Erdoğan’s victory opens wounds, cracks in Kurdish left

Several in HDP cast doubts on party’s strategy · Ultra-conservative Kurdish party makes it into Parliament, poses another threat to left-wing movement in need to reorganise · “Results are a warning,” admits MP

Celebració del Primer de Maig per l'HDP amb la nova marca de l'YSP, a Esmirna.
Celebració del Primer de Maig per l'HDP amb la nova marca de l'YSP, a Esmirna. Author: Lara Villalón
The presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey came at a time of great pressure on the Kurdish left: with the party’s leadership in prison for seven years, local councils under government intervention, a court case open to close down the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and reduced freedoms to protest in the streets or to publish in the Kurdish language. During the election campaign, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed his main challenger in the polls, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, of PKK links, and accused him of enjoying “terrorist support.” That climate is compounded by internal political differences within the HDP itself, which have become evident after the elections, and could call into question alliances between some leaders and the party’s board.

The HDP ran in the parliamentary election under an alliance of six left-wing parties called the Labour and Freedom Alliance. The Kurdish party ran under the name of the Green Left Party (YSP) to avoid disqualification if the courts shut down the HDP in the middle of the election process. The alliance did not nominate a candidate for the presidency and supported Kılıçdaroğlu’s bid instead, to concentrate all opposition against Erdoğan. For the first time, none of the candidates reached the required 50 percent of the vote in the first round, so the president was decided in a run-off between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. In an attempt to attract more support, Kılıçdaroğlu forced an alliance with a xenophobic and anti-Kurdish party, with which he agreed on a series of measures, including maintaining the government’s trusteeship of Kurdish municipalities. The agreement sparked some rejection among the left, but they ended up supporting Kılıçdaroğlu again.

Despite those efforts, Erdoğan again won the presidency with 52.18 per cent of the vote over his challenger, with 47.8 per cent. In Parliament, Erdoğan secured yet another majority thanks to an alliance of his AKP with nationalist and Islamist parties, including the Kurdish Huda-Par, a party linked to Kurdish terror group Hezbollah, which was responsible for dozens of kidnappings and assassinations of Kurdish independence fighters in the 1990s.

HDP loses ground in Parliament

The elections have been a blow to the HDP/YSP, which has lost seats and a large part of the vote on Turkey’s west coast, falling from 67 MPs to 61. “We had hoped to win around 100 MPs. Clearly, we have not reached the target we were aiming for,” explains former HDP MP Musa Piroğlu. ”The results show a warning from our supporters,” explains Ceylan Akça, a newly elected HDP/YSP MP in Amed (Diyarbakır, in Turkish). “We will make a self-assessment to eliminate our party’s shortcomings, to offer a remedy to our people’s problems,” she adds.
Now that the dust has settled, theories and criticisms are emerging about the party’s flop. Kurdish think tank Rawest suggests that one of the causes could be the lowering of the voting threshold for entry into parliament. Turkey used to have one of the highest thresholds in the world, at 10 per cent of the vote. However, Erdoğan lowered it to 7 per cent last year to ensure nationalist parties affiliated to his own party secured a place in the chamber. Rawest argues that, by removing the concern about entering parliament, the HDP/YSP could have lost some votes.

Musa Piroğlu. Photo: Lara Villalón.

“We should not forget the fact that today hundreds of party leaders and dedicated activists are in prison, including the de facto leader, Selahattin Demirtas. This has undoubtedly wreaked havoc on the HDP’s election campaign,” explains journalist and analyst Ali Örnek.

Another reason to dent the party’s popularity at the polls is the Labour and Freedom Alliance strategy. One of the main parties under the agreement, the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), fielded candidates for MPs in provinces where the HDP/YSP was also running, splitting the left-wing vote. The two parties engaged in an electoral battle and criticised each other in public during the campaign. “The two parties pursued different strategies. This hurt the HDP because nobody understood what the party wanted. They focused too much on the alliance and forgot to explain themselves to their voters,” Örnek describes. “The use of language, the lack of style, and our expectations were not the same,” explains former MP Piroğlu.

For Örnek, one of the party’s mistakes was to focus the campaign on the Kurdish-majority provinces, where the HDP has a secure vote. “Kurds in Turkey live mostly in Turkish cities in the west. Diyarbakır is no longer the largest Kurdish city”, Örnek describes. In spite of the fact that they have not fully assimilated, they have different priorities and social lives. They are not isolated either: they have Turkish friends and partners, they work in their companies”, and adds: “Kurds suffer from Turkey’s economic situation. I think they suffer more because they mostly have lower-paid and less qualified jobs.”

