HDP: The Earthquake & Turkey’s Next Elections
By Fayik Yagizay
The earthquake that occurred on February 6 was one of the largest natural disasters this century. It has also been argued that it constitutes the biggest natural disaster in the history of Turkey. And while it is true that natural disasters cannot be prevented, it is possible to minimize the damage they cause by taking precautionary measures. This is the issue dominating the debate in Turkey today.
On August 17, 1999, there was an earthquake in the Marmara region, in which according to official figures, more than 17,000 people lost their lives. In the discussions held afterwards, it was decided to collect an earthquake tax in order to minimize the loss of life and property in future earthquakes. Ostensibly, existing buildings would be upgraded to make them more resilient, and new constructions were to be built to earthquake resistant standards. However, although around 50 billion dollars in earthquake taxes were collected in the past two decades the AKP has had held power, these funds were not used for their intended purpose. A reality that was constantly highlighted by scientists who drew attention to the vulnerabilities and hazardous risks in those areas that were ultimately devastated by the earthquake. Yet, the AKP government did not listen and refused to heed their warnings and take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of citizens.
This recent earthquake also happened just as Turkey was preparing for the most important general and presidential elections in its history. As a consequence, the election campaigns of all the parties and alliances have become shaped by their performance in the earthquake zones. For instance, the AKP government’s failure to take the necessary precautions before the earthquake, as well as the failure of search and rescue efforts after the earthquake, have had a serious impact on their election campaign. Nonetheless, despite his government proving incapable of even ensuring proper graves for the dead—and instead resorting to throwing bodies into pits—and despite the failure of the AKP to even provide tents for the survivors, President Erdoğan announced three days after the earthquake that he would somehow rebuild all the destroyed cities within a year. In other words, he wants the public to ignore their present reality and support him again. And, by declaring a state of emergency in the earthquake area, he also set out to silence opposition voices. Whether the elections, which should normally be held by June 18, will take place on time, or if they could be delayed for a year is still unclear.
For our part, as the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), we organized very quickly in the first hours after the earthquake and actively participated in search and rescue efforts, especially through our youth assemblies. Due to the dismissal of almost all our mayors, who have been replaced by government appointed trustees, we no longer had access to municipal resources and were only able to collect humanitarian aid through our party organizations, transferring it to the earthquake zones as quickly as possible. Despite many obstacles, we succeeded in providing help. But in Pazarcık, where we were very well organized, a trustee was appointed by the AKP government to seize our aid coordination center. Then, to help cover up their own incompetence, government authorities have tried to block all aid and assistance organized by opposition parties and NGOs.
From the beginning, we in the HDP have based our election strategy on bringing an end to Erdoğan’s “one-man regime”, and on establishing a democratic system in Turkey. In this context, we declared that we are ready for open and transparent dialogue and negotiations with other opposition parties. However, the Nation Alliance, also known as the “table of six”, has avoided contact with us due to various fears and ideological barriers. So, we formed the Labour and Freedom Alliance, along with some left democratic parties and platforms that we are close to. As a third option, we may not have enough potential votes by ourselves to be an alternative government, but everyone agrees that we can play a key role in deciding the winner of the next election. With our potential to enable others to win or lose, we have put together a strategy to propel Turkey towards being a democratic country.
Of course, in the current situation, we cannot support the People’s Alliance formed by the AKP and MHP under any circumstances. However, if the Nation Alliance refuses to engage in any kind of dialogue or negotiations with us, and if they come up with a presidential candidate that we cannot accept, we will nominate our own candidate and put up a third option before the people. In this case, it is clear that no one would be able to win the presidency in the first round. We would then be open to dialogue and negotiations with the Nation Alliance for the second round. However, if they shut their doors to us completely, we can still consider the option of boycotting the elections in the second round runoff.
Of the eleven cities hit by the earthquake, in all except Diyarbakır the AKP was the first party in the 2018 general elections. In the 2019 local elections, we the HDP won in Diyarbakır, while in Hatay and Adana the CHP won the mayorships with our support. One city was taken by the MHP, but all of the others were won by the AKP.
Right after the earthquake, with the urgent need to rescue people from under the rubble and deliver basic humanitarian aid to the survivors, the ruling AKP-MHP alliance suffered a complete failure of organization. In response to this, there has been a collective reaction against the government, not only in the earthquake region, but all over Turkey. Seeing this, it is widely believed that Erdoğan plans to delay the elections for at least a year and to weaponize the earthquake aid from all over the world to support his election campaign. Although the constitution states that an election can only be postponed due to war, Erdoğan may find a formula to force a delay. He has repeated in his recent messages that the elections will be held on May 14, as previously planned, but it is believed that he will not hold an election in a situation in which he is certain to lose. We as the HDP argue that elections should be held on time as planned, on June 18, 2023.
The HDP’s performance in search and rescue efforts and in the provision and organizing of humanitarian aid in the earthquake-hit areas has been seen and appreciated by the local people. Despite our limited resources, we have been constantly on the side of the people and have organized effectively, so that even people who were not our supporters have openly declared that they would vote for the HDP in the upcoming elections. This has created uneasiness in the AKP. In other words, we can say that performance in response to the earthquakes will be directly reflected in the next election results and that the HDP will be rewarded with votes for our competence. We view this as not only a victory for the HDP, but all democratic forces in Turkey.
Under normal conditions, it is certain that the AKP-MHP bloc would lose the upcoming elections. However, it is almost certain that these elections will not take place under normal conditions. Erdoğan will try to turn the election results in his favor, either through electoral fraud or cyber attacks. He may also create a constitutional justification for postponing the elections by waging a war on the Kurdish regions in northern Syria. Both approaches would need the support of Russia. Although Russia is mainly concerned with its own problems due to the war in Ukraine, it views an Erdoğan election win as aligning with its own strategic interests. Therefore, we can expect Putin to support Erdoğan under all circumstances. Russia has previously interfered in the US elections with cyber attacks, and it may also intervene in Turkey to change the results of the elections in favor of Erdoğan. Or, if Erdoğan needs a war to win the election, Russia can make it easy for him to attack Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria. In particular, he may decide to attack the city of Kobanê, which is symbolically very important for the Kurds. Of course, this would be a big gamble for both Putin and Erdoğan, and it is possible that such a plan could backfire.
For over ten years, Erdoğan has been pursuing an aggressive foreign policy while continuing to consolidate nationalist votes at home. He has always resorted to the tactic of posing as a heroic leader at home by verbally attacking places such as Israel, the USA, the European Union, and Greece. He has constantly threatened Greece that “We will come suddenly one night”, but Greece was one of the first countries to offer help after the earthquake. He tried to garner sympathy from the Islamic world by constantly criticizing Israel, but Israel too, rushed to help. This solidarity from other countries has been instrumental in removing tensions and encouraging closer cooperation. The Kurdistan Regional Government also promptly sent substantial aid. The fact that Erdoğan, who has welcomed aid diplomacy with other countries, did not even thank the Kurdistan Regional Government can be seen as an indicator of his hostility towards the Kurds. Although Turkey has some commercial and political relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, these are carried out within the framework of its own commercial plans, and to prevent unity amongst the Kurdish parties.
Although these earthquakes are an appalling catastrophe, they may have created an opportunity for Turkey to get rid of the disaster that is Erdoğan’s dictatorship, and we cannot let that opportunity go to waste. As the HDP, we are aware of our historical responsibility and determined to do what is necessary. We will have to wait and see whether other opposition parties will be guided by petty considerations and allow Erdoğan the opportunity to win another term, or whether they will realize their own duties and act together with our Labour and Freedom Alliance to take the path together towards building a democratic country.