Turkey’s 14 May elections are a once-in-a-generation event. After two decades of rule, President Erdoğan faces his most serious challenge yet. Runaway inflation, mass poverty, at least 50,000 preventable deaths in the recent earthquake, a chaotic foreign policy, and the brutal repression of civil society, democratic opposition and the Kurdish people have all brought the country to a crucial juncture.
Turkey’s third-largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), leads a progressive opposition bloc which is likely to play a kingmaker role in unseating Erdoğan. Despite major repression and an imminent ban on the party – which will make it the eighth pro-Kurdish party in succession to have been outlawed by Turkey’s courts – the HDP also expects to secure scores of seats in the country’s parliament. But mass repression is having a serious effect, with the HDP forced to run its candidates through another, smaller party in its coalition – the Green Left Party.
HDP MP Hişyar Özsoy, who has also represented the party as a foreign affairs spokesperson and in Europe, spoke to Matt Broomfield of Medya News from the campaign trail in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city Amed (Diyarbakir). He analysed the HDP’s strategy and chances of success in the upcoming elections, and addressed the public mood in a country hungry for change.
What’s the mood on the campaign trail?
We’re very busy, opening new offices for our campaign in certain districts – strongholds like Lice and Dicle, as well as in urban Diyarbakir. There’s a lot of mobilization on the ground. People are excited, angry, frustrated, anxious. But at the same time people are brave and optimistic. You see fear, then you see courage, and then you see hope. Despite the horrible economy and political circumstances, people are very resilient, very willing to resist. This is amazing to see in such repressive political circumstances. It’s very exciting, and very inspiring. I’ve been an MP since 2015, and spent my whole life in Kurdish politics, and I still find it incredible to meet these people struggling on the ground.
Do people expect change in the 14 May elections?
People are aware of the fact that these elections will be a turning point. Either Erdoğan will remain in power and consolidate his authoritarian role, or we may be able to stop him. I think the excitement is due to the possibility that Erdoğan may lose power. This doesn’t mean all of our problems will be resolved, for even if the government changes a majority of problems will remain, but in a new political environment we can reposition and have a more powerful democratic voice. It’s a tough process, but people see how Erdoğan is growing weaker, and at the same time they’re aware that the Kurdish vote is expressed through the Green Left Party – it’s the swing vote, the kingmaker vote. In a way, the Kurds and Green Left Party will be the key to the political future.
What kind of changes do the ordinary voters you’ve been speaking with hope for?
Honestly, people want everything to change. They’re not happy with anything Erdoğan has been doing over the past seven or eight years. In Kurdistan, the Kurdish issue is very important. People want a resumption of the peace process [between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)], because anyone realistic knows that without engaging the PKK, there won’t be a political settlement.
People want a more democratic environment where Kurdish politicians are in parliament, not in prison. Dozens of Kurdish mayors are still in jail, and all the municipalities [where HDP mayors were elected] have been seized, and state-appointed trustees put in place of the elected mayors. In addition, there are cultural issues and language rights. The economy is a major concern. People have become poorer and poorer, particularly so in the Kurdish provinces, as these are the least internally developed – they exist in a situation of colonial exploitation. The financial crisis we have suffered since 2018 is particularly acute in Kurdish provinces. Foreign policy is also a major issue, for certain sectors of the population – in Kurdish provinces, people are [opposed to] cross-border attacks into Iraq and the relationship with Rojava and Syria. Peace, justice, freedom, plus the economy. These are the key issues.
If opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroglu is elected to the presidency, what will and won’t change?
Kiliçdaroglu is the candidate for a strange coalition, what they call the ‘table of six’. At least half of these party are highly nationalistic, at least as nationalistic as [President Erdoğan’s governing] Justice and Development party (AKP), and sometimes more so. These are conservative, Islamic parties, and a politics of consensus is by definition limiting.
In that sense, nobody is expecting that the Kurdish issue is going to go away as a result of this election. But there may be a possibility to bring an end to Erdoğan’s rule. And then the political landscape can be restructured so we can reposition our forces and continue our political stuggle – with some degree of separation of powers, a somewhat free judiciary and media, and some academic freedom. [Kiliçdaroğlu’s] main promise is to change the presidential system, and establish a functioning parliamentary sytem. This is not going to resolve our problems, but clear a political space in which we can wage a democratic struggle for our rights.
We have our own alliance, and we want to enter parliament. We aim to get 100 of the 600 seats in parliament, and so be the key to the parliamentary majority as well. We want to have as many seats as possible, and to put an end to Erdoğan, which is a separate process to the parliamentary elections.
What about the more general mood in Turkey? Are non-Kurdish voters also turning on Erdoğan?
I don’t think anyone who didn’t vote for him five years ago will vote for him this time. Since 2018, by any metric there has been decline and destruction. The economic crisis was a big issue, then the coronavirus pandemic, then the earthquake, and everybody saw how inefficient the government apparatus was. We can’t say what will happen before the day of the elections, but people are fed up, frustrated, angry. There’s enough anger to put an end to Erdoğan’s presidential rule. People are seeing the fact that his promises in 2018 were ‘give me power and I will stabilize the country and make it richer and safer’, but none of these promises were kept. He got the power he wanted, and he has destabilized the country economically, socially and politically. More and more, I think people see that if we can’t stop Erdoğan now, another five years will be totally devastating. But in Turkey, you never know how the vote is going to turn out.