People attend a campaign meeting of Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince (unseen) in Diyarbakir, on June 11, 2018. ILYAS AKENGIN / AFP
Briefing / Europe & Central Asia 17 minutes

Turkey’s Election Reinvigorates Debate over Kurdish Demands

Ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June, opinion polls suggest a tighter race than many anticipated. The country’s Kurds could be kingmakers, prompting politicians of different stripes to court their votes and opening much-needed debate about longstanding Kurdish demands.

What’s new? Snap presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey appear likely to be more closely fought than anticipated. The country’s Kurds could affect the outcome of both contests. Politicians, especially those opposing President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party, have pledged to address some Kurdish demands in a bid to win their support.

Why does it matter? Debate on Kurdish issues has been taboo since mid-2015, when a ceasefire collapsed between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group designated by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union as terrorist. That the election campaign has opened space for such debate is a welcome development.

What should be done? The candidate that wins the presidency and whichever party or bloc prevails in parliamentary elections should build on the reinvigorated discussion of Kurdish issues during the campaign and seek ways to address some longstanding Kurdish demands – or at least ensure debate on those issues continues.

I. Overview

On 24 June, some 50 million Turkish citizens will head to early presidential and parliamentary elections. The contests were originally scheduled for November 2019. But in a surprise move on 18 April, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called snap polls, leaving prospective candidates just over two months to mount their campaigns. At the time, early balloting appeared to favour the president and the ruling party: it would catch the opposition off guard and allow incumbents to ride the wave of nationalism that followed Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria’s Afrin province.

But eleven days before the vote, opinion polls suggest both presidential and parliamentary elections could be more closely contested than initially anticipated, with Erdoğan’s contenders scoring better than expected. Turkey’s Kurds – some 18-20 per cent of the electorate – could play the role of kingmakers in the presidential contest and their votes could prove decisive, too, in parliamentary elections. As a result, opposition politicians are showing an unusual sensitivity to longstanding Kurdish demands, in some cases pledging to support Kurdish-language education (though without specifying whether this would entail general instruction in Kurdish, as many Kurds have long sought, or simply Kurdish as an elective language course) and the devolution of governing powers to local authorities, which in Kurdish-majority areas tend to be dominated by the largest pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a local affiliate.

It remains unclear whether opposition leaders would deliver on these promises were they elected. But the campaign has created a welcome space for debate of Kurdish demands, a discussion that has been largely taboo since the 2015 collapse of a ceasefire between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group which Turkey and Western powers designate as terrorist. No matter who wins the forthcoming elections, Turkey’s president and whichever party or bloc holds the majority in parliament should capitalise on this momentum and seek constructive ways to address the Kurds’ longstanding demands.

II. The Kurdish Political Scene

Around half of Turkey’s Kurds live in the south east and the other half in central and western cities. Traditionally, the Kurdish vote splits roughly in two between conservative and left-leaning voters.

Since 2002, when the Justice and Development, or AK Party, first came to power, it has built a strong support base among Kurds in rural areas, many of them conservatives belonging to large clans and Sunni Islamic orders, or family members of the “village guards”, Kurdish paramilitary forces armed and paid by the Turkish state. This constituency has tended to side with Ankara against the PKK – and has done so since the ceasefire broke down in July 2015 (according to Crisis Group’s regularly updated infographic, this latest phase of the conflict has killed at least 3,600).[fn]See Crisis Group infographic on fatalities of Turkey’s PKK conflict, Footnote

Left-leaning Kurds, meanwhile, have historically gravitated either toward explicitly pro-Kurdish parties, several of which have been shut down by the state since the 1990s, or toward nominally independent candidates running on pro-Kurdish platforms. Pro-Kurdish parties and candidates traditionally build their campaigns around long-running Kurdish demands for decentralisation, mother-tongue education, electoral reform to enable representation of pro-Kurdish parties in parliament, and the removal of ethnic references from the constitution.[fn]The Turksih constitution stipulates that “everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk”.Hide Footnote Longstanding Kurdish grievances, particularly related to the Turkish army’s heavy-handed security measures in the south east in the 1990s, have consolidated this segment of Kurdish society as a political bloc.

