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Jailed pro-Kurdish leader Demirtas throws weight behind opposition Istanbul candidate

Ex-HDP co-chair's intervention could help swing election re-run CHP's way by energising 200,000 stay-at-home voters
Selahattin Demirtas, left, hopes to swing the Istanbul vote in the direction of Ekrem Imamoglu, right (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

The imprisoned former leader of a prominent pro-Kurdish party declared his support for the opposition’s Istanbul mayoral candidate on Tuesday, in a move seen as a bid to attract tens of thousands of stay-at-home voters to the polls.

“For today, we believe [Ekrem] Imamoglu’s discourse should be supported. Because we are beautiful together. Without the HDP, by excluding the HDP, nothing can be beautiful enough,” Selahattin Demirtas, former co-chair of the People’s Democracy Party (HPD) said in a series of tweets.

Demirtas’ support came five days before the Istanbul election re-run, in which HDP supporters' votes could prove decisive. In the 2018 parliamentary election, the HDP won more than 1 million votes - numbers that could be translated into support for another party.

In March's annulled Istanbul election, Imamoglu, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate, defeated his opponent Binali Yildirim by a slender 13,000 votes. Some 10.5 million people are elegible to vote in Turkey's largest city.

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Ahead of that vote, the HDP leadership indicated that it favoured an Imamoglu victory, though did not mention him by name, instead calling on supporters to vote for democratic candidates running against the government.

'We cannot hide that we have supporters who don’t want to vote for the CHP, who really cannot digest doing it'

Pervin Buldan, HDP co-chair

Despite that implicit support, the HDP has estimated that around 20 percent of its supporters stayed at home during the March poll.

With fresh polls slated for 23 June, however, the party began to look at ways it could encourage more of its supporters to vote.

“We have about 200,000 supporters in our ranks who didn’t go to the ballot box. We are conducting a special study to get them there,” Pervin Buldan, the current co-chair of HDP, said last month.

The HDP has been running a door-to-door canvassing campaign and said it will provide free transportation back to the city for Istanbul residents who are holidaying elsewhere in the country.

“We cannot hide that we have supporters who don’t want to vote for the CHP, who really cannot digest doing it. This is the primary reason for our supporters who don’t go to the polls,” Buldan said. 

A CHP internal report in 2015 found that Kurdish voters were cautious about the party due to its involvement in violence against their community during the Turkish state's founding and early years, as well as its Turkish nationalist undertones.

Seeking the Kurdish vote

Binali Yildirim, the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate, has also tried to tap into the Kurdish vote.

The former prime minister visited Kurdish-majority town Diyarbakir earlier this month and used the term “Kurdistan” in his speech to describe parts of Turkey.

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Meanwhile, several media reports and HDP officials have suggested that the AKP had deployed Kurdish clergy in Istanbul in an attempt to convince religious Kurds to vote for its candidate.

Many commentators have drawn links to the government’s recent engagement with the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group, Abdullah Ocalan, and the AKP's need for Kurdish votes.

In recent weeks Ocalan has been permitted to see his lawyers and family, and the Turkish government has held talks with the militant leader in an attempt to resolve its issues with Kurdish fighters in Syria.

However Buldan, the HDP co-chair, strongly denied that the AKP's easing of Ocalan's restrictions had anything to do with the election.

“He only met his family and lawyers as the law stipulates. This is about his personal rights, not about the election,” she said.

Recent polls indicate that Imamoglu has at least a 2 percentage point lead against Yildirim.

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