WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has an intriguing perspective on the re-run of the local elections in Istanbul, slated for June 23, and its implications for Turkish politics.
Erdemir believes that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push for another vote in Istanbul is likely to prove a serious mistake. “He’s hoping that the second time around, he will be able to steal Istanbul,” Erdemir told Kurdistan 24. “But it is a big gamble, since if he loses for the second time, which is highly likely, this will be his biggest mistake in politics.”
“It will not only be an embarrassing defeat for Erdogan,” Erdemir continued, “but more importantly, it will lead to structural changes in Turkish politics.”
“The opposition can only win with Kurdish votes in Istanbul,” a crucial point that Erdemir stressed. “If for two times in a row, Istanbul’s Kurdish voters stand behind the secular candidate, this will be, I think, the beginning of a new partnership in Turkish politics.”
“That is a very insightful notion,” Giran Ozcan, Washington Representative of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), told Kurdistan 24.
“The platform that Erdogan ran on was extremely nationalist,” Ozcan added, and “the primary target was the Kurdish people.” In the first vote, they went to the polls “to defeat that nationalist and racist platform,” Ozcan continued, and he expects the same on June 23.
“Turkey’s Kurds will become a key kingmaker in Turkish politics,” Erdemir suggested, if that happens. In other words, they would become a crucial bloc of swing voters, and that would bring about significant change in Turkish politics.
“I think we will begin to see stronger bridges being established between electorates who used to stay distant from one another, but who are now coming together under Erdogan’s tremendous pressure,” Erdemir said.
Last month, Turkish authorities allowed the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, a visit from his lawyers for the first time in eight years. Some analysts speculated that it represented an attempt to win Kurdish votes in the Istanbul elections. However, “Erdogan is limited in any effort to court the Kurdish vote,” even if he wants to do so, “because of his alliance with the far right” Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Kani Xulam, Director of Washington’s American Kurdish Information Network, told Kurdistan 24.
There is also a parallel religious component to the Istanbul election campaign, involving Muslims against Christians, and an attempt to rally voters on anti-Christian sentiment.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, narrowly won the position of Istanbul’s mayor, before the AKP succeeded in its bid to annul the results of that vote and hold a second one.
Pro-government media and AKP supporters have begun calling Imamoglu a “Pontic Greek,” Ahval, reported on Wednesday, in reference to his birthplace, Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea, which was originally founded as a Greek colony.
Xulam suggested this was an AKP attempt to stir up religious animosities and associate Imamoglu with “infidels,” just as the AKP’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric was intended to appeal to extreme nationalist sentiments.
Indeed, in the run up to the March 31 local elections, Erdogan ostentatiously played the religious card, using the March 15 assault on two New Zealand mosques to raise religious tensions in his own country.
Just before that assault began, the shooter, Brenton Tarrant ,a white supremacist, uploaded to the internet a “manifesto” that included a personal attack on the Turkish president:
Erdogan [is] the leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest islamic group within Europe. This warlord must bleed his last, whilst he visits his ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe. His death will also drive a wedge between the Turk invaders currently occupying our lands and the ethnic European people whilst simultaneously weakening Turkeys [sic] hold on the region, removing a prime enemy of Russia and destabilizing and fracturing NATO.
On his Facebook page, Tarrant live-streamed the first 17 minutes of his attack. The video was reposted an astonishing 1.5 million times, before Facebook managed to take it down.
The New Zealand government sought to do everything possible to discredit Tarrant and his incendiary, hate-filled message. Nonetheless, and despite multiple protests from that government, Erdogan repeatedly played the video at campaign rallies in an effort to portray the AKP as the defender of Muslims and win votes in advance of the local elections two weeks later.
It is impossible to know what impact, if any, the video had on the March 31 poll. Perhaps, in its absence, the AKP would have done even more poorly. Whatever the case may be, it seems the party leadership still believes that playing the religious card, if not the ethnic card, is one easy way to gain votes.