The HDP is the latest in a succession of pro-Kurdish political parties established in the preceding 30 years. In the last national elections, in 2015, the party received 13 and 10.7 per cent of votes (a first vote in June 2015 produced a hung parliament, with the AK Party losing its majority and unable to form a government according to the parliamentary system in place at the time, leading to a repeat election in November 2015). This support mostly came from urban Kurdish constituencies, though some rural Kurds (from the roughly third that traditionally does not back the AK Party) and some liberal and left-wing Turks also voted HDP. Party functionaries assert that the party is operationally distinct from the PKK, but admit the two organisations’ social bases largely overlap. Government and state officials, on the other hand, allege that the PKK controls the HDP.[fn]For more details, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°243, Managing Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin, 2 May 2017, pp. 10-11.Hide Footnote

As hostilities with the PKK resumed in mid-2015, the government used the broad definition of terrorism in Turkish law to prosecute HDP MPs and supporters for “being members of or aiding the PKK”.[fn]“World Report 2018: Turkey”, Human Rights Watch, January 2018 at Footnote  The crackdown on the party intensified following the 15 July 2016 coup attempt: since then, police have arrested or detained at least once 25 of the 59 HDP MPs elected in 2015, and parliament has stripped eleven of the party’s MPs of their status as legislators. Nine HDP MPs remain in jail, including the party’s former co-chair and 2018 presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş.

The government used the broad definition of terrorism in Turkish law to prosecute HDP MPs and supporters for “being members of or aiding the PKK”.

The crackdown over the past few years has crippled the party, particularly since restrictive measures have extended to local HDP branch offices, municipal authorities run by its local-level affiliate, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), and media outlets as well as NGOs that sympathise with them.[fn]“Turkey: Crackdown on Kurdish Opposition”, Human Rights Watch, March 2017 at Footnote  During the current campaign, Turkish authorities have arrested some of the HDP’s election workers or subjected them to security checks. Moreover, the party has suffered physical attacks by unknown assailants on some of its campaign offices; the attacks are likely due, at least in part, to mounting nationalist sentiment in Turkish politics.

Besides the HDP, other Kurdish parties have small – mostly conservative – bases. The Sunni Islamist Hüda Par (Free Cause Party) is allegedly tied to Kurdish Hizbollah, a militant group speculated to have been backed by the state to fight against PKK in the 1990s.[fn]The party denies ties to Kurdish Hizbollah. Mehmet Kurt et al., Kurdish Hizbullah in Turkey: Islamism, Violence and the State (London, 2017).Hide Footnote The party enjoys most influence among rural residents in the south east, though its electoral strength is limited (it usually wins between 3-5 per cent of votes in Batman, Diyarbakır and Bingöl provinces, but only around 0.1-0.3 per cent in nationwide polls). Other even smaller Kurdish parties are active in Turkey’s south east. Most are sympathetic to the former head of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, and his family.  

The voter bases of Hüda Par and these other smaller parties are relatively insignificant, and none will field a presidential candidate. But their local representatives in mostly rural areas of the south east can help influence the preferences of wider circles of voters. Despite announcing that it does not approve of all his policies, Hüda Par has declared its support for Erdoğan in presidential polls.

III. New System, New Calculations

With its overhaul of Turkey’s election law in March, the AK Party, in conjunction with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), laid the groundwork for snap elections. The amended law does not lift the 10 per cent electoral threshold (the minimum number of votes parties need to qualify for parliamentary seats), which has been a feature of Turkish politics since 1982.[fn]For detailed discussion on the lowering of the electoral threshold see Crisis Group Europe Report N°219, The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, 11 September 2012, p.30.Hide Footnote  But it allows the formation of pre-election alliances, enabling small parties to enter parliament as part of a grouping, with the threshold now applied to the vote totals of the alliances as a whole, rather than the individual parties within them.

The AK Party-MHP manoeuvre galvanised opposition parties to forge their own alliances, leading to the emergence of two grand electoral coalitions. One, the People’s Alliance, consists of the ruling AK Party, the MHP and the Great Unity Party (or BBP, an MHP splinter with heavier Islamist leanings). The second, the Nation Alliance, comprises the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the centre-right MHP offshoot İyi (Good) Party, the Islamist Felicity Party and the centre-right Democrat Party. The coalitions, particularly the opposition Nation Alliance, represent cooperation among parties – notably between secular and Islamist parties – that over the past decade have rarely collaborated. But neither it nor the People’s Alliance contains a Kurdish party. The HDP and Hüda Par will contest parliamentary elections alone, as will the small Turkish left-wing Patriotic (Vatan) Party.

