What is at Stake in Turkey’s May 14 Elections?

By Dr. Gina Lennox

Historical Significance

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14th are historic. They come 100 years after Kurdish leaders were betrayed after they supported Kemal Ataturk to establish the nation state of Turkey because they trusted he would fulfil his promise of giving Kurds’ autonomy in the newly created nation. General Ihsan Nuri Pasha was one of the Kurdish leaders supporting Ataturk at Lausanne. In the late 1920s, he led a rebellion to establish the Republic of Ararat, under a flag like that used by the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. But the rebellion and republic were brutally squashed, as was every other Kurdish rebellion since 1923.

Elections in May also come eight years after HDP’s (People’s Democratic Party) stunning success in the elections of July 2015, receiving 13 percent of the total vote to become the first pro-Kurdish party to enter Parliament. Erdoğan subsequently declaring a state of emergency, brought an end to the peace process, militarily attacked Kurdish majority towns like Amed (Diyarbakir) and Cizre, and re-held elections in November of that year.

The current elections also come five years after Erdoğan transformed Turkey’s somewhat dysfunctional parliamentary democracy into a nationalist non-secular dictatorship. Hence, this election is hugely important, both symbolically and practically, for the future of Turkey.

Overview of  Outcomes

For the presidential elections, the race is between current AKP (Justice and Development Party) President Tayyip Erdoğan and CHP (Republican People’s Party) contender, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, although a second round of voting may occur because of the participation of CHP breakaway candidate, Muharrem İnce. For the parliamentary elections, it is unlikely that either the AKP or CHP will win outright. The next government will likely have to be a coalition.

There are too many ifs to make more definitive predictions. No-one knows what the rogue elephant in the room will do: what tricks Erdoğan will pull before the election, on election day, or afterwards. For instance, will the millions of survivors of the February 6 earthquakes be able to vote? Then there are possible military actions. On April 7, Turkey launched a drone attack on a US convoy arriving at Silêmanî Airport. The Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, and the Co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Îlham Ahmed, were in the convoy. Given the hate Erdoğan’s propaganda machine has inflamed towards the Kurds in Rojava (north Syria) and their achievements, it would have been an electoral boost for Erdoğan if these Kurdish leaders had been killed.

So, if there is no State-perpetuated violence, and the elections are free and fair – the latter being highly unlikely – then Kurds, women, and seven million first time voters will likely determine the outcome. Polls indicate that these overlapping sectors are less likely to vote for Erdoğan and his AKP. But the contest will be fierce, especially for the vote of 15 percent of all voters who remain undecided.

It must be noted that there a less definitive scenarios to that of a presidential candidate and their party winning the elections. What happens if Erdoğan wins the presidency, but AKP loses to a CHP coalition in parliament, or there is a hung parliament? This could lead to a repeat of 2015: Erdoğan declaring a country-wide state of emergency and insisting on another election until he gets what he wants. Another scenario is if Erdoğan loses the presidency, but AKP leads a parliamentary coalition. This could lead to a stalemate, especially if Erdoğan refuses to accept the results.

The Impact of the Earthquakes

One thing is certain, on May 14th, the horrific February 6 earthquakes and their aftermath will be fresh in people’s minds. For years, Erdoğan had waved building codes for construction in earthquake zones, and after the earthquakes, took days to deploy rescue workers and army personnel, then wanted total control and credit for all rescues and humanitarian aid, leaving people, especially a disproportionate number of Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs, the last mainly being refugees from Syria, with no shelter, water, food, or electricity in the midst of rubble where many thousands of corpses remain to this day. Witnesses say the smell of rotting flesh is overpowering. The government, but also international agencies in the area, have not published any statistics on the number of missing people. Many observers believe the state’s estimate of 50,700 fatalities is a coverup. Based on the number of collapsed buildings, the fatalities could number 200,000 or more, and this is not counting all the seriously injured.

Then there is the on-going state of emergency. There are shocking accounts of Kurdish volunteer rescuers and other civilians being brutalized, and even killed, by soldiers and police. But even worse is the thousands of Kurdish children who have been whisked away from the ruins, or from hospital beds, by ‘special’ government workers without any attempt to find their surviving relatives. The children’s whereabouts are unknown, although government agencies assure everyone they are in good care!

