Turkey Pulse

Campaigns woo Kurdish voters as Turkish election nears

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Article Summary
In an interview with Al-Monitor, veteran Kurdish politician Zubeyir Aydar spoke about the fight for the Kurdish vote ahead of Turkey's snap elections.

As the June 24 snap polls in Turkey draw nearer, the top contenders are jockeying to draw Kurdish voters, whose backing could be game-changing. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is the largest pro-Kurdish bloc and commands at least 11% of the vote. Its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is running from behind bars, and other opposition leaders have called for his release. His halo effect — albeit from jail — is expected to carry the HDP into the parliament once again, likely robbing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its majority. Though recent polls show him slipping, the prevailing wisdom is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will win the presidential contest that will be held concurrently with the parliamentary vote. But should he fail to win in a first round of balloting, would Erdogan reach out to the Kurds for their support?

Al-Monitor turned to veteran Kurdish politician Zubeyir Aydar for his views. Aydar, a former lawmaker in the Turkish parliament, lives in exile in Brussels. He serves on the executive board of the Kurdish National Congress. The group has close links to imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. Aydar was among a group of Kurdish officials who met secretly with members of Turkey’s national intelligence agency MIT, including its current boss Hakan Fidan, during the peace talks held in Oslo (2009-2011). Aydar and fellow Kurdish negotiators are now on Turkey’s most wanted list. Here are some of the highlights of the interview at the congress' Brussels’ headquarters:

Al-Monitor:  Elections are approaching. How do things look from the Kurdish perspective?

Aydar:  There are two large electoral alliances. On the one hand, there is the AKP and its allies from the far-right Nationalist Action Party [MHP] and the opposition bloc formed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party [CHP], the [right-wing conservative] Iyi [Good] Party, the [pro-Islamic] Saadet [Felicity] Party and the Democrat Party. At first, the expectation was that the CHP would include all the opposition in its alliance, but the HDP was left out. Apparently, Turkey’s opposition parties also embrace Erdogan’s concerted efforts since 2015 to marginalize the HDP. The decision to exclude the HDP illustrates the nationalist reflexes within the CHP and Iyi. It's a rebuttal of the Kurds, and the Kurds are fully aware of this.

The CHP’s approach was on display when it backed the government’s moves to strip HDP lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity. Claiming that this is what their voter base wants is not a credible justification for such actions. In any case, the HDP has its own informal bloc of democrats and left-wingers who don’t necessarily belong to one party or the other. Everyone has fielded their own presidential candidate, so our hope is that this will deny Erdogan a first-round win and force a second round of balloting.

Al-Monitor:  You say the CHP is anti-Kurdish, but CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was widely rumored to be pushing [AKP-linked former President] Abdullah Gul to run as a joint candidate for the opposition because so many Kurds would have voted for him in a second round. Why would Kilicdaroglu do that if he were, as you say, anti-Kurdish?

Aydar:  When he gives interviews, Kilicdaroglu says the opposition needs to join hands with everyone, but in practice he acts differently, more like a civil servant who takes his cue from above. And in the case of Abdullah Gul, I don’t believe he was interested in him because of his potential to draw Kurdish votes — which he could have, of course. It was because Gul could draw away votes from Erdogan and the AKP — that was his real value for Kilicdaroglu. It's true of course that the CHP is not ideologically homogenous. And there are those within the party who believe in cooperating with the HDP.

Al-Monitor:  Well, one of the CHP lawmakers who defied the party’s orders and voted against lifting parliamentary immunity for the HDP members is now the CHP’s candidate. He has spoken about solving the Kurdish problem in the parliament. He visited Demirtas in jail. Doesn’t the candidacy of Muharrem Ince send a positive signal to the Kurds? Would they support him in a second round?

Aydar:  I am aware of his statements and they are noteworthy, but he needs to flesh them out. Solving the Kurdish problem in the parliament sounds good, but it's not enough. During the [peace] process, the Kurdish side led by Abdullah Ocalan was insisting on doing the very same thing, debating the matter in the parliament. But the government wasn’t interested. All it did was pass a vaguely worded and inadequate bill. Mr. Ince needs to clearly explain his definition of the Kurdish problem and how he intends to solve it. As for whom the Kurds would support in a second round, words alone won’t convince them. They will sit down and bargain for a democratic solution to their problems. Support will be determined on the outcome of any such talks.

Al-Monitor:  Would the PKK call a unilateral cease-fire as a goodwill gesture ahead of the elections?

Aydar:  I don’t think this would be realistic. Clashes are ongoing in [the Syrian Kurdish enclave of] Afrin. And Turkish forces continue to attack a region populated by Kurds who have never posed any kind of threat to Turkey’s security, and [Turkey] is in the process of ethnically cleansing Kurds from Afrin. It is also carrying out military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Calling a cease-fire in such circumstances and at a time when the Kurds are being excluded by all the main political parties in Turkey would project weakness. It would also allow Erdogan to claim that he has ‘brought the Kurds to their knees.’ He would definitely spin a unilateral cease-fire in those terms. In the current circumstances, nobody would see a cease-fire as a step toward peace. Besides, [the PKK] has made multiple such overtures, especially since 1993 onwards. It has nothing left to prove in this regard. And the Turkish public is aware of this, as are past governments and the state. But if the government were to approach the PKK during the election period to talk about a mutually observed cease-fire, my guess is that its offer would be weighed.

Al-Monitor:  What do the Kurds want?

