Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed the presidential decree to bring the critical presidential and general elections forward to May 14, while the political parties are closing ranks in search of unlikely alliances, as even the smallest parties may have an impact in the head-to-head race.
President Erdoğan, on March 10, officially set the election date as May 14 with a presidential decree, amid growing criticism towards Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) alliance for failing to respond the devastating earthquakes that destroyed 10 cities and claimed at least 47 thousand people’s lives.
Acknowledging that the official search and rescue efforts after the earthquakes “were not as efficient as they wished it could be,” in the face of “such a great disaster,” Erdoğan pledged to “bind up the wounds” and follow a political campaign in the ongoing election period with a focus on earthquake relief, not “political competition and negative propaganda.”
But his “People’s Alliance” doesn’t seem as sure as it did in past elections that it will win the race against the opposition parties’ “Nation Alliance,” whose political disputes and collaborations fill the news feeds. The recent efforts to enlarge the ruling alliance with New Welfare Party and HÜDA-PAR are noteworthy as they are closing ranks with the further right.
Critical Kurdish votes
Just a few days before Erdoğan announced the official election date, there was heated debate over the six-party opposition alliance’s future, as the İYİ Party, the second branch of the alliance, and its leader Meral Akşener defied a year-old election cooperation over their joint presidential candidate.
After a four-day long political traffic between the parties’ leaders, the feud was overcome with an announcement, where CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was named as their presidential candidate with its popular mayors Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş as his vice presidents, with additional conditions and twists plausible enough to persuade Akşener to stay in the alliance.
Following the announcement, the Nation Alliance’s votes saw a visible increase in preliminary polls, further alarming the AKP to search for ways to find new strategies to win the swing votes.
Both the People’s Alliance and the Nation Alliance’s main pillars are nationalist parties, which build their political strategies on marginalizing the Kurdish-issue-focused People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the second biggest opposition party in the parliament, as a supporter of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
That leaves both alliances out of the galvanized HDP votes, which are considered a definitive game-changer in the upcoming elections with a 10 percent share.
Will HDP endorse Kılıçdaroğlu?
For the opposition, the İYİ Party was the main obstacle to pursuing a dialogue with the HDP. For the HDP, İYİ Party leader Akşener is a representative of the nationalist front as she served as an interior minister in key governments in the 1990s, an important decade in Kurdish voters’ memories. İYİ Party carries the torch of marginalization of HDP, just as MHP does, claiming that it is an offshoot of PKK. The voter base that also thinks so is up to 12 percent, according to the polls. The alliances also do not want to lose that.
“It is unquestionable for the HDP to be at the table,” Akşener said in an interview just after the opposition crisis was averted with Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy, but she added, “but Kılıçdaroğlu can pursue a dialogue, naturally.”
It was interpreted as an open door rather than closing one from Akşener, who did not want to spook her nationalist base but hinted that she wouldn’t object to any dialogue.
HDP has been voicing their possible support for Kılıçdaroğlu, and their objection to Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş, emphasizing the ongoing marginalization of the party, and asking for an open meeting to symbolically mark the acknowledgement of the party as a legitimate player.
“We expect Kılıçdaroğlu to come to our party headquarters to speak about the joint candidate,” HDP’s co-leader Mithat Sancar said just after congratulating the CHP leader on his joint candidacy.
Then he announced that the HDP will “reconsider their decision to nominate their own candidate” in the upcoming elections, which is a huge hint of endorsement of Kılıçdaroğlu.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s “left opening”
The jailed former co-leader of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş, who has become a symbol of politically motivated cases following the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, has openly vouched for the CHP leader, stating that “HDP voters are awaiting a visit and consensus so that they can vote Kılıçdaroğlu with peace in mind.”
He later penned an open letter to Akşener, criticizing her objection to an open dialogue with the party and stating that the opposition front is “trying to increase the hope of reconciliation.”
“I will surely visit the HDP,” Kılıçdaroğlu said, adding, “Visiting all the political parties is a prerequisite of democracy for me as I vow to be the president of 85 million.”
The concern over marginalization is not baseless. On a day Kılıçdaroğlu was hinting his visit, the Constitutional Court gave an interim decision to the case on closing the HDP with a request for 687 politicians to be barred from engaging in political activities. It was opened upon MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s insistent calls on closing the party.
