Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party said Wednesday it would not field a presidential candidate in May elections, giving tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s secular rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in the crucial vote, Agence France-Presse reported.
The decision by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdoğan vote, boosting the chances of the opposition’s joint candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu.
Winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the past three national elections, the HDP was widely seen as a kingmaker in the tight race.
“We will not field a candidate in the presidential elections,” Pervin Buldan, party co-chairwoman, told reporters, speaking on behalf of a leftist alliance, the Labor and Freedom Alliance.
“We will fulfil our historic responsibility to end one-man rule in the upcoming elections,” she said, condemning Erdoğan’s consolidation of power over his two decades as prime minister and president.
In addition to the HDP, the Labor and Freedom Alliance, established in August 2022, also includes the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP), the Labor Party (EMEP), the Workers’ Movement Party (EHP), the Social Freedom Party (TÖP) and the Federation of Socialist Councils (SMF).
Buldan read out a joint statement from the alliance saying it would not field a presidential candidate at a news conference in Ankara.
The decision strips Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a key voting bloc in what is widely seen as Turkey’s most important election of its post-Ottoman history.
Erdoğan and his AKP enjoyed some support from Kurdish voters earlier in his rule.
His government once worked with HDP politicians in an effort to put an end to a decades-long fight by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for an independent state that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But Erdoğan now accuses the HDP of being the political wing of PKK militants, trying to dissolve it through the courts ahead of the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections.
The party denies the charges and says it is being singled out for its fierce criticism of the government’s social and economic policies.
Erdoğan’s toughest test
Erdoğan prides himself on having never lost an election and enjoying a mandate for some of his controversial policies.
But the upcoming vote is shaping into his most difficult election test yet.
The opposition alliance includes some of Erdoğan’s former allies as well as right-wing and Islamic parties that could eat away at his more traditional base of support.
Some analysts believe that the HDP’s decision not to outright endorse Kılıçdaroğlu also threatens to hurt Erdoğan.
The Turkish leader has attempted to portray his election rival as a supporter of the Kurdish militants.
The HDP also stayed out of 2019 municipal elections that saw opposition leaders sweep to power in İstanbul and Ankara for the first time since the 1990s.
On Wednesday, HDP co-chair Buldan never directly mentioned Kılıçdaroğlu, a 74-year-old former civil servant who has led the traditionally secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010.
But she left few doubts about whom Kurdish voters should support, accusing Erdoğan’s government of “leaving the people of Turkey without air” with its repressive policies.
“In order to implement democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, we are determined to hold this government … to account for the great destruction it has caused,” she said.
Jailed party members
The HDP has already seen dozens of its current and former members and local officials jailed in a crackdown that followed a failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016.
They include the party’s former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, a talented campaigner and public speaker who launched his second presidential challenge against Erdoğan in 2016 from behind bars.
Demirtas told AFP in written comments in January that he wanted the HDP to back the joint opposition candidate for president instead of fielding its own.
The HDP was excluded from a six-party opposition alliance that has rallied around Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy.
The anti-Erdoğan alliance includes staunchly nationalist politicians that refuse to work with the HDP.
Meeting with HDP leaders on Monday, Kılıçdaroğlu promised to remove restrictions on the Kurdish language and address other Kurdish concerns.
“We are living in the 21st century. Dissolving a party is not right,” Kılıçdaroğlu said Monday.