The AK Party-MHP manoeuvre galvanised opposition parties to forge their own alliances, leading to the emergence of two grand electoral coalitions.

Pollsters currently predict that no party or coalition will win enough votes to secure a majority in parliament – more than half of its 600 seats, in other words. The People’s Alliance is projected to receive around 46 per cent of the vote and the Nation Alliance about 40 per cent, while the HDP’s support currently stands right around the 10 per cent threshold.[fn]Based on Crisis Group average calculations using polling data from five reliable polls conducted between 25 May-6 June 2018 by pollsters with diverse political leanings.Hide Footnote According to Turkey’s new presidential system, the newly elected president will form the government. But a hung parliament could complicate lawmaking, so in the event no party is able to form a majority, the president might feel compelled to call for repeat elections. 

The presidential contest is also projected to be tight. Six candidates will square off in the first round: the incumbent Erdoğan, Muharrem İnce for the CHP, Meral Akşener for İyi, Temel Karamollaoğlu for Felicity (the CHP, İyi and Felicity will each field their own presidential candidate despite running in parliamentary elections together as part of the Nation Alliance), the imprisoned Demirtaş for the HDP and Doğu Perinçek for the Patriotic Party. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the votes in the first round, the top two candidates will enter a run-off on 8 July.

The opposition complains that the playing field is skewed. With most media outlets under ruling-party control, opposition candidates and parties scarcely receive coverage, while the HDP and Demirtaş face a total blackout in mainstream media. According to Transparency International, in the period 4-31 May, Turkey’s state-run TV channel TRT allotted 105 minutes of livestream or news coverage to Erdoğan, 37 minutes to İnce, fourteen to Akşener, five to Karamollaoğlu, two to Perinçek and a mere 18 seconds to Demirtaş.

Despite this advantage for Erdoğan, and initial expectations that he would easily prevail in the presidential contest, opposition parties and candidates appear energised. The latest polls predict that, in the first round, Erdoğan will fall just short of 50 per cent of the vote, depending to some degree on the extent to which he can retain conservative Kurds’ support. His most likely run-off opponent is İnce, projected to receive around 25-27 per cent in the first round.[fn]Based on Crisis Group average calculations using polling data from five reliable polls conducted between 25 May and 6 June 2018 by pollsters with diverse political leaning.Hide Footnote Akşener currently polls at about 12-14 per cent, Demirtaş at around 8-10 per cent and Karamollaoğlu at some 2 per cent.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

IV. The Kingmaker Kurds?

The depth of Kurdish support for Erdoğan and his AK Party is a matter of considerable debate. His backing among many Kurds in rural areas likely remains solid. But a stratum of urban conservative Kurds who have long supported the AK Party today is turned off by its nationalist bent and alliance with the far right.

“The AK Party has become more and more like the [far-right] MHP over the last few years. You cannot distinguish them anymore. They will probably lose support here”, a middle-aged Kurdish man in Şanlıurfa, a south-eastern city of Turkey, told Crisis Group in late May 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, May 2018.Hide Footnote  Another source of disillusionment may be Ankara’s strident opposition to the September 2017 independence referendum held in the KRG-controlled areas of Iraq, given many of Turkey’s conservative Kurds’ sympathies for the Barzani clan.

In the first round of the presidential vote, HDP supporters will vote for the HDP’s candidate, Demirtaş. But the votes of a segment of conservative Kurds that previously supported Erdoğan and his party could prove decisive in the first-round contest. The 1-2 per cent drop in their support that is currently projected could leave Erdoğan below the 50 per cent mark and force a run-off.

Projecting the results of a second round – if one takes place – is more complicated. Erdoğan is currently expected to win a run-off no matter which of the other candidates he faces. But results could depend on developments after the first round, how alliances reconfigure and the preferences of Kurdish constituencies. For example, if İnce qualifies for the run-off, pledges cabinet positions to Akşener and her team, and perhaps even to Karamollaoğlu, and is thus able to pick up many of those voters that supported Akşener and Karamollaoğlu in the first round, Kurdish votes – particularly those of HDP supporters but also conservative votes – could then tip the balance. President Erdoğan remains the clear favourite but a united opposition vote against him would make for a tighter contest, with Kurdish votes potentially decisive.

