Will the Kurds outdo Erdogan in the June elections?

Until the 2015 general elections, more than half of the Kurdish electorate supported the Adalet and Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) led by President Tayyip Erdogan.

 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Turkish general and presidential elections scheduled for June 24 are among the most critical ones in the country’s history, since they are likely to decide the direction that Turkey heads – toward an unbridled authoritarian rule, or one that will regain some of its democratic traits. One of the big question marks in these elections is the stance of the Kurdish electorate, which represents about 20% of the total population.
Until the 2015 general elections, more than half of the Kurdish electorate supported the Adalet and Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) led by President Tayyip Erdogan. On one hand, the AKP’s Islamic stance appealed to the more conservative part of Kurdish society in southeastern Turkey. On the other hand, the covert and half-hearted peace process that the AKP initiated in 2009 and 2013-2015 with the Partiye Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) – the insurgent group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984 – appealed to the more left-oriented Kurds.
However, since that period, the AKP government has taken a series of actions that gave the impression that it is bent on fighting Kurds and Kurdish nationalism wherever they exist in Turkey or in any other part of greater Kurdistan. While further alienating the Kurds, this policy helped deepen feelings of solidarity, especially among Kurds of Turkey and Syria.
The wake-up call for the Kurds in Turkey was the AKP’s posture during the Islamic State attacks against the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, that started at the end of 2014 and lasted for five months. Rather than back the Kurds, the Turkish army stood by idly, watching. Had it not been for American support, Islamic State could have had the upper hand.
This position cost the AKP dearly in the June 2015 elections. The pro-Kurdish party, the Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (HDP), managed for the first time in Turkish history to enter the parliament by crossing the 10% threshold with 13.12%, garnering 80 seats. The HDP’s achievement robbed the AKP’s dominance in the parliament, thus precluding it from forming a majority government and forcing it to hold another round of elections that November. Immediately afterward, the fragile cease-fire with the PKK broke down, leading to severe clashes with the Turkish army, which continue intermittently to this day. 
Another very negative turn in Turkish-Kurdish relations took place in the wake of the coup attempt of July 2016. Even though the HDP is a world apart from the Fethullah Gulen movement that was accused of the coup attempt, Erdogan bundled the HDP in the same group, attempting to criminalize it by describing it as a terrorist organization. Accordingly, in November 2016, the HDP’s charismatic leader Selahatin Demirtas and the co-leader Figen Yuksekdag were arrested, together with nine other HDP parliamentarians on charges of propagating “terrorist propaganda.” By the end of 2017 more than 11,000 HDP officials, including mayors and parliamentarians, had been detained on charges of terrorism. 
Ironically, Demirtas, who is facing 142 years in prison, is now running for the presidency from jail. Even though he is not a match for Erdogan, the latter turned him into a main target for his attacks. Thus, Erdogan recently declared that Demirtas deserves the death penalty and that he, Erdogan, would have approved legislation immediately if the Turkish parliament had voted to bring back capital punishment.
Any idea of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey came to an abrupt end in July 2015 when the AKP waged a war in southeast Turkey against the Kurds, which little by little has spread to other parts of Kurdistan. In Turkey itself, the harsh crackdown on the Kurdish cities and towns exacted a high price on the Kurdish population. The government imposed curfews on those cities and towns; about half a million civilians were displaced and there was massive urban destruction in Kurdish areas. According to an international crisis group, “whole swathes of Turkey’s majority southeast have been devastated.”
For a long time, the Turkish government had a strategic alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and Kurdish leaders there believed that Erdogan would support their push for independence or at least remain neutral. However, the referendum for independence that the KRG held in September 2017 proved them wrong, as the AKP allied itself with Iran and Iraq to crush any such aspirations. Furthermore, since then, the Turkish army has been conducting trans-border attacks against PKK bases in the KRG in Qandil, signaling to the Kurdish leaders that the KRG might not be immune either.
The next target was the Kurds in Syria, represented by the PYD, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization inherently linked to the PKK. The Turkish attack on and occupation of Afrin in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) in early 2018 illustrated Erdogan’s determination to turn the war against Kurds into a main springboard for stoking Turkish nationalist feelings and winning the coming elections.
Concluding that his prospect for continued presidential rule would be better served by harping on nationalist feelings, Erdogan signed a “national alliance” agreement in February 2018 with the Ultra-nationalist Milliyetci Hareket Partisi (MHP) party, headed by Devlet Bahceli. This, alongside the anti-Kurdish discourse and threats of attacking various parts of Syria and Iraq, turned securitization into the only way of engaging the Kurds.
These moves have helped estrange certain parts of the Kurdish electorate from the AKP. The counter-alliance headed by the CHP and IYI parties does not appear more attractive to the Kurds either, as this alliance was reluctant to invite the pro-Kurdish HDP into its midst.
The big question, therefore, is whether the Kurds’ marginalization across the political spectrum will drive them to give precedence to their ethno-national allegiance in the ballot and thus outmaneuver Erdogan in his drive for ultimate power. Erdogan is aware of such a danger. In a closed meeting, he instructed party representatives to do “special work” on the HDP, saying, “The party should work on the HDP. If they remain below the [10%] threshold, we’ll benefit. You know who is who on the electoral list; you should work specially on those people.” 
The author is a professor and Head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.