Ertuğrul Kürkcü, honorary president of the leftwing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), recently described Sunday’s election in Turkey as a chance “to defeat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s march to fascism”. But on the eve of the election, Twitter announced it would heed a demand from the Turkish government to block certain accounts – likely those of opposition parties. If Kürkcü’s assessment was correct, had Elon Musk, in a country in which Erdoğan controls most of the media, just helped the authoritarian president take another step towards a third term?
With neither Erdoğan nor his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu having passed the 50% threshold required to win, a run-off election will now take place on 28 May. But the incumbent has done better than many expected. Despite overseeing a shocking economic crisis – inflation hit 85% last October – and facing criticism for his slow response to February’s devastating earthquakes, Erdoğan appears to be closest to the threshold. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) is also set to be the largest in parliament – though it suffered its worst result since Erdoğan took power 20 years ago.
But Kürkcu, speaking to Novara Media as the first results began to roll in, wasn’t surprised. “A neck to neck election result, that’s what I can predict now,” he said. However, as “the state agency traditionally starts displaying in their statistics at least 60% in favour of Erdoğan,” the fact that early results put the incumbent at around 50% “means there’s been a considerable fall in Erdoğan’s support”.
Turkey’s third largest party, HDP, played a vital role in creating the conditions that give this election a fighting chance of blocking Erdoğan’s progress towards outright autocracy. Early last year, it invited other leftwing parties to form a political alliance. Six months later, the Labour and Freedom Alliance was announced, strategically aligning socialist and leftist parties with those representing Kurdish liberation. In a recent interview, Turkish writer Alp Kayserilioglu described the Alliance as “a strong left bloc” which is “maybe new in the entire history of modern Turkey, but for sure new in the history of the AKP era”.
For Kürkcü, however, the existence of the Labour and Freedom Alliance is less important than the political skill with which it’s handled relations with a larger centrist alliance formed to oppose Erdoğan. “Mainstream parties, for the first time, decided to challenge Erdoğan’s one-man rule,” he explained. “They formed a very huge front, controlling around 40% of the vote against Erdoğan.” That front – the Nation Alliance – consists of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), of which presidential challenger Kılıçdaroğlu is leader, and five right and centre-right parties. But in order to defeat Erdoğan, the Nation Alliance will need more than 50% of the vote.
“The most important thing […] was our [Labour and Freedom Alliance’s] handling of our peculiar position, controlling around 15% of the vote to become the key element – kingmakers! – in the election,” Kürkcü said. The parties in the Labour and Freedom Alliance all agreed to field no presidential candidate, instead putting their support behind Kılıçdaroğlu. “With the Labour and Freedom Alliance and the Nation Alliance, now we have a democratic people’s movement, which is the most important issue of this election,” said Kürkcü. “People now feel they have the chance to change the course of history. This is the first time in Turkish history, and maybe in Middle Eastern history, that tyrannical rule will be beaten by the popular vote. This is more than an election. It’s a popular movement expressing itself by popular vote.”
Some commentators in the West – perhaps overly impressed by the received logic of presidential elections – were mystified by Kılıçdaroğlu’s selection as the primary challenger to Erdoğan. A quiet figure, he seemed to them an odd choice to take on the strongman, who still enjoys substantial popular support. But Kürkcü explained that in order to gain the backing and vote-share of the Labour and Freedom Alliance, the Nation Alliance candidate had to meet some conditions. “We wouldn’t ever support any person who carried the blood of Kurds on their hands. So many candidates were ruled out,” he said.
The tactical support provided by the HDP to Kılıçdaroğlu won’t last beyond the election, though. “In his programme, we don’t see anything more than […] a return to planned capitalism, instead of crony capitalism,” said Kürkcü. “In the forthcoming government, we don’t want to take any part. We want to be the voice of the people, pushing this centrist movement to the side of labour. And we want to raise the issue of peace for the Kurdish problem.” If Kılıçdaroğlu carries out his central pledge to return Turkey to parliamentary government, after Erdoğan changed the constitution to give the president almost unlimited powers in 2017, then a strong parliamentary presence will once more make a difference. “Kılıçdaroğlu promised to bring the [Kurdish] matter into the hands of parliament. That was enough at that point,” Kürkcü explained. “So now we are supporting Kılıçdaroğlu against Erdoğan, but we are supporting our own party against every party in Turkey.”
The HDP has managed to play broker in this election despite extremely hazardous conditions. Since the June 2015 election, Erdoğan has clamped down on the party, arresting tens of thousands of its members, purging its representatives from local government and civil society, and even going so far as to attempt to shut it down altogether in 2021.
“2015 was a turning point for two reasons,” Kürkcü explained. “First, the Kurdish people in Turkey acted in a concerted way, gathering around a left political party. It was the first time the Kurds concentrated their political aspirations around a modern political party.” Second, “this reaction started particularly in relation with the resistance in western Kurdistan to the spread of Islamic State [IS] influence in the Kurdish population.” The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fought IS in Syria – according to Kürkcü, “a matter of life and death for the Kurdish struggle.” Erdoğan, though, angled “for the defeat of the Kurds” by IS, which, Kürkcü said “created a huge reaction against him”. That reaction translated into 69 lost seats, and a wipe-out of the AKP in Turkish Kurdistan. But it also put pressure on the HDP – who took many of those seats – after Erdoğan accused them of being part of the PKK (a proscribed organisation in Turkey), justifying the party’s repression. (Indeed, on Sunday afternoon, the link to the Wikipedia article on the HDP was, for a brief period, mysteriously altered to redirect to the article on the PKK).
Erdoğan’s false accusations against the HDP may cause trouble down the road. The third candidate, ultranationalist Sinan Oğan, who won over 5% of the vote, hasn’t yet decided which of the two candidates to support in the run-off. In the past, however, he’s repeated Erdoğan’s claims. On Monday, Oğan said he would be open to negotiating with Kılıçdaroğlu, but only with conditions. “For example,” he said, “we could sign a protocol with Nation Alliance to make clear that they would not give any concessions to HDP. It’s that simple.”
Despite this potential hurdle, Twitter’s eleventh hour intervention, as well as wider reports of election interference, the fact that Erdoğan will be forced to fight a run-off for the first time in the 100-year history of the Turkish republic marks serious progress for the opposition. But a Kılıçdaroğlu win on 28 May would be just the beginning of the struggle against autocracy. “Erdoğan could be defeated”, Kürkcü explained, “but he’s not going to vanish. This is a major reality about the AKP.”