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[OPINION] Why legitimate Kurdish politics disturbs Erdoğan

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Recent election surveys show that the electoral alliance between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is failing to secure sufficient support for the next general election, slated for June 18, 2023. For Erdoğan to be elected president for a second term under the presidential system, Kurdish votes are crucial and he has thus sought to create a rift in the Kurdish political movement to secure these votes.

Erdoğan’s recent comments indicate ulterior motives in his Kurdish policy as he attempts to pit pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in jail since 2016, against the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, to secure Kurdish votes.

“The one in Edirne will be called to account by the one in İmralı,” he said, referring to the prisons where Demirtaş and Öcalan are held.

Öcalan and Demirtaş, who both remain imprisoned, are still considered a threat by Erdoğan. Öcalan is considered a threat to Turkey’s national security, being the founder of the PKK. Tens of thousands of armed PKK militants still regard Öcalan as their symbolic and sublime leader. Erdoğan, however, views Demirtaş as an even bigger threat than Öcalan since the young Demirtaş has risen in popularity among Kurds, and this will likely complicate the election outcome for him.

Erdoğan secured 52 percent of the vote, while his main rival, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, secured 38 percent of the vote in the first presidential election by popular vote in 2014, and this huge victory meant there was no need for a runoff. The HDP’s candidate Demirtaş garnered 9.76 percent of the vote and was the first presidential candidate in Turkish history who did not hesitate to reveal his Kurdish identity during an election campaign.

While Demirtaş did not win the election, he paved the way for the HDP to participate in the general election a year later, also adopting a more left-wing rhetoric that addresses Turkey’s general problems. Demirtaş’s “peace”-oriented politics bore fruit in the June 2015 election, with his party, the HDP, gaining the highest number of votes in the party’s history, surpassing the 10 percent election threshold and garnering 13.1 percent of the vote, thereby securing 80 seats in parliament. Turkey’s ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years but remained the largest party. Of course, Erdoğan refused to accept the election results and a snap election was announced by him on Aug. 24, 2015. The AKP secured 49.5 percent of the vote in the November 2015 election. The HDP managed to secure 10.8 percent despite the violence they faced following the June victory.

Former Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu, who resigned as AKP chairman and prime minister in May 2016 following pressure from Erdoğan, told the media in August 2019 that the days between June 7 and Nov. 1, 2015 were among the darkest in Turkish history as many bomb blasts hit several Turkish cities and hundreds of Kurds lost their lives. He accused the AKP administrators of being responsible for these brutal acts, which transpired despite Turkey’s counterterrorism policy. Erdoğan ended a settlement process between the HDP and his government that aimed at solving Turkey’s decades-long Kurdish issue by declaring on June 17, 2015 that he no longer recognized the “Dolmabahçe Agreement,” which was signed between the AKP and the HDP in February 2015. The document outlined a 10-item list as a roadmap for a final solution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue and a 30-year-long PKK armed insurgency.

Demirtaş who has been imprisoned since 2016, was Turkey’s first presidential candidate who from a jail cell secured 8.32 percent of the vote in the 2018 presidential election. Turkish courts accuse Demirtaş of disseminating terrorist propaganda and refuse to release him despite a landmark judgment issued by the European Court of Human Rights on Dec. 22, 2020 requiring his immediate release.

The HDP’s latest blow to Erdoğan’s AKP was the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) victory in the İstanbul municipal election held on June 23, 2019. The election was a repeat of the March 2019 mayoral election, which was annulled by the Supreme Election Board (YSK) on May 6, 2019. The HDP’s votes contributed to the victory of CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

It is ironic that Erdoğan had long recognized PKK leader Öcalan as an interlocutor in the Kurdish settlement process that was initiated in 2009 as part of a meeting between Turkish intelligence officers and Öcalan, but not the legitimate pro-Kurdish party HDP leader Demirtaş. Öcalan’s PKK has been involved in an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984 that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and civilians. Erdoğan also allowed Öcalan’s “peace” letter to be read to a crowd of hundreds of thousands celebrating the traditional spring festival of Nowruz in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeastern city of Diyarbakır in March 2015. Turkey’s state-owned Kurdish-language TV channel TRT Kurdi aired an interview with Öcalan’s younger brother, Osman Öcalan, who called on the Kurds in Turkey to remain impartial in the Istanbul municipal election rerun on June 23 and criticized CHP candidate İmamoğlu for failing in service delivery to the Kurds.

On the other hand, the Turkish president shows no mercy for Demirtaş, who was involved only in legitimate politics in parliament and who received not only the Kurdish vote but also support from various segments of Turkish society, such as leftists, liberals and conservatives.

Erdoğan fully backed the Kurdish peace process between 2013 to 2015 but then found an excuse to launch a war against Kurds following his party’s loss of its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 general election. Prominent journalist Hasan Cemal, well-known for his extensive writing on the Kurdish issue, predicted Erdoğan’s real intention and asserts that Erdoğan’s objective with regard to the Kurdish peace process was merely to secure the Kurdish vote, and when he lost Kurdish support, did not hesitate to launch a full-fledged war on Kurds and shed blood.

Demirtaş has continued challenging Erdoğan and just last week issued a statement criticizing Erdoğan for keeping Öcalan in complete isolation for years.

Erdoğan has no intention of solving the Kurdish issue but has his sights set on Kurdish votes. The AKP government has no qualms about sitting with members of the outlawed PKK or HDP leaders to gain more votes; however, when the party loses votes, the AKP without hesitation destroys Kurdish cities to please its nationalist allies.

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