Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s upbeat election campaign has been promising, in the words of a popular song from the 1990s, that “Spring will come again”. On the eve of the Turkish elections, the real possibility that they could herald the end of President Erdoğan’s winter is being discussed everywhere. The campaign is not over yet, but, although the election has been fought on a far from level playing field, and opposition parties have faced constant harassment, fears of a repeat of the murderous violence of 2015 have not materialised. Fears are now focussed instead on the vote itself, and the possibility that results could be challenged if Erdoğan refuses to accept defeat.
Muharram İnce withdraws his candidacy
The chances of a Kılıçdaroğlu victory were increased on Thursday by the withdrawal of Muharram İnce from the presidential race. Although İnce’s support had dropped to as little as two percentage points, his withdrawal could be enough to enable Kılıçdaroğlu to win in the first round, and not to have to wait for a dangerous two weeks before the run-off. Before İnce founded the Homeland Party in 2021, he was a leading figure in Kılıçdaroğlu’s own Republican People’s Party (CHP), even standing as their presidential candidate in 2018, and a majority of his votes are expected to go to Kılıçdaroğlu. İnce was never going to win the presidency, but earlier polling had shown him appealing to young first-time voters and receiving up to 10% of the total vote.
İnce’s candidature had given rise to a lot of criticism from people who felt that he was risking the future of Turkey for the sake of his own ego, and right from the start there had been hopes that he could be persuaded not to stand. On announcing his withdrawal, he stated, “They claimed I am doing the job of Erdoğan, that I took money from the palace, but I am now withdrawing my candidacy, and I am doing this for my country so that those who slander me have no excuse in case of a defeat in the election against Erdoğan.” There was also a sex tape that was claimed to be of İnce and which he has dismissed as Israeli porn with his head added; however, his decision to leave and preserve his reputation did not need this added incentive.
Harassment and violence
This week began, last Sunday, with an attack on a rally that was to be addressed by Ekrem İmamoğlu, who is CHP Mayor of Istanbul and a joint vice-presidential candidate for the opposition Nation Alliance. The rally took place in Erzurum, whose mayor is from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Municipal buses were parked all over the planned meeting point, and the crowd of supporters and the bus in which İmamoğlu was travelling were then pelted with stones by hundreds of people, who also went on a rampage through the surrounding streets, while the police stood by. Erzurum’s mayor claimed, despite the evidence, that the stones had been thrown by the CHP’s own supporters, and protested that the rally was not authorised. Some members of the AKP – including MPs – congratulated the protestors. Home Minister Süleyman Soylu called İmamoğlu a provocateur and dismissed the event as “theatre”.
More usually, the victim of harassment is the leftist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – whose candidates are running under the Yeşil Sol (Green Left) list. On the same day as İmamoğlu was attacked in Erzurum, four women were beaten by police and detained as they left a Yeşil Sol women’s rally in Istanbul, and, in Mersin, members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdoğan’s far-right allies, attacked a Yeşil Sol campaign vehicle, injuring five party workers, while police officers in the vicinity did not intervene. In Bursa, spurious excuses have been used to stop Yeşil Sol vehicles, and in Urfa’s Xalfetî district, police made Yeşil Sol members remove their stall for maintenance works, and then erected an AKP stall and tent in its place.
Yeşil Sol supporters abroad have been under pressure too. They have been taunted, goaded, and physically attacked as they have come to vote. (Expatriate voting took place between 27 April and 9 May.) There have been many examples of violence in France, and on Tuesday, Yeşil Sol representatives were attacked by members of the Grey Wolves in Lyon. On Sunday night, Dutch police were called to break up a fight at a polling station in Amsterdam.
In Turkey, the big court cases against opposition politicians go relentlessly on. Wednesday saw the start of the 25th hearing of the “Kobanê Case”, which could see 108 people, including leading members of the HDP, sent to prison for life without parole. One of the defendants is former co-chair of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, who told the court that the trial was a political process that would end on 14 May, Election Day, and who promised to do his best to ensure that the judges themselves stood trial.
Crackdowns continue against protest more generally, too. The Saturday mothers are relations of people who disappeared in the 1990s. They hold a weekly vigil in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square demanding information about those they have lost, but, despite a court ruling supporting their right to be there, the government try to prevent them, blockading and attacking the mothers and their supporters. Last Saturday, 23 people were detained, including the President of the Turkish Medical Association, Şebnem Korur Fincancı, who was imprisoned last year for calling for an investigation into Turkey’s reported use of chemical weapons.
