Still, the Kurds vote and are kingmakers in Turkey


In recent local elections held across Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has lost seven of the country’s 12 main cities.

Kurdish votes had a decisive role in the success of Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidates Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, elected in Istanbul and Ankara respectively. The Kurdish vote also played a crucial role in the rise of the opposition as it won in Adana, Mersin, and Hatay.

The March 31 local elections, when people voted for mayors and other local officials across the country, were the first held since Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2018 after the country changed its government system to a presidential one. After a divisive campaign in which opposition candidates were accused of either being terrorists or being backed by terrorists, threatened with imprisonment or removal from office, or publicly called infidels, the AKP also lost the entire Turkish coastline.

The results of the election show that the AKP can’t beat the Kurdish movement, despite all the pressure they’ve been directing at it, and true democracy in Turkey is not possible without Kurds.

Newly passed alliance law

The Turkish parliament passed a law in March 2018 that allows parties to form alliances and enter the elections as part of a joint list of candidates.

With the change, alliances now have a new legal basis, with the name of the group appearing on the ballot. This law allowed such an alliance to present itself as one, unified bloc. As part of the regulations, parties must submit an application to form an alliance to the Supreme Election Council (YSK) within seven days after the election calendar is announced.

Parties’ electoral alliance

The ruling AKP and the MHP ultranationalist party have been developing closer relations since the end of the so-called “peace process” with Kurds, announced by Erdogan himself in early 2013 and which the MHP opposed.

Turkey’s peace process with the outlawed PKK, which the Turkish government calls the “Resolution Process” and which collapsed after 2015 parliamentary elections at a time when the AKP needed the alliance to form the government and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) refused such cooperation.

In the November elections that followed, the AKP gained enough seats to complete a cabinet. The MHP’s defeat in those elections, plus its internal rivalries, led the party to approach the AKP.

After a failed coup attempt that took place in July 2016, the AKP’s rhetoric turned increasingly nationalist and conservative, and as a result, a common interest led the MHP to ally with the AKP for the 2017 referendum. On election day, Turkish voters approved a package of constitutional changes, handing more executive powers to the president. The change also allowed the president to retain ties to a political party that had been previously outlawed.

The following year, the AKP and MHP took their cooperation to a higher level, as a true electoral alliance. The AKP/MHP then introduced joint candidates in 51 cities. Their bloc, called “Cumhur İttifakı” (People’s Alliance) also have the support of some smaller parties and is known to progressive parties in Turkey as the “Islamo-Ultranationalist” bloc.

The main opposition party, the CHP, formed an alliance with the İyi (Good) party to put forth its own joint candidates in 51 cities. It became known as “Millet İttifakı” (Nation Alliance).

The HDP’s tactics

Amid a government crackdown against its grassroots support, the HDP’s first strategy was getting back its mayoral positions that had been seized by the AKP and filled with appointed “trustees.”

Between the PKK and the government, local HDP mayors failed to deliver expected services. Backed by Ankara’s huge investment package, the trustees, known as kayyums in Turkish, have resolved some practical problems by, at times, governing effectively to deal with issues like waste management, road construction, and some others. 

The HDP’s second strategy was weakening the AKP through helping the CHP. The two may have formed an alliance in some cities to make sure Erdogan’s AKP lost but this was not formally confirmed. Many Kurds believed that the HDP shouldn’t support any alliance.

The HDP worked strategically and tirelessly, making the shrewd decision to not field any candidates in either Istanbul or Ankara, instead channeling HDP voters toward the “Nation Alliance” and strengthening its position against the AKP/MHPs People’s Alliance.

This proved successful, sealing the AKP’s historic defeat in these two key cities; Istanbul as an economic powerhouse and Ankara as the nation’s political capital.

The HDP also decided not to field any candidates for mayor in five of Turkey’s largest cities: the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara, Istanbul, Adana, Mersin, Antalya, and Izmir.  The informal alliance allowed the CHP to claim municipalities such as Esenyurt, an Istanbul district with a large Kurdish population.  Also the CHP’s Ankara, Adana, Mersin and Hatay victories would have been impossible without the usual HDP voters. 

The HDP’s losses and gains

Compared to the previous local elections, the HDP’s total share of the vote dropped, including losses in the province of Agri, located along the Iranian border, and Sirnak, on the border with Iraq. Overall, of the Kurdish majority provinces contested by the HDP and the AKP, Erdogan’s party won about half. This is quite a surprising turnaround.

Erdogan has granted Turkish citizenship to tens of thousands of Syrians and he has accommodated naturalized Syrians in cities where his AKP has been attempting to win against the HDP and CHP. This has helped the AKP’s confidence in its victories in some cities.

Members of the HDP, including two co-chairs, have just been imprisoned over accusations of having links to the PKK. The HDP has achieved success in spite of the AKP/MHP government mass mobilization within state power, including the military and police forces.

According to the published results, the HDP has won elections in eight cities, three major cities, and 45 districts.

The HDP delivered a victory in the province of Diyarbakir, known as the cultural and unofficial political capital of Turkey’s Kurdistan. HDP co-mayoral candidates have also succeeded in Kars with Kurdish, Turkish, and Azeri populations and in Igdir with a majority of Azeri Turks, despite the alliances of all other parties against them. But the HDP also lost the Kurdish southeastern towns of Bitlis, Şırnak, and Aigri to the AKP.

In Dersim (Tunceli), the Kurdish-majority Alevi province has a strong leftist tradition and voters elected the country’s first ever communist mayor. Turkey Communist Party (TKP) candidate Fatih Macoglu had previously been controlled by the HDP.

Security and state of law

Kurdish majority cities across the southeast faced weeks-long curfews and military offensives which produced war-torn landscapes reminiscent of those in neighboring Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government then seized over 100 municipalities which the HDP had won in 2014 and jailed 60 mayors during a crackdown on the party that began in 2016.

Predominantly Kurdish provinces often saw massive and overwhelming deployments of police and soldiers, creating an atmosphere for Kurdish voters at polling stations that was, at the very least, highly abnormal.

In an HDP statement, spokesperson Ayse Basaran said that since the party first entered this year’s election campaign, Turkish authorities have arrested 713 party members, including polling clerks. The total number of Kurdish party members in Turkish prisons exceeds 7,000, among them former party leaders Selahattin Demirtas, Figen Yuksekdag, a dozen lawmakers, and over 60 mayors.  

Omid Hosseini is an international relations and Middle East researcher with an emphasis on Kurdish affairs. He was born in the Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhilati) city of Saqqiz and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Masters in International Relations, both from the University of Tehran.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.

Editing by John J. Catherine