Turkey Pulse

Pro-Kurdish opposition prepares for snap poll in Turkey

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Article Summary
Despite the wave of arrests and disillusioned voters, the new leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party says it will still win enough votes to enter parliament if elections are moved forward.

Turkey’s embattled opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said on Thursday it is preparing for a possible early general election in which it expects to clear the 10% vote threshold to enter parliament, despite a government crackdown that has jailed nine of its lawmakers and largely crippled the Kurdish political movement.

The HDP, which draws support largely from Kurdish voters, has seen almost all 102 mayors from a sister party ousted from their posts and thousands of party members arrested on charges of supporting Kurdish militants, which the party denies. Dozens of Kurdish civil society groups and news outlets have also been banned, part of a broader clampdown during a state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup in 2016. The HDP is not implicated in the putsch.

“An early election is now on Turkey’s agenda. … We have made preparations for a vote if it is held this July or in the fall,” Pervin Buldan, the HDP’s newly elected co-chairwoman, said at a press conference. “Public opinion polls show that the HDP has not fallen below 10%, and despite the constant detentions, is increasing its support, and so it does not face the problem of falling below the vote threshold.”

Municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections are all slated for next year, and last week Prime Minister Binali Yildirim rejected suggestions that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was preparing for an early vote.

Nevertheless, speculation continues to mount that it is, especially after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week the AKP had agreed with parliament’s smallest grouping, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to form a pre-election alliance. Legal changes to allow the MHP to retain its status as a political party in order to receive Treasury funding were submitted to parliament on Wednesday.

Right-wing opposition leader Meral Aksener said she expects a general election on July 15, the second anniversary of the abortive coup that Erdogan thwarted and that has since allowed him to consolidate power. However, the head of parliament’s second-biggest party, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), has said he believes elections will be held as scheduled.

Erdogan once spearheaded a peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 at a cost of 40,000 lives. But negotiations collapsed and the PKK returned to violent tactics in 2015, and Erdogan now vows to crush the rebellion militarily.

His cooperation in recent years with the MHP taps into a surge of nationalist sentiment in Turkey unleashed by the PKK’s renewed insurgency that included a series of bombings in Western cities that killed scores of people.

Turkey’s fight against the PKK has now led it into the Syrian province of Afrin, where last month it launched a military operation to block territorial gains by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, saying Kurdish forces on its border pose a national security threat. The incursion is wildly popular with Turks and has the support of opposition parties, except the HDP.

Buldan accused the AKP and MHP of forming a “dirty alliance based on hostility toward Kurds” and alienating conservative Kurdish voters who once saw the powerful Erdogan as their best chance at ending decades of violence and expanding their cultural and political rights. Traditionally, about half of Kurdish voters, who make up roughly 20% of the electorate, support the AKP.

The campaign in Afrin, as well as Turkish belligerence toward Kurds in northern Iraq after they held an independence referendum in 2017, has pushed Kurds in Turkey to the HDP, Buldan said.

“Those Kurds who have voted for the AKP will reconsider that support in the next election,” she said. “The AKP relies on Kurdish voters in the West, especially Istanbul. There are now Kurds who regret voting for the AKP [who say], ‘We voted for the AKP to resolve the Kurdish question, but instead we see that wherever there are Kurds, they are being attacked.’”

Turkish opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, but a handful of recent surveys show the HDP may retain its share of the vote, including one poll released on Thursday that put it at 12%.

Buldan said the HDP has not ruled out forming its own alliance to contest the election and is prepared to work with “those circles that support democracy, peace and freedom in Turkey.” Yet she also pilloried the HDP’s most likely partner, the CHP, for backing the Afrin operation and a law in 2016 that lifted lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, which led to the arrests of the HDP parliamentarians.

Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former leader, has been in prison for 15 months accused of ties with the PKK. A charismatic former human rights lawyer, Demirtas expanded the party’s share of non-Kurdish votes with a progressive platform that included an unfulfilled pledge to peacefully resolve the Kurdish issue.

The HDP won a record 5.2 million votes in June 2015, the first time a pro-Kurdish party had crossed the 10% threshold, the world’s highest barrier to parliament.

The European Union has said Demirtas’ arrest undermined efforts to find a political solution to the PKK conflict. Seven of the HDP’s 59 lawmakers have been stripped of their seats since the crackdown, disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters.

Buldan and her co-chairman Sezai Temelli replaced Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, who is also in jail, at a party congress earlier this month.

Demirtas declined calls from some in the party to remain leader, recognizing he would be unable to lead the party in an election from a prison cell, said Buldan. “There is a void without Selahattin and Figen in our midst,” she said.

Ayla Jean Yackley is a freelance journalist who has covered Turkey for nearly two decades. She previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg News and writes mainly about politics and the economy, with a focus on minority and human rights. Her reporting has also taken her to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, Germany and Cyprus. You can follow her on Twitter: @aylajean

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