HDP voters could end up decisive in parliamentary elections, too – though in a different way. In many south-eastern locations the HDP enjoys widespread support, but even if it wins there, it will get no seats if it does not pass the 10 per cent threshold nationwide. If it fails to do so, the AK Party would benefit.

Knowing that even small vote swings could decide both presidential and parliamentary polls, Erdoğan and his rivals [...] are all making overtures to the Kurds.

The Turkish parliament is elected from 87 electoral districts, with seats allocated according to each party’s share of the vote in that district (provided the party passes the 10 per cent threshold nationwide). If the HDP does not reach the 10 per cent threshold and thus does not qualify for seats, the AK Party, which ranks second in most of HDP’s south-eastern strongholds, would pick up many – perhaps as many as an additional 65 – of the seats that would have gone to the HDP. If the HDP fails to meet the threshold, in other words, the AK Party would likely secure a parliamentary majority on its own.

Knowing that even small vote swings could decide both presidential and parliamentary polls, Erdoğan and his rivals İnce, Akşener and Karamollaoğlu – and their respective parties – are all making overtures to the Kurds. It is a tricky game: reaching out to the Kurds risks provoking a nationalist backlash.

In 4 June speeches in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır, Erdoğan tried to thread the needle. He made broad calls for social cohesion and coexistence without addressing specific Kurdish demands. He also said the Kurdish problem no longer exists and that the problem is one of terror – insinuating that fault lies with the PKK, not the Kurds as a whole or their relations with the Turkish state. He added that since Afrin – a town in north-west Syria held until recently by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – has been captured by the Turkish military and come under Turkish control, “Qandil’s turn” is coming (implying that the Turkish military could conduct a similar offensive against the PKK’s headquarters in the mountains of northern Iraq).[fn]“Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: Şimdi sıra Kandil'de sıra Sincar'da” [“President Erdoğan: Now it is Qandil’s, it is Sinjar’s turn”], CNN Türk, 5 June 2018.Hide Footnote  Erdoğan may further consolidate his nationalist backing if the ongoing operation against PKK positions in northern Iraq achieves substantial Turkish military gains before elections.

İnce and his CHP party have made more concrete promises to the Kurds. He has called for the release of Demirtaş, even visiting him in prison. He pledges to teach children their mother tongue in schools and to empower elected local administrations, which in Kurdish areas tend to be HDP-dominated. The CHP’s platform offers to set up a legal and institutional framework that would increase the availability of mother-tongue elective courses – in Kurdish, Arabic or other languages. It also promises to fully implement the Council of Europe’s European Charter of Local Self-Government to devolve administrative powers to elected local officials, a long-time HDP demand.[fn]“Muharrem İnce'den Diyarbakır'da Kürt sorunu mesajı” [“Muharrem İnce’s Kurdish issue pledge in Diyarbakır”], Habertürk, 11 June 2018. For CHP’s 2018 election declaration see Footnote Pro-government media paints such promises as support for the PKK.[fn]“ABD ve PKK'nın talepleri CHP beyannamesinde” [“USA’s and the PKK’s demands are in CHP’s election declaration”], Akşam, 31 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Similarly, Akşener of İyi has called for Demirtaş’s release and said those who wished to should be able study their mother tongue in school – a surprising move for the veteran right-wing nationalist. In December 2017, she had visited Diyarbakır – claiming she had ancestral ties to the area – and was photographed kissing Kurdish children dressed in traditional clothing.[fn]“Meral Akşener'den Selahattin Demirtaş çıkışı” [“Meral Akşener speaks out on Selahattin Demirtaş”], Habertürk, 16 May 2018. “Meral Akşener, Diyarbakır'da böyle karşılandı” [“This is how Meral Akşener was received in Diyarbakır”], Hürriyet, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote

For his part, Karamollaoğlu even before the campaign had suggested a peace conference in Diyarbakır to “resolve the Kurdish issue”.[fn]“Saadet Partisi’nden çağrı: Diyarbakır’da barış için toplanalım” [“Call from the Felicity Party: Let’s meet in Diyarbakır for peace”], Cumhuriyet, 1 April 2018.Hide Footnote  Announcing his party Felicity’s report on the resolution of the Kurdish question on 6 June in Diyarbakır, Karamollaoğlu said his party, if elected, would resolve the Kurdish issue in its entirety, through “social, cultural, political, psychological and economic reforms rather than only a security-based struggle”. He, too, has made references to his support of mother-tongue education without specifying whether he intended to extend Kurdish beyond elective courses to include full instruction in Kurdish.[fn]“Saadet Partisi’nden Kürt Sorununa Üç Çözüm Önerisi” [“Three solution proposals to the Kurdish problem by the Felicity Party”], VOA, 6 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Kurdish women sitting amid HDP and Felicity Party banners in majority-Kurdish neighbourhood of Şanlıurfa, south east Turkey. CRISISGROUP/Yılmaz Akıncı

