Cuneyt was five years old when Turkish soldiers entered his village and told its Kurdish residents to leave.
It was at the height of Turkey’s war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Accused of harboring separatist guerrillas, the entire village in the southeastern province of Birlis was torched to the ground.
Cuneyt and his family fled to Istanbul, and for years, he says, he felt like a second-class citizen – that is, until Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered new hope for Turkey’s largest ethnic minority.
As prime minister, Mr. Erdoğan broke with tradition by admitting that the state had “made mistakes” in its treatment of the Kurds and helped to launch a peace process.
“I voted for Erdogan because he promised to solve the Kurdish problem and accepted the PKK as someone to talk to – no other politician at the time showed such courage,” says Cuneyt, now 26, who didn’t give a second name. “But this was just empty talk. He is only interested in getting more power for himself and rules like a dictator. Now, the Kurdish people have a new choice.”
The Kurds, in fact, are poised to be the kingmakers in Sunday’s general election – Turkey's most tightly contested in over a decade. Holding the key to Kurdish aspirations for greater rights, and Erdoğan’s dream of a new constitution that would give him expansive powers, is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is seeking to enter parliament for the first time. If the HDP succeeds, the Kurds would be propelled into the political mainstream, transforming the balance of power while potentially ending 12 years of single-party rule.
“If the HDP gets in, the Kurds become a legitimate player in Turkey,” says Aliza Marcus, a US-based Kurdish expert and author of the book “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.”
“It will mean that for once, they are a real political party that represents a part of the Turkish electorate, that has the potential to sway how things are decided in parliament.”
In Turkey’s electoral system, the Kurds’ decision to band together is a high-stakes gamble: If the HDP manages to cross the 10 percent threshold needed to enter the legislature, it could win enough seats to deny Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) the majority it needs to rule alone.
If it falls short, those seats would go to the AKP, leaving the Kurds out in the cold. Currently there are 27 independently elected Kurds who united as a parliamentary bloc under the HDP banner. If the party passes the threshold it could win as many as 60 seats. The “old guard” center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) is predicted to poll second behind the AKP, followed by the nationalist MHP.
HDP’s appeal lays in its reinvention – it has styled itself as a liberal party that represents the interests of Kurds and Turks alike. Led by the young and charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer nicknamed “the Kurdish Obama,” the HDP is running on a platform of greater democracy and equal rights for the country’s disenfranchised minorities. Nearly half of the HDP candidates are women – a list that includes ethnic Alevis, Armenians, and Turkey’s first openly-gay candidate for parliament.
And the HDP has attracted non-Kurdish voters frustrated with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. “When it comes to our rights and freedoms, this election is the last stop before Turkey heads off a cliff,” says Kaptan Gul, a high school biology teacher in Istanbul. “The HDP is our best chance to block Erdogan from getting more power. We must try something different.”
Hanging in the balance of Sunday’s election is the fragile peace between Turkey and Kurdish militants.
Erdogan initially won praise for his efforts to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people over three decades. A bargain for peace with the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, delivered a ceasefire in 2013, but negotiations have stalled amid rising mistrust.
Tensions nearly boiled over last October over Ankara’s failure to intervene during the Islamic State’s siege of the Syrian border town of Kobane and its description of the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. Erdogan further alienated many Kurds when he declared in March that Turkey had “no Kurdish problem.”
Many Turks remain suspicious of the HDP’s links to the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. To rally his nationalist base, Erdogan has in recent weeks fanned those fears, describing the HDP as “terrorists,” and its members as “atheists and Zoroastrians.”
This divisive rhetoric is turning off conservative Kurdish voters who had supported the AKP, warns Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "They are now more reticent to believe Erdogan and his intentions, which will make it much harder for the peace process to get off its feet with an Erdogan victory.”
Mr. Demirtas, the HDP leader, insists the party will remain committed to the peace process even if it fails to enter parliament. But analysts warn of unrest if the Kurds – who account for roughly 20 percent of Turkey’s population of about 80 million – are shut out of parliament.
“In the short term, it’s going to lead to a very nasty, potentially dangerous escalation,” says Mr. Barkley.
“There’s a risk for war,” says Tuba, 29, a Kurdish HDP supporter in Istanbul who works in advertising. “We don’t want that, we want peace and a parliamentary system in which our voices can be heard. But people have reached their limit with this system. If they can’t represent themselves, they will explode.”