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Turkey elections: Kurds endorse Erdogan's secular rival despite bitter history

Disillusioned with president's 21-year-long rule, Kurdish voters seek a fresh start with CHP
A man walks past election campaign flags of the HDP and a banner with a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hanging on historical Sur castle in Diyarbakir on 1 May 2023 (Reuters)
A potential voter passes Diyarbakir's historical Sur castle, where a banner depicts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, amid HDP campaign flags on 1 May 2023 (Reuters)
By Yusuf Selman Inanc in Istanbul, Turkey

Huge crowds welcomed Turkey's opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu last week in the Kurdish-majority cities of Agri and Van. 

It is a scene that until recently would have been almost unheard of in the country's eastern provinces, where Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP) traditionally received no love from the Kurdish minority. 

But frustration at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among Kurds, who make up nearly 20 percent of the population, has pushed many to support his main rival in the presidential election next Sunday. 

"The nationalist and pro-security stance adopted by the current government has mobilised the Kurdish constituents to send Erdogan away," said Roj Girasun, director of Diyarbakir-based research centre Rawest.

Last month, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), and its political allies officially endorsed Kilicdaroglu. 

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The HDP had decided not to field its own presidential candidate in a bid to boost the opposition's chances of defeating Erdogan by putting its weight behind a single candidate. 

Now, the Kurdish vote is widely seen as a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the election.

"Kurdish voters will play a key role in changing the balance in favour of Kilicdaroglu," Girasun told Middle East Eye. 

However, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a deputy candidate of the pro-Kurdish Party of Greens and the Left Future (YSP) is more reserved in his assessment. 

He believes that, while the Kurdish vote will give Kilicdaroglu an edge, it's unlikely to lead to a definitive victory. 

"A win in the first round is not certain," Gergerlioglu told MEE.
"The suggestion that the government is suffering huge losses in its constituencies does not reflect the reality on the ground."

Bitter history

For many people in Turkey, Kurdish votes going to a CHP leader is nothing short of strange. 

The CHP, established in 1923 by the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is historically one of the least favoured political parties in Kurdish regions. 

During the one-party rule from 1923 to 1950, the CHP adopted a policy that denied the existence of the Kurdish nation, claiming that the Kurdish tribes were originally Turks, living in the mountains. 

Long associated with Turkish nationalism, the CHP harshly suppressed two major Kurdish rebellions in 1925 and 1938, which resulted in the death of thousands of people and the forceful migration of prominent families. 

The use of the Kurdish language in public and schools was also prohibited. 

'It is a fact that CHP is a controversial political party... to its harsh policies against religion and ethnic identities'

- Vahap Coskun, academic at Dicle University

As such, Kurdish voters always viewed the CHP bitterly. 

"It is a fact that the CHP is a controversial political party in the eyes of religious people and Kurds due to its harsh policies against religion and ethnic identities during the [period of] one-party rule," Vahap Coskun, an academic at Diyarbakir-based Dicle University, told MEE, referring to a period that ended in 1945.

But such attitudes have started to shift in recent years, Coskun said, mainly due to the inclusive rhetoric adopted by Kilicdaroglu. 

Gergerlioglu of the YSP party said: "If we are stuck in history, we can't move forward. Kilicdaroglu has been taking positive steps. We should support him so that the democratisation process in the country can be accelerated."

In fact, Kurdish voters showed similar flexibility towards the CHP in the 1970s, when then prime minister Bulent Ecevit promised democratisation, according to Rawest centre director Girasun. 

"Today, we are facing a similar situation," Girasun said. 

"The support for Kilicdaroglu is above the support for the CHP. Kurdish voters have developed sympathy for him with the hope that he would bring an end to the 21-year-old rule of the current government."

Changing attitudes

Kurds have fallen out with Erdogan in recent years over what they see as his increasingly nationalist position, especially since the collapse of peace talks with Kurdish groups in 2015. 

The 69-year-old president enjoyed support from many in Kurdish areas in 2002 when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections, promising more inclusive governance.

A poll published on Sunday shows how attitudes toward Erdogan have changed since, with overwhelming support for Kilicdaroglu recorded in the Kurdish-majority cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin, Sanliurfa and Van. 

Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking at an election rally in the Turkish city of Van on 2 May 2023 (Anadolu Agency)
Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking at an election rally in the Turkish city of Van on 2 May 2023 (Anadolu Agency)

The poll, conducted by Rawest Research in late April, showed the support percentage for Kilicdaroglu in these cities standing at 76, 66, 40, and 73 percent respectively.

The average support for the opposition candidate in the region amounts to 62.4 percent, while Erdogan receives 34.5 percent.

In contrast, Erdogan received 42.3 percent of votes from the Kurdish cities in the 2018 presidential elections, while the CHP candidate Muharrem Ince received 6.4 percent. The HDP candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who is now in jail, received 49.3 percent of the votes.


While the increased support for the CHP candidate is rooted in disappointment with Erdogan's increasingly nationalist tone, Kilicdaroglu's outreach to Kurdish voters has played a major part in the shift, according to Coskun.

Under Kilicdaroglu's leadership, the party established an "East Desk" dedicated to finding economic and social solutions for people in the Kurdish regions. 

The desk also said the "Kurdish question" would be addressed and resolved in parliament.

Additionally, Kilicdaroglu promised to release former HDP chairman Demirtas, imprisoned since 2016 over various terrorism-related charges, citing a 2020 European Court of Human Rights judgement that said the conviction was unlawful. 

'We will see if Kilicdaroglu is loyal to his promises'

- YSP party member

Oguz Kaan Salici, CHP's deputy chairman, said that, unlike the current government, his party recognises the "Kurdish question" and will work to resolve it. 

"The Kurdish question will be solved in the parliament. The government will talk to each party without harming Turkey's unitarian structure," Salici told MEE.

Salici was also confident the CHP would do well in Kurdish areas in the parliamentary elections, as well as with the presidential vote. 

"We know that YSP voters may hardly change their mind. But previous AKP constituencies will vote for us this time. As a result, we will have deputies from the cities of Agri, Van, Diyarbakir and Sanliurfa," he said.  

A YSP member, who asked for anonymity due to his ongoing trial in a court, said Kilicdaroglu saw an opportunity after the AKP "turned its back to the region" and his efforts are bearing fruit. 

However, much like others in the region, he remains sceptical about the CHP.  

"We will see if Kilicdaroglu is loyal to his promises," he said. 

"Otherwise, in the local elections, we will have a chance to demonstrate our disappointment."

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