Kurdish votes will decide Turkey’s March elections – HDP

Kurdish votes will decide Turkey’s March elections – HDP – Ahval

Turkey’s local elections on March 31 have been described as a last chance for opposition parties after defeat in the presidential and parliamentary polls last June.

An opposition victory in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan served as mayor from 1994 to 1998, would be a massive symbolic blow for the president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

With several key politicians in jail on terror charges, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is under severe pressure. But party spokesman Ayhan Bilgen said its voters could still act as kingmakers in key cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the nation’s capital.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has teamed up once again with the nationalist Good Party and is presenting the local elections as a referendum on AKP rule.

The HDP has been left out of the coalition, thanks to the unwillingness of Turkish nationalists to work with representatives of the Kurdish political movement. Still, the HDP won some 13 percent of the vote in June and is not putting up candidates for mayor of Istanbul and Ankara, which could boost the opposition alliance.

“HDP voters will seal the election’s fate in Istanbul,” said Bilgen. “The more HDP voters go to the polls, the more focused their choice is, the more effective their votes will be.”

The HDP draws most of its support from the country’s Kurds, which represent about 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Bilgen said the party gets about 12 percent of the vote in Istanbul, a city to which many Kurds have migrated in search of work or to escape conflict.

Likewise, Bilgen said, the 150,000 votes his party commands in Ankara could be decisive for the opposition. That figure translates to 6 percent of the vote, which would have easily been enough to swing the last local elections in 2014 in the CHP’s favour, when the final tally after recounts and accusations of fraud had the AKP winning by 1 percent.

The HDP announced this week it would not name mayoral candidates for seven major cities, Istanbul, Ankara, the western city of Izmir, the southeastern cities of Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa, and the southern cities of Adana and Mersin. This, it hopes, will grant the main opposition candidates enough votes to capture some of Turkey’s largest cities.

The party will still run candidates in the district municipalities within those cities, though Bilgen said it was still open to further agreements with the opposition on two conditions.

“First, municipalities must separate themselves from corruption and rent-seeking (by individuals and businesses with political connections). Secondly, NGOs, political parties and grass-roots organisations must be involved in the decision-making process,” he said.

These principles reflect the party’s practice of creating “democracy platforms”, umbrella organisations of local initiatives and trade unions that provide input on the HDP’s candidate list, to be disclosed by February 17.

Regardless of whether agreements are made, the party will continue to follow an election strategy based on the needs and requests of the people, offering “direct democracy”, Bilgen said.

“We imagine urban management with local councils, NGOs, district governors, trade unions and women, youth, people with disabilities — in other words, all the marginalised — having a voice and a right to determine (policy),” Bilgen said. “We want people at the base of the pyramid to join the decision-making process.”

To realise this, the party will have to take a strong stand against signs of electoral fraud that are already overshadowing the March elections. Incidents such as the discovery of thousands of registered first-time voters over 100 years old and scores of people registered as living in the same small apartment have led to more than 50,000 names being struck off the electoral roll. However, opposition politicians have pointed out that many similar challenges have been rejected by the Supreme Electoral Council in the past.

“There are instances which severely threaten the election’s accountability,” Bilgen said. “There have been fraud cases before. Even dead people were registered as voters and had votes cast in their names,” Bilgen said.

Opposition candidates face a difficult task in addressing concerns about the integrity of the vote: many opposition voters have lost confidence in their parties due to their ineffectiveness in fighting electoral fraud allegations, despite bold campaign promises.

At the same time, the HDP must contend with severe legal pressures that have seen dozens of politicians and activists jailed on terror charges and 95 of the 102 HDP mayors elected in 2014 dismissed, their administrations turned over to government-appointed administrations.

The HDP’s ties to the Kurdish political movement have left it open to legal action since the breakdown of peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party in 2015, and particularly since the government gained emergency powers in the aftermath of a coup attempt in July 2016.

While the HDP is preparing for another tough campaign fight in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, the government has already signalled that it could again dismiss HDP officials if they win municipalities.

But Bilgen said the party would not give up, and would continue to participate in elections against the odds. The ballot box, he said, would pose a question in March that had far deeper connotations than a simple choice of local officials.

“Will the pro-democracy mentality and people who seek peace in Turkey be triumphant?” Bilgen wondered. “Will the elections offer us leverage to push for more democracy and peace, or will the ballot box disable the struggle for democracy and peace?”

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