Turkish Election Outcome Hinges on Kurdish Minority

A minority of Kurdish voters will decide if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can make his presidency more powerful.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes a speech in Mersin, June 3
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes a speech in Mersin, June 3 (Turkish Presidency)

The outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary elections on Sunday hinges on how its Kurdish minority votes — especially religious Kurds who are split between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Polls put the Kurdish HDP within reach of the 10 percent election threshold. The extremely high bar to enter parliament has prevented Kurdish parties from winning seats in the past, forcing their candidates to run as independents.

The HDP must carry out a careful balancing act. It needs the support of nationalists who sympathize with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), pious Kurds who might prefer the Islamist AKP and liberal, middle-class voters in western Turkey who are fed up with the ruling party’s majoritarianism.

If it succeeds, the HDP could deny the AKP an overall majority, force it into a coalition for the first time since it came to power in 2002 and stop Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from centralizing authority in his presidential office.

If the HDP fails to cross the threshold, on the other hand, the AKP would take up most its seats, being the second largest party in most Kurdish districts. That would put the party within reach of the two-thirds majority it needs to change the Constitution.

It would also likely lead to unrest in Turkey’s southeast, warns Middle East expert Michael Koplow, “since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square.”

It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state.

Those relations have already been frayed by the attempts of Erdoğan’s supporters to link the HDP to the PKK. Because the Kurdish party represents the biggest threat to his plans to turn Turkey into a presidential republic, the AKP must dissuade non-Kurds from voting for it.

Erdoğan won Turkey’s first direct presidential election last year after leading his country as prime minister for more than a decade.

Unlike his predecessor, Abdullah Gül, who played a largely ceremonial rule, Erdoğan has stretched his authority to the limit, chairing ministerial meetings and influencing policy.

To formalize his executive presidency, Erdoğan needs to change the Constitution. The current version was written under military rule after a 1980 coup.

If the AKP falls short of a two-thirds majority, it could still force a referendum on constitutional reform with three-fifths of the seats.

AKP opponents fear that an executive presidency will allow Erdoğan to manipulate the country’s democratic institutions and suppress dissent.

Recent years have seen the ruling party battered by graft accusations and mass protests. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, it went on the offensive against its opponents. Hundreds of police officers, prosecutors and judges who were involved in corruption probes were purged. Demonstrations were violently broken up. Last year’s local elections, which the AKP predictably won, were overshadowed by a ban on social media and voting irregularities, including power outages in provinces where the AKP was struggling to hold on to seats.

What might convince middle-class, Muslim voters who have otherwise benefited from the AKP’s relatively liberal economic policy to switch sides is the economy’s slowdown.

The Turkish economy grew 4.1 percent on average between 2010 and last year but Constanze Letsch writes at Politico that the glitter of the economic miracle is starting to wear off. Unemployment is at 11.5 percent, a five-year high. Consumer debt has exploded and the Turkish lira has hit record lows.

An OECD report in March slammed Turkey for having the third-highest levels of income inequality and relative poverty in the OECD area, with disposable household income about 45 percent of the OECD average.

The last polls released before a ban on surveys came into effect ten days ahead of the election showed the AKP leading with 39 to 43 percent support against 25-28 percent for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and 9-12 percent for the HDP.

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