Kurds may be kingmaker in Turkey's elections, but their cause remains sidelined

Kurds may be kingmaker in Turkey's elections, but their cause remains sidelined
The opposition coalition may prove victorious in taking down Erdogan's authoritarian regime. But to have a genuine democracy, entrenched Turkish nationalism and racism towards Kurds must be addressed, writes Joseph Daher.
6 min read
23 Mar, 2023
AKP party supporters waves flags as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's address his "Unity, Will, Victory" rally at the Galatasaray's Nef Stadium in Istanbul on 27 November 2022. [Getty]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially announced this month that the parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on 14 May 2023.

The main opposition candidate to Erdogan’s re-election and his coalition, called “People Alliance”, with the fascistic group Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the coalition of "Nation Alliance", commonly known as "Table of Six".

In addition to the CHP, this coalition brings together five other political parties of very different backgrounds, including a split of the far-right extremist (the Good Party IYIP), an Islamist party (Saadet), and conservative parties which broke away from the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"These democratic propositions are supported by large segments of the society, particularly following years of continuous and deepening authoritarianism under Erdogan’s presidency"

A democratic programme

At the end of January, the Nation Alliance released a 240-page programme entitled “Common Policies’ Consensus Text” encompassing nine major areas, 75 subtitles with more than 2,000 targets.

The discourse of the coalition is centred around democratic issues, including a return to a stricter separation of powers, abolition of president decrees, a stronger role of the Parliament, an executive accountable for its decisions and independent and impartial justice, and mandates of Prime Minister and President limited for a single term of seven years.

In addition to this, under the new programme all amendments to the Constitution must be submitted to Parliament and be approved by a two-thirds majority – 400 votes out of 600 deputies - while any procedure launched against a political party in the objective of banning it will be subject to the approval of Parliament.

These democratic propositions are supported by large segments of the society, particularly following years of continuous and deepening authoritarianism under Erdogan’s presidency, especially after the failed coup d’état from a minority faction of the army in July 2016. Erdogan’s authoritarian government has escalated its repression of critics and political opponents since then while tightening its grip over the media and judiciary.

However, beyond these democratic demands and a return to the “normal” parliamentary regime, the Nation Alliance has a rather restricted plan regarding socio-economic issues, promising notably to permanently lower the inflation to a single digit figure in two years and a revaluation of the Turkish Lira.

In addition, the coalition fails to provide any new framework regarding the Kurdish issue and the rise of Turkish supremacism more generally.

The Nation Alliance, the Kurdish issue and HDP

The joint policy paper of the coalition actually fails to even mention the Kurdish issue. In general, the Nation Alliance has supported the Erdogan government’s military interventions in Syria, including against the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is dominated by the sister party of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The leading party of the coalition, CHP, is actually rooted in the Turkish colonial and nationalist heritage of the Kemalist state, as it was founded by Mustafa Kemal and was the state’s political vehicle to help implement political, cultural, social, and economic reforms in the country.

The hostility of all the Nation Alliance actors towards the Kurdish issue explains the absence of any alliance with the Democratic Party of the Peoples (HDP), a leftist party established by the Kurdish national movement and part of the Turkish Left, with the support of predominantly Kurdish voters.

HDP is the third largest party in parliament and could potentially play kingmaker in the May elections. For several years now, HDP has had a key position in the balance of forces in the Turkish political system, facilitating the election of opposition candidates in the country’s main metropolitan areas, including Istanbul and Ankara.

The very existence of HDP and its political weight have therefore forced the actors of the coalition to be more cautious in their discourses and behaviours toward the Kurdish population.

Yet collaboration with the HDP remains a tense subject for the coalition. They do not reject a potential dialogue with the HDP, but the majority of the actors within the coalition are opposed to any discussion regarding any HDP claims or role in a joint government that the Nation Alliance has pledged to establish if it wins the elections.

On his side, the HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar has congratulated Kilicdaroglu after his nomination as the presidential candidate of the Nation Alliance coalition and invited him to talks. Sancar stated that the HDP would support Kilicdaroglu to help him win in the first round of the vote if HDP and the coalition agreed on principles and democratic agenda.

For the HDP, hopes are not high for the Kurdish question, but the main objective is first to defeat Erdogan and his party, the main enemies of the Kurdish cause in Turkey and Syria over the last decade.

From there, they will likely try to open a process of normalisation, which could potentially lead to the liberation of political prisoners, the removal of government trustees from mayoral offices that were initially won by Kurdish candidates and, ultimately, a new political atmosphere allowing a renewal of efforts and negotiations to resolve the Kurdish issue.

Currently, several dozens of HDP members and officials, including two former co-leaders, are in prison, and 108 of its leaders are on trial over a tweet posted in 2014 in solidarity with the Syrian town of Kobani, mostly inhabited by Kurdish population. The HDP is also implicated in a trial that could ban it before Turkey’s elections in May due to its alleged connections to the outlawed PKK.

"The main objective is first to defeat Erdogan and his party, the main enemies of the Kurdish cause in Turkey and Syria over the last decade"

Turkish supremacism

The Turkish state is rooted in a particular exclusive Turkish nationalism, which was already in power at the end of the Ottoman Empire and carried out a political project of subjugation of the non-Turkish populations, and the Armenian genocide.

In this framework, Turkey’s modern state was also built in a colonial logic at the expense of south east Turkey (also known as Northern Kurdistan), majority inhabited by Kurds, while Kurdish identity was denied and repressed.

The recent racist attacks against Amedspor, a football club from the mainly Kurdish southeast, during a match in the northwestern city of Bursa reflect Turkey’s deep racism against Kurds. Erdogan’s ally, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, went as far as to “salute” Bursa’s fans for their “nationalist stand,” while AKP and MHP lawmakers blocked a HDP proposal for a parliamentary investigation into the attacks.

While a victory of Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance coalition against Erdogan and his allies will most probably provide more democratic space for the Turkish political scene, a new political framework is needed for the Turkish state.

To establish a genuine democracy and equality for all of Turkey’s ethnic groups, the current exclusive ethnic and religious national identity shared by nearly all the major parties in Turkey must be challenged.

Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".

Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.