There is also a growing concern within the HDP that the top court will decide on closing the party before the elections. One possible solution in the event of closure is to enter the election under the Green and Left Future Party (Yeşiller ve Sol Gelecek) umbrella or with a joint list under parties of “Labor and Freedom Front.”
The labor and freedom front was formed as an election alliance with Turkey’s Labor Party (TİP), Labor Party (EMEP), Labor Movement Party (EHP), Socialist Assembly Federation (SMF), Left Party (Sol Parti), and Social Freedom Party (TÖP). Following the calls for a dialogue with the publicly marginalized left, Kılıçdaroğlu’s visit to TİP and Sol Party also broke the ices as TİP supporters on social media have started to use the hashtag “one vote for Kılıçdaroğlu, one for TİP”.
AKP-MHP closing ranks with right
While Kılıçdaroğlu is closing ranks with the HDP and the left front, the AKP’s partner MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahçeli, was shouting out the top court to pursue the closure of the HDP with a harsh tone, reiterating the nationalist party’s position to regard the party as the representative of the outlawed PKK.
“The AYM is not a court of the Turkish nation,” he said, criticizing the top court’s interim decision to lift the financial block on the party’s bank accounts, saying that “the aid that the hotbed of terrorism and separatism would receive was blocked.” “This court lifted this blockage and opened the Treasury’s coffers to the HDP.”
The ruling block’s target shifted to the conservative and religious segments of the Kurdish population by framing the “Nation Alliance” as a “left front,” despite the presence of not just İYİ Party but also the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi), the DEVA Party, and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi), the prominent members of which are either the founders of the AKP or a lineage of the Islamist National Outlook Movement (Milli Görüş).
It had been a question if the “Milli Görüş” parties within the opposition alliance would team up for the parliamentary elections. The representatives have been avoiding to answer that questions while emphasizing on the integrity of the Table of Six.
On March 11, Saadet’s leader Temel Karamollaoğlu said that he “attach great importance to an electoral alliance between the newly established Future, Deva and Saadet,” adding that he has “conveyed this proposal to the party leaders.”
“When the three parties enter the elections separately, the polls shows tentatively that we can get 3-4 deputies at most. However, when we come together, we have the opportunity to be represented in parliament with 30-40 deputies,” he said.
That alliance would fuel AKP’s discourse on left and right as the AKP officials have started to seek alliances with the right parties, stirring up more debate.
A handshake with Kurdish Hezbollah
First, the AKP’s Deputy Chair and former Prime Minister Binali Yılıdırm visited the New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah Partisi). The party’s leader, Fatih Erbakan, is the son of the late Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the closed Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) and also a prominent figure in the Milli Görüş Movement.
The AKP’s forming cadres were the RP politicians who had formed a “reformist” clique within the party, which grew into a movement that led to the formation of the ruling AKP. Erdoğan was one of them.
Fatih Erbakan previously stated that his party base was critical of any alliance with the AKP or any endorsement of Erdoğan. However, following the visit, the party has listed its 30-articles of conditions to join the ruling alliance. That list included “closure of LGBTI associations; changes in the education system that prioritize morality and spirituality; and abolition of the law,” which stipulates legal regulations against violence against women.
The AKP’s second move has stirred further debate when Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR) leader Zekeriya Yapıcıoğlu announced on March 11 that they are supporting Erdoğan in the presidential elections, and their consultation over joining the “People’s Alliance” for parliamentary votes is still going on. They supported Erdoğan in 2018 elections.
HÜDA PAR was formed in 2012 by the members of Mustazaf-Der (Solidarity with the Oppressed Association), who were affiliated with Kurdish Hezbollah, an extremist Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant group active in the 1990s. Actually Hüda-Par in Turkish could be translated as the God’s Party, or Hezbollah in Arabic. The political bagage of the Kurdish Hezbollah‘s violent past opened up new questions about the path the People Alliance is willing to pursue in order to win the election.
While CHP’s handshake with Milli Görüş’s Saadet Partisi within the Nation Alliance was publicly discussed as a symbol of an unlikely consolidation by the supporters of stereotypical political analysis that saw the basic dichotomy in Turkish politics as Islamists versus Kemalists or Center versus Periphery, upcoming elections make the driving force of the politics in Turkey more visible: pragmatism.