BACKGROUND: There is a quasi-consensus among observers that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and his partner Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), decided to call the snap election to secure their power and renew the legitimacy of the ruling right-wing nationalist alliance of AKP and MHP ahead of what is expected to be a devastating economic crisis.
Yet there is another and in fact overriding explanation for the hurry to hold the election, and that is to seal the exclusion of the Kurds from Turkey’s body politic. In the presidential system, the Kurdish political movement will not carry the same weight as it has demonstrated that it can do in the parliamentary system since 2015. The driving force behind this project is MHP leader Bahçeli, for whom it was urgent to enshrine the presidential system before deteriorating electoral prospects for Erdoğan jeopardized its realization. Not coincidentally, it was Bahçeli who called for the snap election.
The far right MHP has historically played a sinister role. In the 1970s, the party was behind much of the political violence that paved the way for the right-wing military coup in 1980. Devlet Bahçeli assumed the party leadership in 1997 upon the death of the MHP’s founding leader, Alparslan Türkeş.
Bahçeli was the principal opponent of the peace process – or the “solution process” as it was officially named – with the Kurdish political movement, which the AKP government pursued between 2013 and 2015. Bahçeli condemned the talks between the government and the elected representatives of the Kurdish political movement, and the inclusion of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in the “solution process.” The MHP leader charged that these talks would bring the destruction of Turkey; he thus named it the “destruction process”. He went as far as calling Erdoğan, who is now his partner, a “traitor.”
The general election in June 2015 was a watershed event. The pro-Kurdish and leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received 6 million votes. With 13.1 percent of the nationwide vote, it cleared the 10 percent threshold to parliament – which was supposed to ensure that no Kurdish party could enter and form a group in the parliament. Indeed, the HDP became the third largest party group in the Turkish Grand National Assembly with its 80 deputies, eclipsing Bahçeli’s nationalists in the legislative body.
This horrified Bahçeli, and presumably also those within the Turkish state establishment who are similarly prone to fear the Kurdish challenge to the Turkish nation-state project. The AKP had lost its majority in parliament, but Bahçeli moved quickly to lay the foundation for an alliance between the MHP and AKP. This alliance would subsequently save the AKP’s power, while securing the MHP’s ideological supremacy. On the eve of the election, Bahçeli declared that the MHP would not support any attempts by the opposition parties to wrest power from the AKP. Bahçeli effectively let Erdoğan understand that he could count on the support of the MHP to maintain power. All he needed to do was to raise the nationalist banner and unequivocally manifest an anti-Kurdish stand. Erdoğan obliged: he ended the peace process and resumed the war against the PKK. Nationalism and militarism paid off: the AKP won back its majority in a snap general election in November 2015.
The HDP backed from 13.1 in June 2015 to 10.76 percent in November that year, losing nearly one million votes. But it had faced the most adverse conditions, with an ongoing war in the Kurdish region. Yet it nonetheless succeeded in once again crossing the threshold to parliament. The leadership of the Kurdish political movement was subsequently decapitated. Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the HDP, was imprisoned in November 2016 on frivolous charges, with prosecutors demanding a 142-year jail sentence. A vast number of other influential HDP parliamentarians are either imprisoned, or have been dismissed from parliament on flimsy charges. Nearly 100 elected Kurdish mayors are behind bars as well, their seats occupied by trustees appointed from Ankara who are busy eradicating all manifestations of the Kurdish identity. A third of the total HDP membership, more than 10,000 party workers, are jailed or detained.
IMPLICATIONS: The track records of Erdoğan and Bahçeli indicate that the Kurdish factor has been decisive in determining the timing and the objectives of snap elections since 2015, when the Turkish state moved to once and for all crush the Kurdish political movement. However, unlike November 2015, the Kurdish factor may this time very well cost the ruling nationalist alliance its position of power. A replay of June 2015, when the AKP lost its majority, is no more a remote possibility, even though HDP is crippled and its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, will be contesting the presidency from prison. Demirtaş’s obvious disadvantage in running for the presidency from a prison cell has made him look like an indomitable personality, commanding respect and sympathy. His situation is emblematic, a symbol of the injustice of the Turkish political system and the unfairness of the presidential race. The Kurds, despite all obstacles they face, may still turn the tables on those who want to write them off.
Kurds comprise 18 to 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, and they will effectively decide if the AKP and MHP – which are united in an election alliance, the Cumhur ittifakı or “People alliance” – will retain their majority in parliament. The “People alliance” is challenged by the rival Millet ittifaki or “Nation alliance” that groups the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Islamist Felicity Party, the right-wing Good Party – which is formed by former MHP members who rebelled against Bahçeli – and the politically insignificant Democrat Party. The HDP had wanted to join the alliance, but its participation was opposed by the Good Party. If the HDP fails to cross the 10 percent threshold, the “People alliance” is sure to win, since around 70 seats that the HDP would be slated to secure will then be allocated to the AKP, which is the second strongest party in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated provinces. If the HDP clears the threshold, as it did in the two earlier elections, the AKP will lose its parliamentary majority.
