Kurds Are Poised to Vote for a Kemalist

How the minority ethnic group has embraced a candidate it believes will deliver nothing but a chance to defeat Erdogan

Kurds Are Poised to Vote for a Kemalist
Supporters listen to CHP Party presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a campaign rally in Ankara, Turkey, on May 12, 2023. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

If you ask Kurds on the street whom they will vote for in the presidential elections, many will answer Demirtas. They are referring to Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is firmly rooted in the Kurdish political movement in Turkey. That Demirtas has been jailed for political reasons since 2016 and is not electable doesn’t seem to bother his fans. When reporters (and there are many currently roaming the streets in Turkish cities collecting public opinion and uploading videos to Youtube) pressure them to choose between those who are actually on the ballot, Kurdish voters often say: Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He is the candidate for the coalition of six opposition parties, including the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), of which Kilicdaroglu is the leader. For many Kurds, he is the candidate Demirtas “wants” them to vote for. Indeed, a recent poll in four Kurdish cities confirms what reporters are encountering from polling people on the streets. In the cities of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, the opposition candidate gets by far the biggest share of the votes, while in Urfa, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the most popular.

How the Kurds vote matters. They are the kingmakers in the presidential elections; at least 6 million voters of the HDP’s support base, they can push Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu over the required 50% of the votes to win. For a long time, no CHP candidate has stood a chance in the Kurdish provinces. The party never had a voter base there, rooted as it is in Turkey’s founding ideology of Kemalism, which defines every citizen of Turkey as a Sunni Muslim Turk, leaving no space for other ethnicities or religions to exist, let alone thrive.

Erdogan, on the other hand, has had support from Kurds from the beginning of his reign in 2002. His conservative Islamism appealed to large groups of pious Kurds, while other segments of Kurdish society would vote for him because he seemed to be the leader able to solve the Kurdish issue and grant the Kurds their full cultural and political rights. But Erdogan never delivered on the former, while the latter has lost its appeal because inflation has skyrocketed. The Kurds were also hard hit by the devastating earthquakes that destroyed parts of south and southeastern Turkey in early February.

At first sight, it seems odd that the Kurdish political movement calls on its supporters to vote for the man who has led the CHP since 2010. At several defining moments, he hasn’t exactly acted in the interest of the Kurds who are going to vote for him now. The CHP, for example, voted for lifting the parliamentary immunity of Demirtas and many other HDP members of parliament. Over the years the CHP has approved every cross-border operation of the Turkish army into the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and into north Syria, military operations that the Kurds vehemently opposed. And more recently (late last month), when around 150 Kurdish politicians, lawyers, journalists and actors were detained by anti-terrorism squads, Kilicdaroglu failed to speak out against these actions.

Still, the Kurds who were interviewed for this story expressed support for Kilicdaroglu. “He is change oriented,” a primary school teacher from Batman Province told New Lines. “He is a good person,” his wife (also a teacher) added. One businessman from Diyarbakır called Kilicdaroglu “a decent man,” while a musician from Istanbul described him as “gentle.” Delal Seven, a language teacher and long-time HDP volunteer from Istanbul, said Kilicdaroglu is “calm, not aggressive, and breaking nobody’s heart.” Asked if they trust Kilicdaroglu? “No”, the teacher-husband and -wife said in unison. The HDP member also said she didn’t trust him. “We only trust ourselves,” she added.

What is the logic behind the choice of the Kurdish movement to call on its voter base to vote for a candidate they may like but don’t necessarily trust? What do they expect to gain by supporting Kilicdaroglu? Did they receive guarantees from the opposition alliance that, after a possible victory, they will deliver on the Kurdish issue too? And which balancing act is Kilicdaroglu performing to gain the Kurdish vote without alienating the Turkish nationalist voters?

Until late March, it was unclear whether the HDP would run in the presidential election with its own candidate. The decision depended on whom the opposition bloc, referred to as the “Table of Six,” would bring forward. Would it be the popular CHP mayors of Istanbul or Ankara – respectively, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas – or the rather uncharismatic Kilicdaroglu? Imamoglu had proven already that he was able to beat an AKP (Justice and Development Party) candidate, as he had done in the local elections in 2019, when he united the opposition and convincingly won the mayoral seat after a 15-year AKP rule.

But both Yavas and Imamoglu would be unacceptable for the HDP because of their Turkish-nationalist background. So if either one of them was a Table of Six candidate, the HDP would run with its own candidate. The Table of Six knew that, if that happened, the chance of beating Erdogan in the first round would be negligible: roughly 10% of the votes would keep both Erdogan and the opposition candidate below 50%.

