In October 2022, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his government would usher the Republic, which in October this year will celebrate a century of existence, into “a new century for Turkey” as one of the top 10 countries in the world in a number of fields. However, one major drawback to Erdoğan’s plan, apart from the unconvincing achievements of the Ankara regime in the last 5-6 years, is the round of parliamentary and presidential elections slated for May 14, 2023. Particularly due to the government’s lousy accomplishments, most opinion polls show the opposition could win both ballots, thus putting an end to two decades of AKP-Erdoğan rule.
The opposition backs a common candidate, but lacks a consistent plan to solve Turkey’s problems
The election race has now entered its final stage. After months of tensions and countless political shenanigans, the coalition of six opposition parties has finally closed ranks around a single candidate for the office of President of the Republic, the leader of the main opposition party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu adeptly navigated the crisis generated by Meral Aksener, the leader of İYİ Parti (the Good Party), who wanted to nominate either Ekrem Imamoğlu, the Mayor of Istanbul, or Mansur Yavaș, the Mayor of Ankara, as the opposition’s candidate. But these two candidacies would have meant the opposition lost control of two major cities. Although she had threatened her party would withdraw from “the Table of Six”, an anti-Erdoğan political alliance of opposition parties, Akșener eventually was forced to bow out. Many members of her party were about to abandon ship at any rate, so Mrs. Akșener returned to the opposition fold after the two mayors were promised to be appointed vice-presidents of Turkey, should Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu manage to secure a presidential term. It was a most welcome compromise, although for a few days, Akșener and the Good Party were at risk of becoming irrelevant on the political stage.
The decision averted a disaster, but ousting the current administration will take going a few extra miles. Although most opinion polls credit the opposition with the highest chances of winning both rounds of election on May 14, the more experienced pundits remain reluctant. The Common Policies Memorandum of Understanding, signed by leaders of all six opposition parties, which was publicly announced on January 31, 2023, was highly criticized for its failure to explicitly and consistently tackle serious issues facing Turkey for generations. Among these are concrete actions to solve the “Kurdish question” (which is a problem for Turkey, not the Kurds, to solve), the issue of individual and collective rights, the economic crisis, as well as the delicate situation of the judiciary.
The most vocal critics of the document say this represents a manifesto against Erdoğan and nothing more. It does not provide voters with the hope that the opposition will come up with clear-cut solutions to solve what the Erdoğan-AKP regime has destroyed in the last ten years through corruption, obscure policy-making and oppressive authoritarianism. The Memorandum mentions “human rights” only when referring to the education of young people. There’s no mention in the text that human rights will be a pillar of the post-Erdoğan era. What is far more serious is the fact that nowhere in the document is the word “Kurd” mentioned, considering that all of Turkey’s seasoned political pundits have agreed that solving the conflict between Ankara and ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurdish one, which totals approximately 20 million people, is the cornerstone of this country’s democratic future.
The Kurds could decide Turkey’s future
This drawback has been somewhat overcome recently by Kılıçdaroğlu. The pro-Kurdish party, HDP, is not part of the Nation Alliance, which is what the Table of Six named itself at the start of 2023. The reason? The nationalist parties and factions in the election coalition didn’t’ want to be associated with this party. Accused of collaborating with the PKK terrorist organization, HDP runs the risk of being banned – HDP is scheduled to appear before court to present its defense on April 11, which is just a month shy of the May 14 elections. Still, on March 20 Kılıçdaroğlu had a formal meeting with HDP leaders in their Parliament office. At the end of the meeting, the opposition leader said the so-called Kurdish question can be solved only in Parliament, and publicly called on the government to officially recognize the language of this significant national minority. And this is actually the crux of the “Kurdish question”. The term itself is a euphemism concealing what is, after all, “the Turkish question”: Ankara’s hundred-year-old refusal to officially acknowledge the existence of dozens of millions of people with ethnic and religious minority identities. Of these, the Kurds and the Alevi are the most numerous. Adding to them are other, millennia-old minority identities, whose very existence is systematically challenged by the policies of the Turkish state.