In addition to the two major alliances, there is a third alliance of a group of Kurdish parties. The Kurdistan Election Alliance, supporting the HDP, includes the Kurdistan Socialist Party (PSK), Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Turkey, Kurdistan Freedom Party and the Azadi Movement. Although they do not have a strong electoral base, the image of a unified Kurdish political stand and the synergy it could generate could nonetheless contribute to further undermining Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s position among the Kurdish electorate.
Erdoğan won the presidential election 2014 in the first round, but he is less likely to do so this time. The winner needs to get fifty percent plus one of the votes in order to be elected in the first round, and that is a more challenging goal this year. The surveys suggest that Selahattin Demirtaş may do even better than he did four years ago, when he got nearly 10 percent. The CHP’s firebrand candidate, Muharrem İnce, and the Good Party’s Meral Akşener seem set to receive around 20 percent each. Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader and candidate of the Felicity Party, has much less support, but importantly he cuts into Erdoğan’s base.
The Kurdish vote and the endorsement of the HDP are going to be decisive in a second round. In a message from prison, Demirtaş said, “Beyond any doubt, the HDP will be the key. [In the second round] it is almost 100 percent assured that the winner will be the candidate who will be supported by the HDP. Everybody should calculate accordingly.” CHP’s presidential candidate Muharrem İnce has done just that: İnce started his campaign in Edirne, by visiting Demirtaş in Edirne prison; he then travelled to the opposite, eastern end of Turkey, to Hakkari. Hakkari, which borders on Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan, has symbolic importance as a Kurdish nationalist stronghold. It is also the province from where Demirtaş was elected to parliament in 2015.
Muharrem İnce is well aware of the key role that the Kurds are going to have in a possible second round of the presidential election and has, vowed to select a Kurd as one of his deputies if he is elected president. İnce in fact has a pro-Kurdish record: in 2016, he broke ranks with his party and opposed the lifting of the parliamentary immunity that paved the way for the subsequent imprisonment of HDP parliamentarians, including Demirtaş.
Yet the Kurdish vote may also be manipulated, as the 2017 constitutional referendum showed. Erdoğan won the referendum only with a small margin, and there is strong evidence that extensive fraud was committed in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern provinces. (See June 1, 2017, Turkey Analyst) The observers of the Council of Europe and of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the results were rigged. In Diyarbakır, the HDP received 79.1 percent of the vote in the June 2015 election, and 72.8 percent in November that year. Yet the “no” votes in the 2017 referendum – that is, the anti-Erdoğan vote – was significantly lower, at 68 percent. The pattern was the same in the other Kurdish provinces: HDP won Hakkari with 86.40 and 83.71 percent; Şırnak with 85.4 and 85.5; Mardin with 73.25 and 68.38 and Van with 74.8 and 65.5 percent. But in 2017, these Kurdish provinces suspiciously went against Erdoğan with much lower percentages: Hakkari with just 68 percent, Şırnak with 73 percent, and Mardin and Van with only 59 and 57 percent respectively.
Clearly, the intention is to rig the upcoming election as well. The use of unstamped ballot papers will be allowed after a recent change of the electoral law, while local and provincial authorities have been authorized to remove the ballot boxes and proceed to the counting of the votes at different locations if “security reasons” call for it. These changes appear intended to provide legal cover for stealing the Kurdish vote; indeed, it is likely that only electoral fraud could prevent the HDP from entering parliament and denying the AKP-MHP alliance its majority.
CONCLUSIONS: The Turkish state faces a dilemma: a strong Kurdish mobilization in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election would signal a continued adherence to the Turkish body politic; it would perhaps represent the last chance to ensure that the Kurds’ emotional drift from Turkey is halted. But from the perspective of the state, that would come at the cost of the defeat of the incumbent who has come to represent the autocratic, aggressively nationalistic state project. Selahattin Demirtaş warns that the key role that the Kurdish voters are set to play could provoke “extraordinary things” while Muharrem İnce speculated that “bombs may go off.”
Turkey’s security and stability would be endangered, but the sequence of fatal mistakes that have been committed since 2015 show that the Turkish state is determined to deprive the Kurds from having a political say.
Cengiz Çandar is Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Turkish Studies, University of Stockholm
Picture credit: By Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons accessed on May 22, 2018