BACKGROUND: If the polls are to be trusted, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), will be elected president, ending Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two decades in power (first as prime minister 2003 to 2014 and then as president since 2014). According to most polls there will be a second round on May 28 between Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan since none of the two candidates will have received more than 50 percent of the votes on May 14. But some polls put Kılıçdaroğlu as the winner already on May 14 with 52 percent or more of the votes. No poll puts Erdoğan as the winner.
Speaking on May 4, Kılıçdaroğlu confidently predicted that “We are going to retire [Erdoğan]. He’s going to withdraw quietly. No one should have any doubt about that.” Yet there is growing concern among opposition circles that Erdoğan may in fact not withdraw quietly.
The statement of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on April 28 that “May 14 is a coup, an attempt to do what they failed to do on July 15, 2016, to liquidate Turkey” suggests that a peaceful transition of power – which has been a cornerstone of Turkish democracy despite its deeply flawed character otherwise – cannot be taken for granted.
But that is not because Erdoğan as an autocrat desperately clings to personal power. Instead, what would be challenged, indeed potentially overturned if Kılıçdaroğlu were to accede to the presidency, is a system for which Erdoğan speaks but which cannot be reduced to his person. What would be “liquidated” is that system, and that may be unacceptable to the representatives of the regime.
In a speech in Ankara on May 1, Erdoğan said “My people are not going to hand over the presidency to someone who becomes president with the support of Kandil,” referring to the headquarters in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While the statement can be interpreted both as an attempt to depict his opponent as unacceptable to Turkish nationalist voters, and as a tacit recognition by the incumbent that he is going to lose the election, it is the fact that it highlights the crucial aspect of the election – the centrality of the Kurdish factor – and the systemic implications of the Kurdish endorsement of Kılıçdaroğlu that is most important.
On April 28, Mithat Sancar, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) – which enters the election under the umbrella of the Green Left Party – made official what was already known, that the Labor and Freedom Alliance that the Green Left Party forms together with five socialist parties (of which the Labor Party of Turkey (TIP) is the most important) endorses Kılıçdaroğlu. Sancar underlined that the Kurdish dominated alliance subscribes to the same goal as Kılıçdaroğlu, to end what he termed “one man rule.”
The HDP co-chair was referring to the presidential system that has concentrated power to an executive presidency, effectively marginalizing parliament, and which the Nation Alliance – the main opposition alliance that Kılıçdaroğlu heads – has vowed to abolish.
IMPLICATIONS: It is no coincidence that the Kurdish political movement rallies to that proposition and endorses Kılıçdaroğlu for that very reason. The introduction of the presidential system was precipitated by the rise of the HDP, which in 2015 became the first pro-Kurdish party to pass the ten percent threshold to parliament (which has now been lowered to seven percent) on its own and not on the candidate lists of other parties, forming the third biggest party group in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The HDP is still represented in the parliament, but this presence is less consequential – and more tolerable to the Turkish state – as the legislative, although far from powerless, is nonetheless circumscribed and to all intents and purposes sidelined by the executive presidency.
The abolition of the presidential system and the return to a parliamentary system would by implication also restore political power to the Kurdish political movement, as a potential kingmaker in parliament. Murat Karayılan, the acting leader of the PKK, accordingly rejoiced that “on May 14 not only a president but a system will be chosen.”
This year’s presidential election has become yet another demonstration of the futility of constitutional engineering; notwithstanding the attempts to prevent the Kurdish movement from wielding power, Kurdish support is proving decisive for the outcome of the election. On the other hand, winning over the Kurds has exposed Kılıçdaroğlu to criticisms from Turkish nationalists, another constituency – alongside the Kurds – that he can ill afford to alienate.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s response to the allegations by the regime that he is cahoots with Kurdish separatists and “terrorists” has been to state that “the fatherland and the flag are our red lines” and that “whoever stands together with terrorists should be damned.” That may be reassuring enough for most voters. There are yet no indications in the polls that the endorsement of the Kurdish political movement is eroding the support for Kılıçdaroğlu among Turkish nationalist voters, although that may ultimately prove harmful, even fatal, for his prospects. But even if, as it seems, the people will elect Kılıçdaroğlu, the question is – to paraphrase Erdoğan’s statement – if the state is going to hand over the presidency to someone who will owe his election in no small part to the support of a movement that defies the state, and that will be expecting concessions in return.
Ahmet Türk, a veteran of the Kurdish movement and a leading representative of the HDP, has stated that Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, “will be freed the day after the election.” Sırrı Sakık, another HDP representative said “we are going to change this one hundred year old republic.” Even if these statements can be dismissed as expressions of wishful thinking, they nonetheless do speak of the expectations and demands of the Kurdish movement. Indeed, Türk warns that Kılıçdaroğlu must live up to the expectations of the Kurds and avoid disappointing them.
Kılıçdaroğlu has only committed himself to setting Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP, free in accordance with the ruling in his case of the European Court of Human Rights, and offered that he intends to “solve the Kurdish issue in parliament.” However, he has done so without further elaborating on what such a solution might entail. The demands of the Kurdish movement are all the more clear: devolution of power to the Kurdish provinces of Turkey, constitutional redefinition of Turkey as a bi-national, Turkish-Kurdish state and freedom for Öcalan and imprisoned HDP representatives.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s refusal to be any more specific about how and to what extent – if at all – he would be prepared to meet these demands is, although politically understandable, nonetheless problematic since voters are kept in the dark about his intentions and plans, assuming that he indeed does have any detailed vision.
Meanwhile, the suspicions of the state security establishment have been fueled by Kılıçdaroğlu’s and the CHP’s opposition to cross-border military interventions in Syria and Iraq against the PKK and its affiliates. In 2022, the CHP joined the HDP in parliament in voting against the extension of the time-limit for military cross-border interventions, Kilicdaroglu stating at the time that the CHP will vote against all such proposed operations in the future.
CONCLUSIONS: The Kurdish challenge has determined Turkey’s domestic political course – as well as its relation to the United States – during the last decade. It was the perceived need by the Turkish state to check the Kurdish political movement that precipitated the transition to the presidential system. Today, it is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s determination to abolish this system that has secured him the support of the Kurdish movement and set him on a path to victory on May 14.
But conversely, this also makes Kılıçdaroğlu unacceptable to the state, as Interior Minister Soylu’s statement that his victory would amount to a “coup” indicates.
Yet other decision makers in the state may be less willing to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the state and may wager, in case Kılıçdaroğlu does win the election, that the new president can be controlled and constrained, not least by his right wing nationalist alliance partners. Reassured that the system will fundamentally remain intact, they might conclude that they can live with him.
That may in fact be the most optimistic scenario: that Kılıçdaroğlu, if he wins the election, is accepted by the state on the condition that he in turn accepts to abide by the rules of the state.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press).