan, his ruling alliance and nationalists accuse the HDP of having links to the PKK.

Yet Esen sees the prospect of another major crisis within the opposition alliance as unlikely, saying Agiralioglu’s comments reflect a personal reaction rather than an institutional one.

Some Iyi Party members “probably share” some of his comments but are willing to brush aside their reservations given the party’s decision to rally behind Kilicdaroglu, said Esen.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government continues to keep a tight grip on opposition politicians and dissidents in the run-up to the elections. The country’s media watchdog, RTUK, on Wednesday poured fresh penalties on pro-opposition and independent news channels over their coverage critical of the government’s policies.

Esen believes the government could expand the crackdown and resort to more heavyhanded moves should the polls give a larger lead to the opposition next month.

“Meanwhile, the steps [the government] can take are becoming increasingly limited,” Esen said. “The possibility of such a move backfiring also rises."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly described the "Green Left Party" as the "Democratic Left Party."

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