During the election campaign to decide the presidency in the second round, the debate focused on how to get Turkish nationalist votes. This led to increased internal disagreement within the HDP. Part of the electorate would have preferred to have its own candidate for the presidency who, even if he or she did not make it to the second round, would have had some leeway to negotiate his or her support for those who did qualify, in exchange for more rights for the Kurds.

The final picture was very different, with Kılıçdaroğlu reaching a deal with the leader of a xenophobic anti-Kurdish party. Even so, the HDP again entrusted Kılıçdaroğlu with its support. ”When we supported Kılıçdaroğlu at the beginning, we already knew what we were doing. Nothing has changed. It was about coming together to end 20 years of oppression,” says former MP Piroğlu, referring to Erdoğan.

Selahattin Demirtas, on the other hand, believes they should have put forward a candidate of their own. In a letter from prison published in the Turkish media, Demirtas said he had told the party board of his intention to run for the presidency. However, the letter was ignored by the board. Demirtas revealed some differences with the party direction, without giving too many details, and shortly afterwards announced that he was leaving active politics for a while.

This week, HDP co-chairs Mithat Sancar and Pervin Buldan announced that they would step down at the next party congress after the election results. ”Presenting the YSP to our voters a month and a half before [the elections] was important. We did not meet our objectives. We could not manage the campaign well,” Buldan told Turkish media.

Despite this accumulation of reasons, Ali Örnek believes that there is another crucial issue that permeates everything said so far: the way in which the entire opposition has for years allowed Erdoğan’s government to constantly abuse state resources in its favour. Örnek gives as an example the 2019 local election, in which Erdoğan’s party, the Islamist AKP, contested the results in Istanbul when they saw they were losing. The electoral authority decreed a rerun of the election, and the opposition —the social democratic CHP party— won by an even larger margin. “The opposition parties, particularly the CHP, once again accepted the rules of the game dictated by Erdoğan. Worse, they pacified their base to the point where people felt that Erdoğan could be defeated simply by voting, despite all the pressure of the party-state model,” he explains. In the intervention of Kurdish municipalities in 2016 and after the 2019 local elections, Örnek sees a similar situation: “The HDP is under great pressure. No one can ignore that its members were imprisoned, people were arrested for protesting,” he says. “But [against the AKP] you need mass mobilisation, organisation and a strong political line, which can paralyse the party,” he says.

Demirtas agrees with Örnek in his letter to the Turkish media: “The AKP used all means of the state to lie, slander, pressure, and block, and there were questionable interventions at the polls,” he warns. “The legitimacy of the [election] result will always be controversial. Despite knowing this fact, the opposition always acted like a normal government and made big mistakes in legitimising it.”

Continued pressure from the authorities in the upcoming term

With 59 of the HDP’s 65 municipalities in intervention, none of those interviewed believe that the situation in the municipalities will improve until the next local elections, scheduled for March 2024. “There is a lot of pressure on the streets. [The government] has made basic freedoms like the right to protest almost impossible. Police constantly intervene, arrest protesters, prevent them from speaking...,” says Piroğlu. The HDP admits that it supported Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy without a promise in return. However, it did so in the hope that, if they won, the newly elected president would democratise Turkey’s institutions and consequently improve the situation of the Kurds. “I don’t expect Erdoğan to initiate a peace process with the Kurds. He might try to deceive society by pretending he is trying to solve the Kurdish question”, explains MP Ceylan Akça.

The emergence of a Kurdish Islamist party

The entry into parliament of the Hüda-Par party with four MPs has been perceived by the pro-Kurdish left as an attempt by the government to strengthen this Islamist group in the Kurdish provinces to gain ground on the HDP. Hüda-Par is also not well regarded among Turkish nationalist parties for its demands to recognise the Kurdish nation and language in Turkey. The party, moreover, has a much more conservative agenda than Erdoğan’s own AKP. It calls for adultery punishment, gender-segregated education, and promotes women not working. “They are linked to an organisation that has committed murder and are the government’s allies in parliament. I think they are a danger, especially because of their rhetoric against women,” says former MP Piroğlu. During the election campaign, former Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu declared in a speech that one of the most meaningful steps Turkish politics has taken is “the entry of the Hüda-Par” to Parliament. “You will see in ten years’ time what happens with Hüda-Par and how the conservatism axis grows in the east and southeast of Turkey. It is a strategic step,” Soylu said. Örnek also believes that the entry of the Kurdish party can undermine the HDP’s power: “It is not just a temporary electoral alliance. I think the AKP has a long-term plan to undermine the HDP’s base by creating its fake Kurdish nationalist party”, he warns.

Against this backdrop, Musa Piroğlu, who is ending his MP term, is clear about the party’s short-term plans: “The situation is very difficult. We must stop, take a breath and reconnect. See what mistakes have been made, what we can do and get organised.”