Turkey, about to elect a new parliament and a new president on 14 May, is at a turning point, more than at any point in the past two decades, during which the autocratic incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated his increasingly authoritarian government.
President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is campaigning with the help of all the state institutions it controls. What remains to be seen is whether the Kurds and the opposition are able to make their voices heard, despite his efforts to cling to power and thwart a democratic transition.
Not only those who are busy with problems of finding shelter and securing a future after the devastating 6 February earthquake, but almost across Turkey, people are more concerned about their livelihoods than about the elections. Yet people also know that the vote is crucial for their future.
Erdoğan’s policies have nothing to offer Turkey. The hope he was able to rouse when he came to power in 2002, has now been completely exhausted. Most of Turkey’s natural resources have been plundered over the past twenty-one years. All but the last remnants of its already weak democracy have been dismantled. The few rights that women enjoy have been severely curtailed. Nature has been monetized by the profiteers, while most people are on the brink of financial catastrophe.
Accordingly, millions are acutely afraid for their future. In addition to high unemployment, the skyrocketing costs of food and rent are robbing people of the fundamentals of life. People are profoundly discontented, just as they were prior to the seismic political shift two decades ago that swept Erdoğan’s AKP to power. The question, now, is whether it is possible to remove him from office.
War on Kurds: root of all evil
The truth is that Turkey’s foreign wars and its associated domestic authoritarianism do not come cheap. The underlying reason for the country’s severe problems can be traced back to Erdoğan’s — and thus the Turkish state’s — authoritarian policies against Kurds, who are targeted as an enemy within. Their demands for political and cultural rights are reduced to an issue of “security”, through antidemocratic measures combined with an arbitrary terror law that violates human rights and breaches international law. Moreover, all the country’s resources have been put at the service of the war against the Kurds, both in Turkey itself and in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
At the international level, however, these violations have so far hardly attracted any serious political, diplomatic, or legal opposition. On the contrary, Erdoğan continues blackmailing other international actors to avoid criticism of his war against the Kurds, such as in the refugee agreement, with which he exerted pressure on the European Union, or Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership talks, where he wielded Turkey’s veto to secure concessions permitting his own assaults.
Erdoğan’s defeat could normalise Turkey’s international relations and open the door to the rebuilding of its democracy. But until election day, it is difficult to predict what he will do. One of his defining characteristics is his unpredictability. Past experiences where he resisted being removed, and his success in eliminating his country’s other important political players make it hard for many to believe that he can be ousted through elections.
When Erdoğan feels the heat
In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the pro-Kurdish, left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party increased its share of the vote to 13.1 percent, exceeding the 10 percent (also called the “anti-Kurdish hurdle”) to enter the parliament. This prevented Erdoğan’s AKP from gaining a majority to change the constitution in his favour.
Erdoğan then declared the election results null and void, and simply called new elections for November 2015 and he undertook a systematic campaign of revenge against the HDP and the Kurds. Kurdish towns in southeastern Turkey, where the HDP landslided, were besieged and bombed by the military and security forces, killing hundreds.
The peace process expected to solve the Kurdish issue, the space created for the HDP to mediate between the Turkish state and the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan in their dialogue, it all ended in five months before the re-elections imposed by Erdoğan.
The systematic repression has since led to the imprisonment of more than fifteen thousand HDP members. Dozens of HDP mayors who had won in two successive local elections have been summarily removed from office, jailed, and replaced by Erdoğan-appointed trustees.
Scrambling through legal labyrinths: Kurdish politics
But that is not all. Since March 2021, proceedings to ban the HDP have been underway before the Constitutional Court, in accordance with Erdoğan’s long-repeated desire. This politically motivated procedure and the government’s pressure on the Court have raised the possibility of the party being shut down just before the elections, forcing the HDP to manoeuvre through the political and related legal labyrinth of Erdoğan’s autocracy: The party decided to participate in the elections via the Green Left Party (YSP), a smaller party within its alliance, which should escape the ban on the HDP itself.
Being the third largest party in the country, HDP is also the leading political force in the Alliance for Labour and Freedom, who has decided not to field its presidential candidate but to support Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the strongest opponent of Erdoğan in the presidential race. Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Kemalist and social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) is confident that he can bring an end to Erdoğan rule. The joint candidate of the six-party Nation Alliance comes from a Kurdish-Alevi family and he promises a return to a strengthened parliamentarism, together with his nationalist, conservative and liberal peers within the bloc.
The promise of support from the HDP’s left-wing alliance considerably increases Kılıçdaroğlu’s chances of prevailing against Erdoğan. In other words; the HDP and the Kurds is likely to play a kingmaker role in determining which candidate from the two largest blocs — both of which are essentially nationalist in character —wins the popular vote for the presidency.
The Erdoğan-led People’s Alliance is supported by two ultra-nationalist parties, as well as an Islamist paramilitary group known as the “Kurdish Hizbullah” which acts in the service of the Turkish state.
According to the forecasts, the People’s Alliance and Nation Alliance will each get around 40 percent of the vote. The 13 to 14 percent that the YSP/HDP’s Alliance for Labour and Freedom are expected to command could thus help Kılıçdaroğlu to be elected as Turkey’s new president.
Even so, the third bloc does not want to elect a new “emperor” who will continue Erdoğan’s path of determining the country’s future by himself, but a president who will lead Turkey toward democratization. This makes it all the more important that neither of the two large alliances achieve an absolute majority in parliament. If the Labour and Freedom MPs are up to 80, as projected, future legislation will need their support.
Kurds’ fair share of work, the rest’s dilemma for obvious
The central expectations of the HDP and its allies are an end to the state policy of war and violence against the Kurds, the fresh implementation of basic democratic rights stolen from citizens of Turkey, the release of all political prisoners, and ultimately the establishment of a path to a common democratic future.
With no vision left for the future, Erdoğan’s only chance of political survival is to deploy the state apparatus he has brought under control against a possible democratic turn. It thus remains sadly difficult to predict what he will do until May 14.
HDP and the Kurdish people, threatened with outright suppression, will nevertheless play its role, using all resources at their disposal to move the country toward democracy in the face of heavy repression. What happens next depends on the will of the rest of the Turkish voters — whether it wants to continue living under authoritarianism, or give democracy a chance.
Devriş Çimen is European representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).