While Karamollaoğlu’s vote in the presidential race is inconsequential, Felicity is the most likely destination in parliamentary contests for conservative Kurds who resent Erdoğan’s policies but are unlikely to vote HDP. In the 1990s – before the AK Party emerged – Islamist-leaning Kurds backed parties that were ideologically akin to Felicity. One of Felicity’s candidates in Istanbul is Altan Tan, a former HDP legislator with a good reputation among conservative Kurdish urbanites. The party is expected to garner only around 3 per cent of the national vote, but because it belongs to the Nation Alliance, it will not have to pass the threshold by itself, and prospective supporters need not fear their vote will go to waste. Neither the AK Party nor the HDP has fielded candidates with much allure for conservative Kurds, opening a vacuum for Felicity to fill.  

V. Elections amid “Security” Concerns

Turkish elections tend to be free and well organised, notwithstanding the uneven playing field. But opposition and international observers are more concerned ahead of these polls than in the past, given speculation about irregularities in the last vote – an April 2017 referendum that strengthened the powers of the presidency. They fear that a likely tight race means even small infractions could swing outcomes in both presidential and parliamentary polls.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representatives in Istanbul and Şanlıurfa, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote The chief worry relates to a 28 May decision taken by Turkey’s Supreme Election Council to relocate or merge polling stations in nineteen eastern and south-eastern provinces, on the grounds of stopping PKK voter intimidation.

The election council has not yet announced which stations it will move. But the HDP blasts the decision as an effort to discourage its supporters from voting, by moving polling places from HDP to AK Party strongholds. It claims the decision affects more than quarter of a million voters. The election council argues that in fact only about half that number are affected, and that no station will be moved farther than 5km.

In the south east, bitter disputes – in some cases, blood feuds – pit different Kurdish villages and urban neighbourhoods against one another. A member of a prominent Kurdish clan in Şanlıurfa told Crisis Group: “What people are saying is that they will not leave their years-long rivalry aside just to cast their vote in the rival village. The elders or clan leaders will likely not want their clan members to travel there”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

As yet, the election council has not announced whether it will provide transportation, so local HDP offices have begun their own preparations. Up to 500,000 seasonal workers (most of whom are Kurds) will be away at work in the fields of southern and western Anatolia. The HDP also plans to set up transport for them.

Other concerns about the vote relate to changes made to the election law in March 2018. The first of these is that electoral authorities will be legally permitted to accept unstamped ballot sheets as valid which, the opposition worries, could allow for ballot stuffing. Civil servants (rather than randomly selected party members) will be appointed to head the committees that supervise balloting, prompting opposition fears that those civil servants will be less rigorous in detecting and reporting potential irregularities. Governors, who are AK Party appointees, rather than district election councils, will be allowed to request the relocation of ballot boxes for “security reasons”. Opposition parties see all these changes as potentially favouring the ruling party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representatives in Istanbul and Şanlıurfa, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote At the end of May, opposition and civil society representatives came together on what they call the Fair Elections Platform, saying they would triple the number of observers monitoring relocated or merged polling stations.

VI. Conclusion

Irrespective of these anxieties, aspects of Turkey’s campaign season thus far are positive. It has created entente among opposition factions that traditionally are adversaries, bridging – at least for now – some gaps in an otherwise polarised society, in particular between a segment of Islamists and secularists. Critically, the campaign also has opened space for much-needed debate on the Kurdish question, which largely has been taboo since the 2015 breakdown of the ceasefire with the PKK, and particularly after Ankara’s operation in Afrin. The CHP’s overtures to the Kurds, as well as those of nationalists like Meral Akşener, show that Turkish politicians can surmount their traditional disregard for Kurdish grievances, if only for electoral dividends. No matter who wins, Turkey’s president and parliament should build on the reinvigorated debate of Kurdish issues and seek ways to address at least some of the Kurds’ longstanding demands.

Istanbul/Brussels, 13 June 2018

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