Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party puts on brave face ahead of polls

As Turkey approaches crucial presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is putting on a brave face against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking to take up sweeping new executive powers that come into force after the presidential polls. Turkey’s disparate opposition parties have formed an electoral alliance to try to stop him, but could not agree on a joint candidate to stand against Erdoğan who has dominated Turkish politics for 15 years.

But the leftist, nationalist and dissident Islamist opposition parties have refused to countenance any accord with the HDP. With 11 of its members of parliament currently imprisoned, alongside as thousands of its party activists, the HDP will struggle to match its performance in the June 2015 election when it became the first pro-Kurdish party to gain more than 10 percent of the nationwide vote and pass the electoral threshold to take up seats in parliament.

The mood of giddy enthusiasm that sprung up among HDP supporters in 2015 has long gone. The peace process between the state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents broke down soon after the HDP’s June 2015 electoral success. Kurdish activists accuse the government of reigniting the three-decade-old conflict as a pretext to crack down on the HDP.

Facing possible sentences adding up to more than 100 years in jail on terrorism charges, the HDP’s charismatic former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş is standing as the party’s candidate in the June 24 presidential election, despite the possibility his candidacy could be ruled void if he is convicted at a court hearing on June 8.

“It doesn’t seem technically possible that a verdict will be given and pass the appeal process by the end of June,” HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen told Ahval. “A cancellation at that stage would only serve to show what kind of environment we are living in.”

Under the ongoing state of emergency declared in the wake of the July 2016 a failed coup, the government has wide-ranging powers to rule by decree and restrict freedoms. While the government blames its former allies among the shadowy Islamist Gülen movement for carrying out the coup, rights groups say it has used the ensuing crackdown to muzzle dissent of all stripes.

“We have frequently voiced our concerns about the legitimacy of elections held under the state of emergency,” Bilgen said. “This entails very serious handicaps (for the opposition).”

When Turkish forces launched a cross-border operation against the Syrian Kurdish-held district of Afrin in January, emergency powers were turned against those speaking out against the operation, including many Kurdish HDP supporters who felt sympathy for the Kurds in Afrin.

Bilgen warned the government might launch a similar international military operation either against Kurdish forces in Syria, or the PKK in Iraq in order to whip up nationalism ahead of the vote.

“In Ankara, everyone is discussing other operations similar to Afrin,” said Bilgen.

The HDP also has to reach out to non-Kurdish voters and keep its base happy, he said.

“On the one side you have the section of voters who have stood with (the HDP) through the most difficult times, who paid a high price and who doubtless expect more radical decisions from the party,” said Bilgen.

“But besides these, there are also the voters who the HDP reached for the first time (in 2015) in the west of Turkey, who wish for more moderate, conciliatory politics,” he said.

Despite the many issues, Bilgen said HDP voters were behind Demirtaş in the presidential elections, and that he even had a chance of progressing to the second round of voting, which will take place two weeks after the first round if no candidate wins an outright majority.

“In an election with many candidates participating … we can get to the next round if we win between 15 and 20 percent of the vote. Technically, this would seem to be possible,” he said.

Bilgen said HDP voters would prove decisive in the second round of voting that would likely pit an opposition candidate against Erdoğan.

“We are certain that our voters will be decisive for the second round. And our candidate is the one most idealised by our voter base,” he said.

But, he said, the HDP would not direct its supporters how to vote in the second round if Demirtaş failed to get through the first round after other opposition parties had voted to lift the parliamentary immunities of HDP deputies, allowing their prosecution and refused to allow the HDP into their electoral alliance.

That means the HDP will have to again surmount the 10-percent threshold on its own, all the while barred from holding rallies in its heartland in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

“Democracy is something that you earn by paying the price for it,” Bilgen said. “To do that, one must struggle.”


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