As Turkey’s presidential candidates get ready to go head to head, one man is counting on Kurdish votes

Kema _Kılıçdaroğlu Turkey Kurdish Erdoğan
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Turkey has been spiralling into a one-man dictatorship since president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly won a 2017 referendum granting him sweeping new powers. Anyone even slightly critical of the man – and his ruling AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) – risks spending time in jail. There are tens of thousands of political prisoners, including activists, musicians, academics, human rights defenders, writers and politicians. Thousands have been sentenced for “insulting the president“. If you are Kurdish and politically engaged, you’re the most likely to be targeted by the Turkish state.

Authorities consistently misuse terrorism-related charges against Turkey’s Kurdish population. Meanwhile, convictions for belonging to a terrorist organisation are common.

Erdoğan and his European allies, such as the UK, like to paint the picture of Turkey (or Türkiye, as Erdoğan insists the world refers to the country) as a functioning democracy. So, the country is gearing up for its presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May. However, strong alliances have formed to try to overthrow Erdoğan.

Chief rival butters up the Kurdish population

Erdoğan’s biggest rival is a six-party bloc known as the Nation Alliance. It includes the second biggest party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the CHP will be the Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate.

In a bid to win Kurdish votes, Kılıçdaroğlu has publicly defended Kurdish rights. He’s also accused the Turkish leader of inflaming ethnic tensions for political gain.

Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi, originally from the largely Kurdish region of Dersim (Tunceli). So Erdoğan has tried to energise his nationalist base by casting the CHP candidate as a foreign-backed promoter of Turkey’s domestic enemies. Kılıçdaroğlu has spoken out publicly about what he calls a defamation campaign against him.

On 20 March, when Kılıçdaroğlu met the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party’s (HDP) co-chairs, he made a lot of promises. He vowed to tackle the Kurdish question, to act in solidarity and unity with the Kurdish population, and to stand up for their culture and language. He said:

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We will make a new beginning. An ethical, democratic beginning. We will make a beginning that is inclusive of all. A society that is free of fighting.

After the conference, Turkish right-wing media backing Erdoğan reported that Kılıçdaroğlu was “openly conspiring with terrorists”.

The Kurdish vote in Turkey

Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to free Erdoğan’s political rivals from jail if elected, which has left the president fuming. And since the meeting with the HDP, Kılıçdaroğlu said in a video message posted on Twitter:

Millions of Kurds are currently being treated as terrorists…

Whenever we talk about elections, whenever the (presidential) palace sees that it will lose the elections, a collective stigma and treatment of the Kurds as terrorists begins. It is shameful.

The HDP itself has decided not to run a candidate in the election. It has picked up more than 10% of the vote in past national elections, meaning that its voters could make or break Kılıçdaroğlu’s success.

The HDP’s Tayip Temel said:

We have seen that we do not disagree with Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu on basic principles such as the democratic solution to the Kurdish question.

However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s and the CHP’s six-party alliance is made up of parties and individuals with right-wing ideologies, and individuals who have actively harmed the Kurdish population in Turkey. The Gelecek Partisi (Future Party), for example, is led by former AKP prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Davutoğlu ruled in 2016/17, when the Turkish state waged the most brutal war on its Kurdish population since the 1990s.

Green Left

The truly democratic HDP, meanwhile, is the largest party in another alliance. This is called the Labour and Freedom Alliance and is made up of left-wing political parties. Although the HDP won’t stand a candidate in the presidential race, the parties in the alliance will be working together in the upcoming parliamentary election.

The Canary recently reported that the HDP will run its candidates under the banner of the Yeşil Sol Parti (Green Left Party). That’s because the HDP is expecting to be criminalised by the Turkish state. Tom Anderson reported:

[The Green Left Party is] part of a movement that wants to overcome the nation-state itself. The party seeks to lay the groundwork to decentralise state power in Turkey. Further to this, they want to enable local communities to build structures of radical democracy.

It remains to be seen whether president Erdoğan will hold onto his presidential seat, or whether his fascistic People’s Alliance bloc will win parliamentary seats. But politicians and voters across Turkey will do their best to tactically ensure that there is, finally, a much-needed change in the country.

As with previous years, we can expect voter intimidation at polling stations throughout the Kurdish region. After all, Erdoğan won’t go down without a fight.

Featured image via Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – Wikimedia, resized to 770×403 under licence CC BY 3.0

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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