Another Defeat for Turkey’s Opposition

Another Defeat for Turkey’s Opposition

In the run-up to last year’s election, there was some hope that a united front could unseat the president. But political divisions, along with significant state repression, thwarted that effort.

Keychains featuring imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

In May, Turkey re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become increasingly authoritarian over his twenty years in power. In the run-up to the election, there was some hope a united front could unseat the president. But political divisions, along with significant state repression, resulted in yet another defeat for the opposition.

Shortly after the vote, Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş announced he was taking a hiatus from politics. “I sincerely apologize for not being able to put forward a policy worthy of our people,” he wrote. Demirtaş, who has been in prison since 2016, is the former co-chair and the most popular figurehead of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), now known as the People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party). The DEM is the third-largest party in the parliament. Though it has won votes from feminists, young people, and leftists, the AKP—and even parts of the opposition—reject the party for its pro-Kurdish, pro-minority politics.

The Kurds are one of the largest stateless peoples in the world; along with Palestinians, they were denied an official homeland after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Much of historical Kurdistan lies in modern-day Turkey, where Kurds make up at least 18 percent of the population, as well as Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They have faced years of intense repression, including assassinations, massacres, and disappearances, especially in Turkey. The state routinely labels Kurdish journalists, artists, politicians, and others as “terrorists.” That designation is in part based on claims that Kurdish parties have direct ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that calls for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds. HDP leaders have long denied those direct links, though many have called for the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK founder who has been held in an island prison since 1999.

In the recent elections, the HDP decided not to field a presidential candidate. Instead, as part of an opposition-wide attempt to unseat Erdoğan, Demirtaş endorsed Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the secular center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP ran in an alliance with five other parties, including breakaways from the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But defectors from the anti-Kurdish MHP refused to allow the HDP into the formal alliance, citing its purported PKK links.

Kılıçdaroğlu trailed Erdoğan in the first round—which was held as scheduled even after an earthquake killed more than 50,000 people in February, heavily damaging several opposition strongholds in the south—and nationalist voters were expected to decide the outcome. Despite continued HDP support, Kılıçdaroğlu shifted his rhetoric further right and dropped mention of Kurdish issues. He blamed Turkey’s economic crisis—a top concern among voters amid dramatic inflation—on Syrian refugees, promising to deport them. The lead up to the election was marked by worsening violence and harassment against Syrian refugees and Kurds. But the gamble failed. Erdoğan took 52 percent of the vote. He celebrated his victory surrounded by a crowd demanding Demirtaş be executed. 

Mucahit Bilici, an associate professor of sociology, told me the alliance lost because it did not offer a viable alternative. “The Turkish opposition cannot challenge Erdoğan because they have neither a unified front nor the charismatic leadership” that could defeat him, said Bilici, who is critical of the DEM and its ability to represent Kurdish voters.

One voter I spoke to—a Syrian citizen of Turkey and former refugee—agreed, ultimately deciding not to vote. “In Istanbul, I saw a poster of Kılıçdaroğlu saying ‘Süriyeliler gidecek’—the Syrians will go,” he said. “If you are claiming to be tolerant . . . this should be applicable to everyone. You cannot exclude Kurds or Syrians.”

Though many Turkish parties have a nationalist slant, the AKP has made opposition alliances with Kurdish parties nearly impossible. When the AKP came to power in 2002, it courted Kurdish voters, and in 2013 it began peace talks with the PKK. But when the HDP won 13 percent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections, the AKP lost its majority. A ceasefire broke down, and the government launched air strikes on Kurdish-majority cities, killing civilians and demolishing entire neighborhoods. In the historic center of Diyarbakır, Turkish soldiers forcibly removed tens of thousands of people from their homes, cut water and electricity, and expropriated or destroyed many properties even after fighting had ended.

After a coup attempt in July 2016, which the government said was orchestrated by a conservative Islamic former ally of Erdoğan, the AKP intensified attacks on the opposition, including the secular HDP and CHP. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, with many held for months without trial.

As the Human Rights Association’s Dersim Regional co-director Nilüfer Aktağ explained, this crackdown is part of a larger pattern of state repression, especially on Kurds and minorities. “It has been getting worse over the last ten years,” Aktağ said. “In terms of human rights, torture, disappearances, the revocation of rights, society in prisons, the ability of people to exercise their rights, to protest, to criticize—it is not much better than the ’90s,” when the PKK and Turkish state were engaged in armed conflict. 

Yet Esengül Demir, a co-spokesperson for the DEM-affiliated People’s Democratic Congress, said the AKP’s economic policies and the crisis they helped spawn will be the party’s undoing. “The groundwork for Erdoğan’s loss actually exists,” she said. As Turkey heads towards local elections in March, the Kurdish party has pressed on in talks with the CHP and AKP.

Journalist Safiye Alagaş of JINNEWS, a Kurdish outlet focused on women’s issues, was released from prison in June after being detained for a year on terror charges. She said the CHP will decide how Kurdish leftists and the broader left cast their ballots come spring.

“Kurdish voters are angry over the CHP’s attitude in the last elections. But they’re a very political electorate,” Alagaş said. “If they see or believe the CHP is more democratic and pro-solution, they will vote.”

Nikki Salinas is a writer and editor focused on social movements and the rise of the far right.