An estimated 2.7 million people have been displaced by the earthquakes. They have no fixed address, and many have lost their identity documents. There are no media report on what the government is doing to ensure these earthquake survivors can vote. It is highly likely that many have been disenfranchised. The earthquake zone is multi-ethnic. Of course, all this will impact election outcomes.

The Impact of Kurds

Kurds have suffered persecution since the establishment of modern Turkey. Persecution includes the denial that Kurds exist, laws making it illegal to speak or write Kurdish or even say the word ‘Kurd’, discriminations and indoctrination in schools, the media, the armed forces and public spaces, the banning of Kurdish political and cultural organizations, and the state’s military responses to Kurdish uprisings. Not a decade has gone by since 1923, without a Kurdish rebellion and the State’s response being massacres, disappearances, imprisonments, torture, beatings, and the destruction of villages. For instance, 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed by the state in the 1990s after PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) inspired a renewed resistance. The last cycle of city destructions was in 2015 – 2016, although one could argue it is ongoing.

With this history, it was amazing when Erdoğan began addressing Kurdish cultural rights in 2011, and embarked on unofficial talks with the PKK between 2013 and 2015. But events since 2015 reveal this was a calculated cynical strategy to win political support. After the July 2015 elections saw the pro-Kurdish HDP become the first pro-Kurdish party ever to enter Turkey’s Grand Assembly (parliament), Erdoğan realized he had unleashed a tornado. This tornado prevented his AKP from forming a government without a coalition partner. Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, ended unofficial peace talks, re-started a war with the PKK and announced a re-run of parliamentary elections in November. But in November, AKP once again failed to gain enough votes to form government, so the AKP chose to partner with the ultranationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) rather than the more popular HDP.

Eight months after that election, there was a highly controversial ‘coup’ resulting in more than 100,000 people being arrested and imprisoned. Fourteen HDP parliamentarians lost parliamentary immunity and were imprisoned, including former HDP co-chair and presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş. Despite the European Court of Human Rights demanding his release in 2018 and 2020, Demirtaş has spent the last seven years behind bars. Over 100 HDP mayors (from the 2014 and 2018 municipal elections) have likewise been removed from office, and spent time in prison. They were replaced by government appointees. Then there are Turkey’s military attacks, invasions, and occupations of Rojava, and Bashur in the name of ‘neutralizing’ the PKK.

The pro-Kurdish HDP continues to be a victim of its success with ongoing mass arrests and trials of party members, attacks on HDP offices, and years of being labelled PKK in the media. To stop HDP from participating in the upcoming elections, Erdoğan had Turkey’s Constitutional Court freeze HDP’s campaign funds until March, and announce that a decision to ban the party was pending. If banned HDP would join seven other pro-Kurdish parties that have been banned, or self-dissolved before suspension, since 1990. But in 2023, HDP outmaneuvered the State by deciding not to field a HDP presidential candidate, which would split the Opposition, and by allowing its multi-ethnic candidates to stand for election in the name of the Green Left Party or Yesil Sol Parti (YSP). YSPs campaign has attracted large crowds. Erdoğan and AKP would appear to have lost the crucial Kurdish vote.

Domestic, Regional, & International Implications

Turkey is the crossroads between Europe, Russia, the Turkic ‘Stans’, the Middle East, and north Africa. Hence, the outcome of these elections will impact Turkey’s relations with NATO, the EU, the USA, and countries extending from Sweden, Germany, and the Balkans to Central Asia and north Africa, as well as Turkey’s neighbors: Greece, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

If Erdoğan Wins

If Erdoğan wins the presidency and AKP leads a coalition government, Turkey will be sucked into ever deeper economic, legal, political, and foreign policy quagmires manufactured by Erdoğan. Under his authoritarian regime there will likely be mass arrests and imprisonments of opposition party members and supporters, and all dissenters. Meanwhile Erdoğan’s family and cronies will profit from all the reconstruction that must happen in the earthquake zone.

Regionally and internationally, Turkey will continue down a militarily aggressive, politically interfering, and destabilizing path. Regionally, Turkey will use all means to undermine Kurdish military and political achievements in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and the stability of national governments in Syria and Iraq, unless the international community stops being deaf, dumb, and blind to Turkey’s actions and devises strong, coordinated levers to shape Turkey’s behavior.

