Why the Kurdish vote is decisive in Turkey's election

6 min read
17 May, 2023

Sunday’s election, one of the most heavily contested in Turkey’s modern history, saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the presidential vote with 49.5 percent against his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu (44.9 percent), as the country heads to a run-off for the first time ever on 28 May.

Turkey also held its legislative polls, resulting in a clear majority for Erdogan’s ruling People’s Alliance led by his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The opposition Nation Alliance and the Green Left Party (YSP), which the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) ran under, prevailed in the country’s southeast.

Kilicdaroglu, the joint presidential candidate of the opposition who heads the Republican People's Party (CHP), took his highest chunk of the vote from south-eastern provinces with a Kurdish majority. Kurdish votes for the opposition leader were also significant in Diyarbakir, the city with the largest Kurdish population, at about 72 percent, and Sirnak (75.7 percent), Hakkari (72 percent), Batman (67.5 percent) and Mardin (66 percent).

"Kurdish voters are, as always, kingmakers. They are the most important part of the legislative and governing equation"

As for the legislative vote, the leftist Labour and Freedom Alliance, which is led by the HDP, gained just over 10% and 66 seats, underperforming the pro-Kurdish party’s results in the 2018 parliamentary elections. However, the party has maintained its status as Turkey’s third-largest political force in parliament.

The HDP entered the legislative polls under the umbrella of the new YSP, as it was facing threats of closure before the 14 May polls in an ongoing case over its alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Kurdish backing for Kilicdaroglu has given a critical boost to his popularity, as Kurds, who make up around 20% of the Turkish electorate, are expected to be a deciding factor in the race for the presidency.

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“Kilicdaroglu wouldn’t have a chance of defeating Erdogan if he doesn’t get the Kurdish vote in his favour,” Sinan Ciddi, a non-resident senior fellow on Turkey at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) told The New Arab. He added that should the president’s adversary win the election and choose to rule by parliamentary consensus, he would definitely have to rely on the backing of Kurdish MPs.

“Kurdish voters are, as always, kingmakers,” the expert on Turkish domestic politics argued. “They are the most important part of the legislative and governing equation”.

Ciddi also noted that the Kurdish political movement has proved, over the years, “successful” at mobilising their voter base, which has enabled the HDP to continuously have a parliamentary presence.

The new parliament could become meaningful again in the event Kilicdaroglu is elected president and keeps his promise to restrict presidential powers and restore the parliamentary system.   

Kurdish backing for Kilicdaroglu has given a critical boost to his popularity. [Getty]

The Kurdish-affiliated party chose not to put forward its own candidate in the presidential race. Instead, it publicly endorsed Kilicdaroglu just over two weeks before the elections. Likewise, imprisoned Kurdish former co-chair of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been in pre-trial detention since 2016 on allegations of terrorism, declared his support for the main opposition leader.

Under Kilicdaroglu’s lead, the CHP put aside its past hostility to the country’s Kurdish minority and has reinvented itself as a party with a broader support base. It also succeeded in convincing secular Turks that Kurds could be useful political partners. Kurdish voters, for their part, have developed sympathy for the opposition candidate, hoping he can end Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule.

“Kurds are well positioned to be a decisive factor, and the Kurdish political movement has made the difference before,” Meghan Bodette, the director of research at the Kurdish Peace Institute (KPI), told TNA, referring to two noteworthy political wins made against the AKP through Kurdish leverage. In 2019, the HDP’s mainly Kurdish supporters helped the CHP to victory in mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara by not putting forward candidates.

"Kilicdaroglu wouldn't have a chance of defeating Erdogan if he doesn't get the Kurdish vote in his favour"

Before then, in the 2015 legislative elections, the HDP successfully passed the 10% threshold for entering parliament and took around 80 seats, causing the ruling AK party to lose its majority.

The KPI’s research director highlighted that this presidential election is pivotal for Turkey’s Kurdish community, in that, if Erdogan is re-elected, Kurds are likely to see the continuation of the repressive policies that the government has pursued against them for the past near-decade.

“Kurdish voters are looking for breathing room, and they believe that a victory of the opposition could lead to that,” she commented.

Disillusionment with Erdogan’s increasingly nationalist position among Kurds has pushed many to support his main contender in the presidential election. Since the collapse of peace talks with the PKK in 2015 and a failed coup attempt the following year, Turkish forces have resumed military operations targeting the group in the southeast as well as in northern Iraq and Syria.

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Also, Erdogan and his AKP have cracked down on Kurdish political parties and institutions in recent years, jailing thousands of HDP politicians, former MPs, and elected officials on terrorism charges and ties to the PKK.

The electoral campaign itself was marred by anti-Kurdish rhetoric and repression directed at the pro-Kurdish political movement. Less than three weeks before the election, Turkish authorities arrested some 110 HDP members, pro-Kurdish activists, journalists, and lawyers in what the government dubbed an "anti-terror" operation.

A joint statement by election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe said that voters were limited in their political choices by the criminalisation and imprisonment of HDP members.

Looking at the period ahead with the upcoming second-round vote, Bodette warned about the potential for arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists, increased Turkish cross-border military activity, further hostile discourse by the AKP and far-right parties against the HDP and its supporters, and intimidation of Kurdish voters.

A supporter holds a poster of Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), who has been held in prison in Turkey for 7 years, during a rally in Diyarbakir. [Getty]

Any possible escalation in criminalising or provoking feelings of animosity against Kurds, she anticipated, could increase “nationalist sentiments” within Erdogan’s electoral base but also in conservative segments of the opposition, which could, in turn, affect the vote for Kilicdaroglu in the run-off.

“Voters inclined to support the opposition camp could feel less willing to do so if the opposition is unable to oppose anti-Kurdish moves,” the researcher said.

On the other hand, Kurds remain sceptical about the six-party opposition alliance in terms of maintaining its commitment to address long-standing Kurdish demands. Kilicdaroglu has only pledged if he were to come to power to release high-profile Kurdish prisoners like HDP politician Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala.

Besides that, it is unclear what he would do to address the Kurdish question and resolve the decades-long conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK group.

Sinan Ogan, the nationalist presidential candidate who finished third in the first round of the vote, has offered conditioned support to Kilicdaroglu in the run-off if he agrees to make no concessions to the pro-Kurdish party HDP. It is unlikely that the opposition contestant will concede to that, given the sizeable portion of votes that he received from Kurdish voters.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, Turkey’s Kurdish political movement continues to be influential and resilient in the electoral process despite the systematic repression carried out uninterruptedly by the government since 2016.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec