Can Erdoğan seduce Istanbul’s Kurds?

Ever since the May 6 annulment of the Istanbul mayoral vote, won by the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Ekrem İmamoğlu, the debate has raged over how President Erdoğan might avoid another defeat in the rerun election on June 23. 

A key question many area asking is what are the main mechanisms through which he could manipulate the vote. But another more important question should take precedence: how might the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seduce Istanbul’s Kurds to vote for their party? 

As has been widely reported, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) did not run candidates in Turkey’s largest cities on March 31, encouraging its supporters to vote CHP. This was crucial to the AKP’s defeat, at least in Istanbul.   

This time, the HDP is offering mixed signals. As previously, party representatives have condemned the manipulation and threats of AKP officials, as well as the replacement of elected HDP mayors with AKP appointees and the imprisonment of the party leadership by Erdoğan’s government. However, it has recently also vocally criticised the CHP for not demanding an end to the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).       

All this reflects deep disagreement among Turkey commentators about the nature of the Erdoğan regime. Some say he is constantly fighting for political survival and thus calculating with whom he should build a temporary alliance to attract enough votes to perpetuate the semblance of legitimacy. This approach, they argue, has now put Erdoğan into a corner. By appealing to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and renewing violence against the Kurds following the June 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdoğan has tied himself to nationalists, particularly within the armed forces, preventing him from any real embrace of the Kurds.       

Yet this approach is highly problematic. First, it assumes that the tactical electoral alliance between the AKP and the MHP is one between equals. Obviously, it is not. MHP, recently divided with the creation of the Good Party, is a small party constantly under threat of further attrition. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli knows this quite well, and tries to perpetuate his own position in politics by courting Erdoğan in almost all matters.           

Second, after all the purges of the previous 15 years, we must emphasise the structural explanation in order to still find a legitimate nationalist “deep state” in Turkey that forever reproduces its own mission through clandestine operations. In 2005-2012, did not the Gülen-AKP block wipe out hundreds if not thousands of secular-nationalist actors from many different institutions? As of 2019, has the AKP not staffed all major state institutions with its own supporters, especially Erdoğan loyalists? 

The fact that some secular-nationalist generals previously purged in Ergenekon trials have been taken back does not alter this reality. After all these purges, any talk of a nationalist state cadre independent of Erdoğan and his loyalists is unreasonable and unconvincing.   

Sure, Erdoğan needs an electoral alliance to get the AKP enough votes. Yet he is not constrained by an independent nationalist state cadre. He can restart negotiations with the PKK at any time, and we have seen indications that, after the March 31 loss, this is his plan B. 

After eight years, Öcalan was allowed to meet his lawyers earlier this month and release a public statement. Pointedly, Öcalan’s statement included some very conciliatory remarks, such as that in Syria Kurdish militia should not take actions that ignore Turkey’s sensitivities. 

The HDP has promised to go public with its stance on Istanbul’s rerun vote in a few days. That decision will presumably be based on how they interpret Erdoğan’s conciliatory steps. For his part, Erdoğan will choose a strategy most likely to boost the AKP’s chances and end CHP-HDP cooperation. Pro-AKP newspapers have already begun to speculate about this strategy on a daily basis, seemingly convinced of its success. 

If Erdoğan sticks with the MHP and again abandons engagement with Öcalan, he will do so based on his own calculations, not because he is forced to do so by some enigmatic deep state. 

In 2016, Koç University political science professor Murat Somer wrote an enlightening article about the AKP’s conquering, as opposed to democratising, of the Turkish state. Indeed, AKP power is best manifested in its ability to take over state institutions and in its authoritarian inclinations inherited from the 1980 coup. 

Rather than being constrained by some mysterious nationalist state cadre, the Erdoğan regime is its current manifestation. The real structural component of Turkish politics – the continuing inability of Kurdish and secular-nationalist parties to reach a compromise regarding the PKK – remains the element that gives Erdoğan just enough wiggle room to make his secular and Kurdish adversaries turn against each other.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.