The issue is taking on significant proportions in the current context, also marked by the tens of thousands of people who died in the February 6 earthquake – mostly Kurds, Alevi, Assyrians or Arabs – in the 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey. And the death toll continues to rise. There’s no secret that the millions of votes of these national minorities could tip the election balance. They already played a key role in the 2015 election, when HDP surprisingly exceeded the election threshold of 10% (the highest of its kind in the world) required to be represented in the Turkish Parliament. And HDP continues to be the third-largest party in terms of Parliament representation (after AKP and CHP) and the second-largest in the opposition (after CHP). Moreover, unlike almost every other party, HDP is the only one actively militating not just for the rights of the millions of Kurds in Turkey, but also for the rights of other minorities, gender equality, citizen rights and the liberalization of the political system overall. All that is evidence why HDP is one of the few parties in Turkey that explicitly and consistently distance themselves from any conservative, nationalist-religious ideology.
After the government’s embarrassing response to last summer’s wildfires and the February 2023 quakes, the opposition is expected to obtain more votes from national minorities, irrespective of whether Turkish courts of law will or will not allow HDP to take part in this year’s elections. The Kurds, in particular, need to be part of any equation that could be decisive for Turkey. After Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s meeting with HDP leaders on March 20, public messages from both sides have been positive, and HDP’s electorate is expected to endorse the opposition candidate in the upcoming presidential ballot. This detail could be critical for Turkey’s future. However, the final results of both the presidential and the parliamentary elections depend on how every other actor involved in the race will position themselves by May 14. We should also keep an eye on another major source of influence: the PKK terrorist organization (whose name is an acronym of the Kurmanji Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê)
The big unknown: what will PKK do and how free and democratic will these elections actually be?
In a March 17 statement that represented one of his rare public appearances, the PKK leader Murat Karayilan seemed to endorse HDP’s position as a democratic party representing millions of Kurds. However, experts will surely remember that PKK stands accused of having sabotaged the peace process with Ankara, whose collapse was blamed on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party to a great extent. PKK was also accused of having acted with the deliberate view to undermine HDP’s political agenda, some people considering that HDP’s success in the 2015 election was also a defeat for the PKK. In a country like Turkey, where security measures and acts of aggression from law enforcement against the population have intensified particularly after the failed coup of July 2016, using brute force has become a very effective tool today. Against this backdrop, PKK could also return to its terrorism-as-usual routine, and the democratic dream of the Turkish majority population could swiftly come apart, particularly if authorities declare a state of emergency nationwide and suspend all citizen rights, including the right to free and democratic elections.
The current context itself can hardly be described as ideal for holding free and democratic elections. Freedom is speech is encroached upon, while prisons are crammed with political opponents as well as journalists who were critical of the AKP-Erdoğan regime. Online freedom of speech, whether we’re talking about media outlets or strictly personal opinions, has become a much riskier business after the adoption of the so-called disinformation law in October 2022. The February 2023 earthquakes were subsequently used by Ankara to further impinge on the domain of free speech. Just two days after the quakes, president Erdoğan passed a decree declaring a state of emergency in the 11 quake-hit provinces. Under the new law, any reporting on on-scene developments can be treated by the authorities as a possible act of sabotage. Besides, Kurdish-language publications and websites are systematically blocked and the Kurds’ political representatives are imprisoned, including dozens of democratically elected mayors, hundreds of members of HDP and three of its leaders.
The most important elections in Turkish history
The May 14 election therefore are likely to be the most important landmark in the history of Turkish democracy. Turkey’s liberal-democratic makeover will take time, but it can begin now, if the winners of the election will take the path of liberal reforms dictated by opposition parties and the HDP. Surveys show that the population has become weary of bloody political struggle spanning the last decade, and could thus be willing to embrace a new paradigm ahead of Turkey celebrating its hundred-year existence on October 29, 2023.
Is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (who’s been nicknamed “Turkey’s Ghandi” by his supporters) the suitable choice for spearheading this historical effort? Although he is yet to defeat the acting president in an election race, Kılıçdaroğlu previously lacked the favorable circumstances he enjoys today, for the first time. Additionally, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is a man of political solutions, peace and dialogue. Backed by his liberal-minded allies in the coalition as well as in the HDP, Kılıçdaroğlu could become a beacon of hope for the millions of Turks who still believe in their country’s democratic, prosperous and peaceful future. The alternative would be a new episode in the history of internal struggle that over the last hundreds years has expanded Turkish nationalists’ grip on power, not just in terms of foreign policy, but specifically in their bloody confrontation with their own nation.