But the balances within the Table of Six were fragile. Kilicdaroglu may be from a Kemalist party, but he is not a nationalist hard-liner, unlike the leader of the second-largest party in the alliance, Meral Aksener of the IYI Parti. Saying out loud that Imamoğlu and Yavaş wouldn’t appeal to Kurdish voters and diminishing the chances of a first-round victory would have alienated Aksener and potentially broken the alliance, possibly giving Erdogan the ammunition to push the opposition into a corner by calling them “terrorism supporters.” In this power play, Kilicdaroglu is being presented as the candidate, and the HDP announced they would not be running with their own candidate.

Though Kilicdaroglu is presented as the best choice for bringing opposing sides together, people’s expectations for him seem low, almost symbolic. As Seven, an HDP volunteer, puts it: “We need Kilicdaroglu to end the Erdogan era, but he is not really important and will be gone again in a couple of years.”

“To build the future we want, we have to achieve several goals. Now th[e] goal … is to vote out Erdogan,” she added.

Seven’s family is originally from the province of Bingol in eastern Turkey. Bingol borders Dersim Province, officially called Tunceli, where Kemal Kilicdaroglu has his roots. Dersim represents a black page in Turkey’s history: in 1937 and 1938, the Turkish army, at the time still led by Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, committed multiple massacres to bring the population (Alevi Kurds resisting subordination by the republic) under full control. Tens of thousands of people were murdered.

When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the Alevi Kurds from Dersim had actually embraced the change, in the belief that they would have more religious freedom in a secular republic than under Ottoman rule. And, while a portion of the Alevi Kurdish community in Turkey has come to oppose the republic, another portion of them has embraced it, hoping to bring change from within. Seven, for example, is an opponent, while Kilicdaroglu has risen to become the leader of the political party once founded by Ataturk.

Until recently, Kilicdaroglu never openly identified as an Alevi or a Kurd. He did so in a short video on social media called Alevi, in which he said he is an Alevi himself. The video went viral and has been watched over 100 million times. In another video called Kurtler, or Kurds, footage shows Kilicdaroglu stopping short of publicly identifying as a Kurd, but being very much in support of the Kurdish community. “Right now, millions of Kurds are treated as terrorists, nonstop, every day. They alienate our people from the state. Why? To gain a few more votes. They are not ashamed. My dear people: do not be fooled by this propaganda,” he says.

But in the video he also says that Kurds and Turks are “brothers” who fought together to establish the republic, a proclamation that has left many Kurds feeling uneasy. One such person is Erin Keskin, a well-known Kurdish human-rights lawyer who has been at odds with the state and is now facing numerous court cases against her. She told New Lines: “I know very well the approach of the state’s ideology towards the Kurdish issue. That’s why I am skeptical about Kilicdaroglu solving the Kurdish issue, as he identifies as a Kemalist and is firmly tied to the state’s founding ideology.”

Keskin is referring to the general idea of “brotherhood” from a Kemalist perspective, which means that demanding rights for an identity other than that of a Sunni Muslim Turk is, by default, a threat to the unity of the state and a form of separatism, which is “terrorism.” And terrorist is how the state views the Kurdish movement.

Cengiz Candar, a veteran commentator of Turkish politics who has tried for years to work with governments to solve the Kurdish issue, is also critical. He spent the last six years in exile in Sweden but returned to Turkey last month after he accepted a request from the Yesil Sol Party, or Green Left, to be their candidate for member of parliament. The Green Left is the party under which the HDP stands for parliamentary elections, which will be held on the same day as the presidential election.

“Kilicdaroglu has spoken out against the framing of Kurds as terrorists,” he told New Lines in a phone interview, “but at the same time he did not speak out when two weeks before the elections around 150 Kurds were arrested. I … called Kilicdaroglu’s entourage to encourage them to speak out, but they wouldn’t. They say it is a trap by Erdogan, that if Kilicdaroglu speaks out, Erdogan will frame them as terrorists too. And they are right; it is indeed a trap, but it works the other way around. Erdogan knows that when Kilicdaroglu doesn’t speak out, Kurds will be disappointed, and that’s what Erdogan aims at. So Kilicdaroglu is stepping right into the trap.”

This statement captures the tight balancing act that presidential hopefuls must perform.

But despite these misgivings, Candar reflects the general sentiment among Kurdish voters when he says, “Erdogan winning is a doomsday scenario, a black hole, and proto-fascism will stay. If he loses, there will be hope. Within weeks we can put the Kurdish issue on the agenda.”

Asked what kind of “brotherhood” Kilicdaroglu adheres to and whether it could be a stumbling block to a more inclusive future, he laughs: “We haven’t arrived [at] that chapter yet. The Kurdish issue is a very thick book, and we’ve only reached the cover.”

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