In the absence of international action, Erdoğan’s Turkey will continue to create a fascist Islamist statelet in northwest Syria that could one day threaten Europe and Iraq, as it has been used in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Turkey may also need to have applied to re-open the oil pipeline between the KRI and Kirkuk to Ceyhan after a recent international arbitration case ruled against Turkey. The closure is crippling the KRI’s economy. Pressure may need to be unprecedented, given no amount of NATO pressure stopped Turkey buying Russia’s S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system or has convinced Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO.

Under Erdoğan and his ultranationalist and fascist Islamist partners, Turkey will remain antagonistic towards the West, preferring investment from Russia and the Gulf States as it works towards establishing a twenty first century empire, the offspring of an Ottoman (Islamic) mother and mythic Turkic father. If this future eventuates, Erdoğan could very well meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein, and Turkey cease to exist in its current form.

If Kılıçdaroğlu Wins

Given the people of Turkey have been living through a period of extreme inflation, unemployment, poverty, corruption, nepotism, wrongful imprisonments, war, and earthquakes, if the elections are free and fair, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has a reasonable chance of becoming the next president, and CHP could lead a coalition government. What happens after that, depends on whether Erdoğan leaves his palace peacefully and goes quietly into the night, or not. Tensions are running high. Turkey could explode, especially if Erdoğan faced criminal charges for war crimes and corruption.

If the Kemalist Alevi from Dersim becomes president, and CHP leads a coalition government, Kurdish leaders may have a sense of déjà vu with the Kurdish leaders that supported Kemal Ataturk in 1923. No matter his heritage and experience, his knowledge of the Dersim massacre and his personal intentions, Kılıçdaroğlu is a Kemalist, albeit a moderate one, but one who must deal with more extreme Kemalists like Ince, and ultranationalists like Aksener, MHP and others, both in and outside parliament.

Domestically, Kılıçdaroğlu will likely have enough support to (1) return Turkey to a parliamentary system (given Erdoğan’s mismanagement of the economy and earthquake response); (2) ensure political parties cannot be banned for no good reason, (3) legislate that elected officials can only be removed from office by another election, and (4) use diplomacy rather than blackmail and threats towards the West. All this is despite CHP voting to lift parliamentary immunity and the consequent imprisonment of elected HDP parliamentarians and mayors during the current the AKP-MHP government.

Kılıçdaroğlu may also have enough support to use diplomacy rather than military aggression to promote Turkey’s economic and political interests in the Mediterranean, Aegean, in Libya, and the Azerbaijan – Armenia conflict.

What Kılıçdaroğlu may not have enough support for is regional and international issues involving a rebalancing of relations between Russia and the West, such as joining the European Union and becoming a more cooperative member of NATO, and a more conciliatory approach to neighboring countries. For instance, in 2021, the CHP voted against ongoing military interventions in Syria and Iraq, but its alliance partner, Aksener’s ultranationalist iYi Party, supports these military ‘solutions’. The iYi Party, and other ultranationalist members of parliament could well become an anchor around Kılıçdaroğlu’s neck in resolving Kurdish issues, and rebalancing relations between Russia and the West, given they have supported Turkey’s increased trade with Russia (petroleum, nuclear technology, armaments, iron, steel, and wheat), and like Erdoğan, wish for stronger ties with the Turkic ‘Stans’.

Factors outside parliament will also make it difficult for Kılıçdaroğlu to change Turkey’s trajectory, including the vested interests of government departments such as MİT (National Intelligence Organization), Defense, and the Diyanet (Ministry of Religion), and the vested interests of business monopolies in construction, trade, and banking. After all, following the 2016 ‘coup’, the military forces were purged of their pro-NATO commanders.

As for the ‘Kurdish Question’, even if Turkey withdraws its military and reconciles with Syria and Iraq, the terms of agreement may not stop Turkey attacking Kurds in these countries. As for Turkey’s Kurds, Kılıçdaroğlu and CHP have yet to reveal what is meant by ‘reconciliation’, and what agreements were made with HDP co-chairs, Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar in March. Let the games begin.

