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Kurds and the Turkish Elections in Five Questions

1. Why does the pro-Kurdish political movement not have its own presidential candidate?

The short answer would be: because it wants to beat Erdogan in the first round, and the chance of this increases with fewer candidates. If the pro-Kurdish political movement had put forward a candidate, that candidate would would have likely earned some 10% of the votes (an estimate based on earlier results and the size of the the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) voter base). This would likely have left both Erdogan and the main opposition candidate under the required 50%, triggering a second round.

But there is a longer answer. Until late March, the HDP, or more precisely the Labour and Freedom Alliance (which includes the HDP and several smaller leftist parties), was still considering running its own candidate. Its choice depended on the candidate that the main opposition alliance, known as the Nation Alliance or the ‘table of six’, would present.

There was a power play going on within the Nation Alliance between main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and IYI Party leader Meral Aksener. The latter wanted to nominate either Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas, both from the CHP, because they are popular and were seen as able to beat Erdogan. Imamoglu had shown before that he could: in 2019 he beat the AKP candidate for the Istanbul mayoral seat, with even bigger numbers when the AKP contested the outcome of the elections and manipulated a second round.

Aksener thought Kilicdaroğlu wouldn’t be able to beat Erdogan, but she didn’t take the Kurdish vote into account. Imamoglu and especially Yavas were not candidates the voter base of HDP would be enthusiastic about because of their closeness to Turkish (ultra-)nationalism. But this couldn’t be said out loud because of the precariousness of openly taking the Kurdish vote into account. The IYI Parti is a break-away from the MHP, which has been in a coalition with the AKP since 2015, and Aksener has a long career within the state. She rejects the HDP as a legitimate political party, finds them an extension of the armed Kurdish movement the PKK and doesn’t want to be associated with them in any way. If Kilicdaroglu would have openly said that Imamoglu or Yavas would scare the Kurdish vote away, the Nation Alliance could have crumbled.

In March, Aksener walked away from the ‘table of six’ and tried to persuade Imamoglu or Yavas to oppose Kilicdaroglu’s potential candidacy. But they didn’t take the bait, and both fully backed Kilicdaroglu. Aksener returned to the alliance weaker than she was before, leaving Kilicdaroglu strengthened. He was then officially announced as the Nation Alliance’s candidate. A few days later, the HDP announced that they would not run in the elections with their own candidate.

2. Does the pro-Kurdish political movement support Kilicdaroglu because he is an Alevi Kurd from Dersim?

It’s not that simple. Kilicdaroglu is indeed an Alevi Kurd from Dersim, but not one who has (until very recently) ever openly identified as such. But it does help. What also helps, is that he seems to have changed the CHP since he took over the leadership of it in 2010. From a staunchly Kemalist party that was social-democrat mainly in name, it has transformed into what has been perceived as a more diverse party.

In April, Kilicdaroglu released two videos that drew a lot of attention. The first was ‘Kürtler’ (Kurds), in which he spoke out against the way the government resorts to framing Kurds as terrorists when it is afraid to lose power, and called on people not to fall into that trap. The second was ‘Alevi’, in which he (for the first time ever) said that he is an Alevi himself. This video went viral and has already been watched more than 110 million times. Turkey has large Kurdish and Turkish Alevi communities, but an openly Alevi politician running for president and actually having a chance to win is quite remarkable.

3. Didn’t Kilicdaroglu say something about Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood as well? 

He did, but it’s not necessarily positive. This brotherhood is actually more of a Turkish nationalist myth. He mentioned Canakkale, where in the First World War a long and intense battle was fought between the Ottoman army and the UK and France. Turks and Kurds fought together in that battle and fought until victory. The battle is seen as important in the coming into being of the Republic of Turkey: Mustafa Kemal (later: Ataturk) was one of the commanders, and he went on to fight against the winners of the First World War in Turkey’s ‘War of Independence’. Kurds and Turks also fought together in that war, which resulted in the foundation of the republic in 1923.

But as soon as the republic was founded, the suppression of the Kurds began. Everybody in Turkey was forced to identify as a Sunni Turk. For decades, the existence of Kurds was outright denied. Now that Kurdish existence can’t be denied anymore, the brotherhood concept is used to block Kurds from demanding rights based on their ethnicity. The brotherhood entails that Turks and Kurds have the same history, the same language, the same culture, the same motherland, and the same religion.

This suffocating brotherhood leaves no space for distinct Kurdish history, language, geography, religion, mythology, etc. Kurds who do claim political and cultural rights, break the ‘brotherhood’, and therefore the sacred unity of the republic – one of the foundations of it. Breaking the brotherhood mens separatism, and separatism is terrorism.

In this way, the videos show the balancing act Kilicdaroglu is performing. One the one hand, he reaches out to Kurds, on the other hand, he serves Turkish nationalists.

4. Is that why Kilicdaroglu didn’t speak out against the mass detention of Kurdish lawyers, journalists and politicians last month?

Looks like it. It’s interesting: on one hand, he spoke out against the government’s framing of Kurds as terrorists; on the other hand he is afraid to speak out for Kurdish rights because he could be framed as a supporter of terrorism. He fell into the trap.

That said, he doesn’t need to speak out because he will not lose the Kurdish vote either way. The HDP/Green Left Party (YSP), and most importantly imprisoned former HDP co-leader Demirtas, have urged their voters to vote for Kilicdaroglu for president and for YSP in the parliamentary elections—and that is what they will do. What Kilicdaroglu’s policies will be if he is elected remains to be seen.

5. What does the HDP get in return for its support of Kilicdaroglu?

Nothing that we know of. Supporting Kilicdaroglu is a means to an end. The most urgent goal now is to vote out Erdogan and to counter the disaster of increasing authoritarianism under his rule. If Kilicdaroglu wins and Erdogan accepts defeat,  the struggle for democracy and a solution to the Kurdish issue will continue.

It is important to note that not only presidential elections will be held on 14 May. There will also be parliamentary elections. The HDP is running under the banner of the Yesil Sol Parti (Green Left Party) because the closure case against the HDP could have been completed before 14 May. And then, the Kurds will again be a bloc to take into account, just like now in the run for the presidency.

Kilicdaroglu and his alliance have vowed to change the constitution to bring back the parliamentary system. The Kurdish political movement wants that too, but for the HDP/YSP to agree to any constitutional change, they will want something that contributes to solving the Kurdish issue too. The judicial system and the constitution must be radically reformed for the Kurdish issue to be solved and to grant the Kurdish people their right to self-determination—in whichever form that may be negotiated.

(Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)

About the Author

Fréderike Geerdink


Fréderike Geerdink is a freelance journalist and writer from the Netherlands who has been covering Kurdistan for more than a decade. Between 2012 and 2015, she was the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir – until Turkey expelled …

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