Aydar:  Well, let's talk about immediate and actionable steps: the lifting of emergency rule, the easing of restrictions on the media and free speech and assembly. Freeing political prisoners. Carrying the Kurdish problem to the parliament for debate is an important first step. I recognize that it's hard to come up with a detailed blueprint in this election environment, but a candidate who clearly states that they favor a political solution to the problem, not a military one, may well be worthy of Kurdish backing.

Al-Monitor:  You referred to practical experience. The AKP did what none of its predecessors did. It engaged in direct talks with Ocalan and the PKK. You were present at some of these talks. Is it fair to say that for the Kurds, the AKP may come across as a lesser evil?

Aydar:  No, it is not. But if there is a second round of balloting, the contenders will need the Kurds, the HDP. They will most probably seek to form alliances with the Kurds. If I were in the place of the HDP, I would not lend unconditional support to anyone, but I would also not remain indifferent.

Al-Monitor:  Does this include Erdogan and the AKP?

Aydar:  No. I don’t believe the AKP would be interested in allying itself with the Kurds, either. It's true that Erdogan reached out to the Kurds in the past. But from 2013 onwards, after he fell out with Fethullah Gulen [the Pennsylvania-based Sunni cleric who is accused of masterminding the botched 2016 coup], Erdogan ganged up with the MHP and the [anti-Western] Eurasianists against him. It doesn’t seem plausible he would ditch them in favor of an alliance with the HDP. In any case, Erdogan’s election manifesto spells out his position. Under the guise of the “fight against terrorism,” he is pledging further attacks and cross-border operations against the Kurds.

Al-Monitor:  Well, what if Erdogan were to come knocking on the HDP’s door promising all you demand?

Aydar:  Promises are not enough. The parties need to sit down and reach an agreement at the table that satisfies both. As I said, it's important to be open to negotiations, but with the AKP so deeply involved with the MHP and the Eurasianists, and having demonized the HDP for so long, it seems unlikely they could make that kind of a U-turn and with so little time left before the elections. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising if Erdogan and the AKP were to make positive statements about the Kurds to win them over, but they will not sit down with members of the [Ocalan-led] Kurdish political movement. Our message is intended for the opposition. In short, if I were the HDP, I would be open to dialogue with them but making clear what my minimum demands are.

Al-Monitor:  For argument's sake, let me repeat the same question for Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener. If she were to accept the HDP’s terms, would the Kurds vote for her?

Aydar:  I don’t think she would be open to bargaining with the Kurds. She embraced the MHP’s nationalist policies for years and was interior minister in the 1990s [at the height of human rights abuses in the mainly Kurdish southeast region]. Plus she announced she would not take part in any electoral alliance with the Kurds. In any event, she will not be the first runner-up; the CHP’s candidate [Ince] will be. And if there are truly free and fair elections in Turkey, I know that Erdogan will not win. But it's impossible to assess how much state pressure and electoral fraud will come into play.

There was clearly tampering at the ballot box in the [April 2017] referendum [on replacing the current parliamentary system with an executive presidency]. It could well be repeated in these elections. Election monitoring will be of critical importance. Recent amendments to the electoral law such as counting unstamped ballots as valid and allowing ballot boxes to be moved around have deepened our concerns as to the government’s intentions. They appear to be laying the ground for electoral fraud. Erdogan’s plan is apparently to tamper with ballots in order to push the HDP below the 10% threshold [of the national votes needed to win seats in the parliament.]

Al-Monitor:  Can the HDP get over the threshold?

Aydar:  I don’t think it will have any problem doing that. There is a very strong negative reaction among the Kurds to the government’s recent policies, including among those within the AKP. From 2015 onwards, the government destroyed so many cities, killed civilians, then turned on the HDP. Countless HDP leaders, lawmakers, mayors, officials have been jailed. This creates anger and disappointment among the Kurds. Meanwhile, Erdogan, who until recently feted [Iraqi Kurdish leader] Massoud Barzani as his closest ally at public rallies, weddings, then stabbed him in the back when the Iraqi Kurds held their referendum on Kurdish independence last year [to which Turkey was fiercely opposed]. There followed the Turkish military assault on Afrin and Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish pact with the MHP. The Kurds are not fools; they are aware of everything. Because of all these different factors, the HDP’s share of the vote will rise further in these elections. And let’s not forget that Alevi and left-wing members of the CHP are unhappy with the alliance formed with Aksener. They will likely vote for the HDP.

But that said, ballot-box security and monitoring are key, and I think all of the opposition parties must join hands, regardless of the fact that they excluded the HDP from their slates, and work together across the country and do their utmost to prevent any fraud.

Al-Monitor:  Speaking of winning over the Kurds, there is speculation that President Erdogan may invite Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, to Turkey to help bolster his election campaign.

Aydar:  I have no knowledge of Barzani’s thinking, but if I were in his shoes, I would not take part in any such plans. He would reduce his standing among the Kurds to zero. It would be a form of political suicide.

Al-Monitor:  After all these years, do you still believe that lasting peace between Turkey and the Kurds is possible?

Aydar:  It's possible. Peace is possible even in the most adverse circumstances. When you are in a position of strength, your adversary comes to you and negotiates. This was proven by past experience. Erdogan’s representatives sat down with us. They sat down with us for many years. He didn’t have a clear-cut project, that’s another matter. But as you know, peace is made between enemies, not friends.

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Amberin Zaman is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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