The attacks of the 1990s have not fully ended, and parts of southeast Turkey are still effectively warzones under military occupation. In one such part, which is under 24-hour surveillance, a local man was shot and killed outside his home. Temer Temel came from a politically active Kurdish family and was the uncle of an HDP co-mayor as well as a former mayor himself. The motive behind his killing is obscure, but his relatives point out that the military must be aware of what happened – “if a bird flies here they know”.
Kılıçdaroğlu and the PKK
A key message of Erdoğan’s campaign is that Kılıçdaroğlu is the candidate of the PKK. The HDP has called on its voters to back Kılıçdaroğlu against Erdoğan in the presidential race – in the same way that, in 2019, they backed CHP mayoral candidates in key metropolises where the HDP had no hope of winning – and Kılıçdaroğlu himself has promised to address the Kurdish Question. Erdoğan refuses to draw a line between the HDP, which follows a strictly parliamentary path, and the Kurdish guerrillas. In his latest attempt to paint Kılıçdaroğlu as a PKK “terrorist” he has been showing an edited version of a CHP campaign video in which footage of the PKK has been added behind the opposition leaders like a backing group. In the video, Murat Karayılan and other PKK fighters appear to be endorsing Kılıçdaroğlu, and Kılıçdaroğlu appears to welcome this support. Erdoğan showed the video at a mass rally in Istanbul on Sunday, and he used it again in a broadcast meeting with young people. It is doubtful whether such a video will convince many people, but when voting is close a small number of people can make a vital difference. The CHP is no friend of the PKK, and Mansur Yavaş, who is CHP mayor of Ankara and one of the candidates for joint vice-president, has emphasised that so long as the PKK retains their arms, Turkey will attack them.
On Thursday, Kılıçdaroğlu issued a curious tweet in Turkish and Russian blaming the Russians for conspiracies and forgeries. The message read, “Dear Russian Friends, you are behind the montages, conspiracies, Deep Fake content and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday. If you want the continuation of our friendship after May 15, get your hands off the Turkish state. We are still in favour of cooperation and friendship.” There is no doubt that Putin would like to see Erdoğan win, and Russia has given considerable financial help to Turkey to try and boost Erdoğan’s support. While Turkey has its own software engineers and a government well practised in the use of trolls and bots, Russia could be providing help in creating and spreading disinformation, and Kılıçdaroğlu must have confidence in his sources to have spoken out so publicly. (It is difficult to see why Russia would want to attack Ince, though.)
Preparing to challenge the result?
Many things have given rise to concerns that Erdoğan and the AKP could still resort to more tricks to sway the vote, and that if, nevertheless, Kılıçdaroğlu does win, this would not be allowed to pass unchallenged.
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu does not hide his attempts to run roughshod over freedoms. On Tuesday he demonstrated a new app on his phone that gives him access to the identity data of any Turkish person he photographs, and which has been criticised for breaking data protection law; and on Wednesday, he again boasted about his unconstitutional and rapid dismissal of the HDP’s elected mayors in compliance with Erdoğan’s wishes.
For the election, Soylu made plans to set up a parallel vote-counting system through the Security and Emergency Coordination Centre of the Presidency, and, when that was rejected, through the Interior Ministry. These plans were thwarted by the official Supreme Elections Board, which has refused to hand over information on ballot box locations and voter numbers, but Soylu has asked the police to get the voting data in defiance of the Election Board’s decision, and Halk TV’s Seyhan Avşar has reported that police chiefs are giving unwritten instructions to their officers. A police officer from Adana said, “We are being pressured to get the reports with wet signatures. We have not been given written instructions and are asked to fulfil their demands. If there is a problem in getting wet-signed reports, we are asked to take notes and pass the data to our superiors. There is intense pressure on us.” In addition, in the cities where government trustees have replaced the democratically elected HDP mayors, the government has secured access to data by temporarily confiscating municipal laptops.
Turkey’s paper-based voting system is considered relatively robust provided people are able to mobilise and to make use of the opportunities to check and monitor proceedings. Kılıçdaroğlu has explained that they can’t trust the election board or the state news agency and so will themselves publicise each ballot box as it is counted. The international ballot boxes have been shut with locks from four different political parties as well as from the election board.
A vast mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of people – from political parties and from civil society – will be monitoring the voting and watching over the ballot boxes. Volunteers will also ensure that everyone who wants to, is able to get to vote, even if they now live in a different province from where they are registered.