However, there are slight glimmers of hope. Kılıçdaroğlu was tested by Aksener’s short-lived defection. He called her bluff. In April, Kılıçdaroğlu published a video ‘I am Alevi’, which went viral, but people waiting for Part II ‘I am a Kurd’ will likely be disappointed (since he denies this and claims to be Turkmen instead). Ultranationalists, of which there are many, are fiercely opposed to any negotiated solution to the ‘Kurdish Question’, despite Kurds being an estimated 30 percent of the population in Turkey. After 100 years of indoctrination, the ultranationalists do not distinguish HDP and other pro-Kurdish organizations from PKK and remain adamant that PKK is a terrorist organization. Yet PKK must be party to negotiations if there is to be an end to ten decades of military ‘solutions’, the last four decades involving PKK’s armed struggle for self- determination.

The ‘Kurdish Question’

Whoever wins these elections, Kurds need to prioritize what will most benefit them, and what is winnable, the latter being that which could have international support. A top priority should be the freedom of Selahattin Demirtaş, other HDP parliamentarians, 100+ mayors, 108 politicians currently on trial in the Kobanê Case, and all the other wrongfully imprisoned HDP members, and HDP and non-HDP lawyers, journalists, activists, teachers, soldiers, and other civil servants.

Then there is the need for the Kurdish language to be accepted as an official language, or at least, a language of tuition and culture; for provincial governors to be elected rather than appointed, for different ethnicities and religions to be respected in the constitution, legislation, and codes of conduct for all police, prison guards and security forces; and for cultural exchanges to begin a process of healing.

As soon as possible, the Turkish state (including a cross section of representatives from the parliament, security forces and judiciary) and the PKK, along with other Kurdish organizations, need to embark on negotiations to develop a step-by-step path leading to a permanent ceasefire. To build a foundation for this, Abdullah Öcalan’s 24 years of isolation in prison must end, his mental and physical health must be tested, and an independent review of the assumptions and evidence that convicted him to death, which was then commuted to life imprisonment, needs to be conducted, ideally, with international oversight.

To comprehensively resolve the ‘Kurdish Question’ Turkey would need to stop all military aggression and occupation of Kurdish-majority areas in the wider region. Turkey claims it is only targeting PKK but its constant attacks destroy water, electricity and other infrastructure, and kills, displaces and subjugates whole populations.

Even with the best of intentions, it will take a massive effort in and outside the Turkish parliament to overcome all the challenges. Coordinated international monitoring and support in the form of incentives and disincentives would prove decisive. For example, Kılıçdaroğlu’s wish to pursue relations with the EU provides the Europeans with some powerful political and economic levers.

Conclusion

If Turkey’s elections transform the country from a dictatorship into a parliamentary democracy it will be a rare phenomenon, if not a precedent. For a democratic Turkey to benefit from its rich multi-ethnic heritage, geopolitical position, and abundance of natural resources, and to truly resolve the ‘Kurdish Question’, the country needs to be re-educated. Significant changes are required in school education, the media, security forces, police, standards of investigation and admissible evidence, the judiciary, the prison system, what the state dictates Imams to say in Friday prayers all over the world, and so on. To achieve these changes, many Kurds advocate a federal system of government. This could at least scale reforms so they are more manageable and less threatening to a status quo that has been cemented by 100 years of indoctrination. Regardless of the outcome, we are two weeks away from a monumental event that will inevitably reverberate throughout the region for decades.

Author

  • Gina Lennox

    Dr Gina Lennox (BSc, PhD) fell in love with the Middle East after riding a motorbike from London to India and back in 1980-81. Since 1994 she has worked with the Australian Kurdish community making radio programs, organising community workshops, writing a book based on oral histories 'Fire, Snow & Honey – Voices from Kurdistan' (Halstead Press, 2001), organising a conference Uniting in Diversity – A Kurdish Perspective held at NSW Parliament House (2001), co-writing a play called The Blacksmith with Barzou Ishmael (2002-2022), and co-establishing Kurdish Lobby Australia (KLA) with Zirian Fatah in 2015. KLA advocates for peace, democracy and self determination for all people in Greater Kurdistan. Lennox has also worked in Bashur in 2012 conducting agricultural research and in 2014 for an Australian-Kurdish construction company. In 2016 she worked as a consultant in water resource management in Kirkuk. Her work in KLA involves writing reports, statements, and letters, participating in meetings with Australian parliamentarians and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and helping to fund small humanitarian projects in Kurdistan.

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