contributor perspectives

Erdogan's and the Turkish Opposition's Kurdish Gambits

Sinan Ciddi
Board of Contributors
5 MINS READSep 5, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks to reporters in Istanbul on Sept. 2, 2019, denying accusations from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he is linked with terrorists because he visited Diyarbakir following the removal of three Kurdish mayors in Southeast Anatolia.
(DIEGO CUPOLO/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks to reporters in Istanbul on Sept. 2, 2019, denying accusations from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he is linked with terrorists because he visited Diyarbakir following the removal of three Kurdish mayors in Southeast Anatolia. Imamoglu's visit might mark the start of more overtures from the main opposition toward the Kurds.

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Highlights
  • Following its successes in this year's local elections, Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) is pursuing a strategy to increase its national presence and disrupt the 17-year dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
  • The CHP, which flipped the cities of Istanbul and Ankara its way, hopes to increase its national appeal by pursuing Kurdish votes.
  • For the past several years, Erdogan and the AKP have worked to marginalize Kurdish voters by vilifying them. They have been able to shore up a large pool of nationalist votes as a result, but there are signs the strategy has run its course.

On Aug. 19, the Turkish government removed from office the recently elected mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van. Among the 14 provinces that make up the country's southeast region, the three provinces where these cities are located are typically referred to as Kurdish provinces, with Diyarbakir dubbed the "Kurdish capital" of Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long been unpopular in these provinces, and its popularity among Kurdish voters throughout Turkey plummeted after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly ended the ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2015 and turned a blind eye to the Islamic State's siege of Kobani, a predominately Kurdish town in northern Syria located right on the border with Turkey. Since then, Erdogan has wagered that a tough anti-Kurdish stance will yield a stronger return for him and the AKP at the polls. With an uptick in violence by the PKK from 2015 to 2017, Erdogan's bet paid off. 

However, this strategy now appears to be faltering. Erdogan's abandonment of the Kurdish electorate is juxtaposed by the power of Kurdish voters, who proved to be instrumental in providing the Republican People's Party (CHP) the critical vote margins that allowed Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas to flip Istanbul and Ankara, respectively, away from the AKP. Furthermore, the PKK has kept a low profile since 2017 and avoided acts of terrorism that would make it impossible for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) to initiate formal and informal dialogues with other mainstream parties. The undemocratic removal of three recently elected mayors from mostly Kurdish-populated cities provides space for the CHP to both condemn the AKP and begin working closely with the HDP to secure Kurdish votes.

Waning Ambivalence

This dual task is easier said than done. Historically, Kurdish voters — broadly defined — have been ambivalent toward the CHP, the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. CHP leaders before Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the current party leader, largely perceived the Kurdish issue as one of security, not democracy, and the party has a history of suppressing democratization causes pursued by the Kurdish movement, which manifested itself in the pursuit of linguistic and cultural rights. 

To be clear, Kilicdaroglu's CHP has not made huge strides toward declaring itself a champion of Kurdish rights. Conversely, from 2010 to 2013, Erdogan stated that Kurdish grievances were "his problem to solve," which made the AKP an attractive home for many Kurdish voters in Turkey's southeast. So, it is not so much their affinity for the CHP that has moved Kurdish voters away from Erdogan and his ruling party as it is the anti-Kurdish position pursued by the AKP since 2015.

The government's decision to remove the Kurdish mayors from office now gives Imamoglu and the CHP the opportunity to woo Kurdish voters nationally.

In steps Imamoglu, Istanbul's new mayor. Although he hasn't formally expressed sympathy for the HDP and the Kurdish democratic cause, Imamoglu indirectly courted Kurdish voters in Istanbul ahead of this year's local elections and succeeded in gaining the endorsement of Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP's imprisoned co-chair. The government's decision to remove the Kurdish mayors from office now gives Imamoglu and the CHP the opportunity to woo Kurdish voters nationally by joining with them to express outrage at the removal of three democratically elected officials without having to ally themselves with the HDP, which many CHP voters look upon suspiciously as the political wing of the PKK. By standing as a defender of democracy, the CHP may be attempting to do two things at once: Provide Kurdish voters with an alternative party to vote for in future elections while avoiding any step that undermines its own base of traditional CHP supporters in the process. It is far from certain that this strategy will pay off, but one thing is clear: Erdogan and the AKP will struggle to persuade Kurdish voters in southeastern Turkey to ever vote for them again.

Unclear Strategy

Before last month's mayoral removals, a public brunch engagement featuring the wives of Imamoglu, Kilicdaroglu and Demirtas was largely interpreted as an indirect attempt by the CHP to continue its outreach to Kurdish voters since Kurds see Demirtas' imprisonment as a massive injustice designed to punish them. Imamoglu has made more explicit overtures since by visiting each of the dismissed mayors in their hometowns — an impactful display of solidarity by the CHP politician, who had to win the Istanbul mayoral race twice this year before Erdogan and the AKP grudgingly accepted the result.

It is unclear what Erodgan and the AKP's strategy is. By removing the democratically elected mayors, the Turkish state may be hoping to provoke a violent Kurdish response in order to justify the use of further repressive measures and rally nationalist support. At present, the PKK and the HDP have not taken the bait. Instead, the government's move has given the CHP space to move into the void, without formally allying itself with the HDP, and champion democratic governance to win the sympathy of Kurdish voters who are likely to welcome any opportunity to have their mayors reinstated, even if this is unlikely. The real worry at this point has to be whether Erdogan will take an additional step to forcibly remove Imamoglu from office. This action would seem foolhardy, given the negative reaction in Istanbul that likely would follow. But at this stage in Turkey's democratic backsliding, would anyone bet their savings against Erdogan making such an ill-conceived move?

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