In another cause for alarm, Soylu has called for the Turkish Armed Forces to be ready for duty on election day, leading the CHP to ask, “are we entering a war or an election?” However, journalist Can Ataklı has claimed that Turkey’s military commanders have made it clear to the Defence Minister that they will not step in to reverse the result if Erdoğan loses.
Kılıçdaroğlu has also warned about pro-government paramilitaries trying to intimidate him with threats of violence should he win.
There is an argument that the authorities are deliberately creating fear of potential violence around the vote in an attempt to scare people off from voting for change.
Gönül Tol and Ali Yaycıoğlu, writing in Foreign Policy, are more sanguine than many over the possibility of a challenge to the results. They observe that the bureaucracy retains some independence, as demonstrated by their refusal to give Soylu access to the election data and by their lifting of the block on state funding due to the HDP. And they argue that a defeated Erdoğan is not likely to face trial and that he could choose to focus on a future political comeback while the new government struggles with the huge challenges that they have inherited.
This election is understood as an opportunity to halt Turkey’s slide into fascism and to turn the country back towards parliamentary democracy. It is this that unites the parties that make up the main opposition Nation Alliance. They are agreed on the need to move Turkey away from a presidential system that enables one-man rule, but otherwise their political philosophies are very different. Under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, the alliance has generated at least a rhetoric of inclusivity to contrast with Erdoğan’s intolerance, and Kılıçdaroğlu himself has also shown willingness to address Kurdish issues, but these are notably absent from the alliance’s agreed policy document. An opposition win opens the possibility of a new approach towards the Kurds, but only a possibility. A strong Yeşil Sol result in the parliamentary elections could help develop this possibility, as also other progressive changes.
It is economic hardship that has caused many former Erdoğan supporters to abandon him. Economic improvements are essential to ensure a decent life for Turkey’s citizens, and are also necessary for the continued credibility of any new government, but when it comes to the economy, the approaches of the component parties of the Nation Alliance are very varied.
Possible changes in Turkey’s foreign relations that might follow a new presidency have become an important focus of international discussion. These changes are often seen and discussed from an American perspective that is critical of anything less than full support for the US position. Turkey is a member of NATO, but a more neutral approach to the Ukraine war is still possible. Kılıçdaroğlu has said that Turkey under him would comply with Western sanctions on Russia while maintaining relations with Moscow, and Russian investments in Turkey. At the same time, Turkey would rebuild their ties with Washington, reinvigorate negotiations with the EU, and generally pursue less bellicose and more diplomatic relations with their neighbours.
Last week saw a meeting – in Moscow – between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Russia to discuss normalising relations between Turkey and Syria. The meeting provided Erdoğan with a group photograph, but it is generally understood that Syria’s President Assad would prefer to negotiate with Kılıçdaroğlu than with Erdoğan. The CHP has been pressured into supporting Erdoğan’s Syrian invasions, but Kılıçdaroğlu has been critical of Turkish support for opposition jihadi groups and has long called for engagement with the regime. His main aim would be the return of the over four million Syrian refugees who have come to live in Turkey: however, many of those refugees will not be happy to return to a land still controlled by Assad.
Last Sunday, Syria was voted back into the Arab League. This met with US disapproval, but was welcomed by the Syrian Democratic Council of autonomous North and East Syria, who see it as providing opportunities for achieving a negotiated settlement.
Alongside diplomatic meetings, Turkey under Erdoğan continues to demonstrate their military muscle and shell North and East Syria. Last week a civilian was killed, and four others were wounded, near Tel Tamr on the strategic M4 highway.
And life in North and East Syria is about to become more difficult as the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has closed their side of the only official crossing into the autonomous region. No reason was given and US attempts at negotiation got not result.
News from Iran is increasingly grim. Protests are still going on but haven’t attained a momentum that could bring down a government. On Tuesday, teachers protested in several cities – for better working conditions and against government inaction with respect to suspected poison attacks against schoolgirls. Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights reported that, in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, government forces attacked the teachers’ protest and abducted two teachers, and that the city was completely militarised. Hengaw also records that in the first 126 days of this year, at least 199 prisoners were executed, including fifty-one Kurds and Forty-three Baluchis.
Yet again, the Turkish election has pushed out most other news. Campaigning must stop at 6pm today and voting takes place between 8 am and 5 pm tomorrow. Reporting will be restricted until 9pm. How soon we will learn the results will depend on how close the vote is. Kurds and progressives everywhere will be hoping for a first-round win for Kılıçdaroğlu and for a strong showing of Yeşil Sol MPs that, even if not formally part of a coalition, could exert an influence on government.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter