Istanbul, Turkey – Standing tentatively on the fringes of a protest in Istanbul, Asmin Y says she has no choice but to vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, because her desired candidate is not on the ballot and has been behind bars since 2016.
The 30-year-old teacher, who did not want to give her full name, was referring to Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of the predominantly pro-Kurdish socialist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who ran against Erdogan for the presidency in 2018, from his prison cell.
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So as not to split the opposition vote, Demirtas, who faces various “terror charges”, is not among the four presidential contenders for the May 14 elections that are taking place in the centenary year of the Turkish republic.
The HDP, which faces a potential shutdown with a lawsuit ongoing since 2021 seeking to disband it for alleged links to “terrorism”, is fielding its candidates for parliamentary elections under the banner of the Green Left Party, with an uncannily similar symbol ensuring swift recognisability on the campaign trail and at the ballot box.
“We thought we could trust him [Erdogan], but it ended in blood. [Yet] I don’t know if Kilicdaroglu will bring change for us, give us our rights,” said Asmin, who regularly shows up for a peaceful vigil, now in its 945th week, and which is routinely disrupted by police.
The “Saturday Mothers” have held these demonstrations since 1995, seeking justice for family members forcibly disappeared after a military coup in 1980 and during a state of emergency in the 1990s, especially in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
“Kurds are only important for their votes. And then what happens? Nothing. We remain second-class even in a democracy,” said Asmin, whose family is from Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir. “Will a new government free him [Demirtas] and hundreds of others who are wrongfully imprisoned?”
Kurds as kingmakers
The HDP and its left-wing allies announced their support for Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a six-party alliance, and will be key to helping the opposition surpass the 50 percent needed to win the presidency, and also securing a parliamentary majority.
Asmin will vote for Kilicdaroglu for president, but for the Green Left for parliament. “I can only follow his messages. I will support whoever he tells us to,” said Asmin, of Demirtas’s statements, posted on Twitter by his lawyers.
The government accuses the HDP – the second-largest opposition party – of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey and its Western allies. The PKK has fought a war against the Turkish state since 1984, which has killed nearly 40,000 people, the majority civilians. The HDP’s backing of Kilicdaroglu followed the arrests of more than 100 Kurdish activists, journalists and lawyers in what the government claimed was an “anti-terror” operation.
Erdogan is facing perhaps his biggest test in 20 years in the upcoming elections, with a cost-of-living crisis and soaring inflation that has seen savings eroded, and criticism for the government’s response to earthquakes in February in which more than 50,000 people died.
Kilicdaroglu, however, is unlikely to be able to gain victory without the backing of the HDP. Kurds form a significant minority in Turkey, although there is no official data on their numbers.
“We need change, people to change, Turkey to change,” said Mahir Ulunur, a 41-year-old plumber with Kurdish roots from eastern Malatya, who lives in Istanbul.
“We need a revolution, people like Erkan Bas [leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party of Turkey, TIP],” he said, adding that his vote for president will go to Kilicdaroglu, and for parliament to the TIP, which is part of the Freedom and Labour Alliance that includes the Green Left.
“The Kurdish aspect is not important for me,” he said of the HDP, “the socialist part is critical.” While his family always votes CHP, Ulunur wants something different for his life and his country, adding that he seeks “more rights for women, more socialism. The CHP may be too liberal. One-man rule must end,” Mahir said, indicating that identity and religion mattered less than equality and greater freedoms.
Change. More or less?
Not everyone wants change, especially in times of crisis.
Firat Akbulut, a 60-year-old Kurd living in Istanbul, believes only Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will extricate the country from its current, entrenched economic morass and safeguard national security.
“I honestly can’t say I’m very satisfied with the situation, but the president has already increased the minimum wage. Other changes are coming. This problem is all over the world, not only in Turkey. It is a bad time, but we are more secure with him,” said Akbulut, who works as a dry cleaner in Esenyurt district, as he criticised Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who would become one of two vice presidents if the CHP alliance wins, for a planned eight-hour power cut.
Many Kurds were drawn to the AK Party when it came to power in 2002, and Akbulut is one of a sizeable, albeit decreasing, segment of Turkey’s population who still support the party.
This support comes for different reasons: many Kurds are religiously conservative, and find that the AK Party’s traditional values appeal to them; others see the CHP and other groups within the opposition as representative of a Turkish elite that has clamped down on Kurdish rights in the past, while Erdogan and the AK Party, particularly in their early years in power, expanded the space for Kurds to express their identity.
While many Kurds are opposed to the PKK, a pledge to broker a deal with them during Erdogan’s early years in power, and the calm that would bring to Turkey’s southeast, also led to a popularity boost.
Akbulut himself cannot see how the opposition would help Turkey’s Kurdish population.
“How can six parties rule? They will lie to each other and fight amongst themselves if they get power,” he said, adding “they want Kurds to vote for them, but they have no solution for Kurdish problems. We are not one vote, we will make our own choices.”
After the peace process collapsed with the PKK in 2015, ending a two-year ceasefire, the government said it would not return to talks with the group. Since then, Turkey has regularly targeted the PKK in the southeast and attacked the group’s positions in northern Iraq. It also launched a crackdown on the HDP.
Some voters are concerned about Erdogan’s other alliance, albeit unofficial, with the predominantly pro-Kurdish Islamist party Huda-Par (Free Cause Party), controversial due to its links to the Kurdish Hezbollah movement and extrajudicial killings in Turkey’s southeast in the 1990s. While not officially part of the ruling People’s Alliance, its candidates will run for parliament seats under the AK Party list.
Huda-Par chief Zekeriya Yapicioglu has said the party’s manifesto specifically mentions that “taboo topics” such as autonomy for the Kurds should be freely discussed – something nationalists in both alliances would baulk at.
“We have battled repression for a century,” said a 75-year-old man at a market in Istanbul’s Fatih district. “First they want to shake our hands, then we are terrorists, and prison is never very far. Now someone else wants to shake our hands.”
“Our youth know they can get detained for anything. Even I can get arrested, at my age.” He isn’t fired up about the elections. “Only poverty, no pension, maybe prison. Old men should get out of power. We have had enough. Don’t take our vote, our support, our strength for granted.”