Can Turkish opposition overcome nationalist stigma, ally with Kurds?

Can the Turkish opposition unite, especially with the Kurdish minority, to challenge Erdogan?

LONDON, United Kingdom (Kurdistan 24) – The 2015 snap elections, failed military coup in 2016, and the successful referendum to introduce an executive presidency in 2017 has consolidated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power. Now, can the Turkish opposition unite, especially with the Kurdish minority, to challenge Erdogan?

Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but like the national elections in 2015, it underscored a deepening polarization of the country.

The July 2016 failed coup tightened Erdogan’s authority with mass crackdowns aimed at supporters of Fethullah Gulen, spreading across the opposition spectrum.

Opposition to Erdogan may be strong, but so is his support base, leaving the opposition in a difficult predicament.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in Turkey with 59 seats, has seen several of their MPs arrested—including co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas—with growing unease in Kurdish dominated areas of Turkey leading to government-PKK violence reminiscent of the 1990’s.

However, although the HDP has campaigned against Erdogan and led the opposition voice, unity with other Turkish opposition parties have not been as forthcoming.

The HDP, like numerous other Kurdish parties in the past, has struggled to escape the shadows of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the noose of tough security laws, factors the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has successfully used to dilute the HDP’s credibility.

As Kurds struggle for their rights in Turkey, and with a floundering peace process showing no signs of revival, the HDP’s quest for enlarged freedoms has been swept under the banner of terrorism.

Even as a prominent opposition force, there remains a stigma working with the Kurds that hampers the prospects of a loose alliance with mainstream Turkish opposition parties.

The case of the hawkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have been vehemently against any expansion of Kurdish rights or peace deals with the PKK, may be understandable but with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition party, there was more ground for cooperation.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently undertook a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul he hailed as a “rebirth.”

While Kilicdaroglu criticized Erdogan stating that “we are facing dictatorial rule,” and “we don’t want to live in a country where there is no justice,” there was no specific mention of the plight of the HDP MPs or the Kurds in general.

With the Kurdish question remaining a sensitive national topic, opposition parties remain fearful of alienating their traditional nationalist support base.

Ironically, the cross-party endorsement of the bill that removed MP immunity from prosecution, principally aimed at the HDP, led to the imprisonment of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu and the subsequent justice march.

In fact, Erdogan has traditionally towed a careful line between appeasing Kurdish supporters and enticing nationalists’ votes when required.

The terror card and the end of the peace talks with the PKK helped to swell AKP votes in snap elections that saw the party resume power.

Erdogan has also used the AKP religious base to woo conservative Kurdish voters as a counter-weight to rallies around ethnicity.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused the PKK in the past of targeting the “faith of our Muslim, conservative Kurdish brothers” and striving to turn Kurds “atheist and Marxist."

Rejecting the HDP as representatives of the Kurds, Erdogan recently stated, “Supremacy is not being Kurdish or Turkish. He who is closer to Allah is supreme.”

With national and presidential elections set for 2019, the opposition must make difficult compromises.

The opposition may need a loose alliance with the HDP to muster a coalition that can successfully challenge Erdogan. Aside from mass rallies and cross-country marches, the opposition needs an effective strategy to counter Erdogan.

Additionally, the opposition must identify a presidential candidate that can rival Erdogan. Until then, Erdogan is likely to tighten his grip on power further.

There are signs the CHP may work with the HDP with the recent public show of solidarity for the HDP’s justice march where CHP members, including the party’s Istanbul provincial head Cemal Canpolat and Istanbul lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu, attended the Kurdish rally.

Canpolat stated at the gathering in Kadikoy’s Yogurtcu Park, “We’ll be in a struggle to extend this solidarity. These problems cannot be solved with blood and tears.”

“We need to go through a reconciliation process for peace, democracy, and solidarity in the period that our country is going through,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tanrikulu stated, “In that march [in July], we were in solidarity with all of Turkey’s democratic forces. Today we are here to show the same solidarity.”

HDP’s spokesperson Osman Baydemir, rejecting a recent resolution by the Turkish government to ban the use of the words “Kurdistan” and “genocide” at the Parliament, vowed “we will not keep quiet” and “we will not bow to fascism.”

At crossroads, the opposition must make tough concessions to persuade the Kurds, if they are to muster a successful challenge to Erdogan.

However, with a polarized socio-political landscape in Turkey, even the opposition will struggle to overcome division.


Editing by Karzan Sulaivany