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Turkey election: Does Kurdish leader jailed as 'terrorist' hold the key?

Why We Wrote This

Turkish President Erdoğan has tried mightily to consolidate power, imprisoning foes as "terrorists" in authoritarian fashion. But the democratic impulse in the country is still strong.

Under tight Turkish police security, supporters of the opposition, mainly the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, dance as they campaigned this month in Istanbul for their presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş. He has been imprisoned and frequently accused of being a 'terrorist' by ruling-party officials.
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For years Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has presided over intense crackdowns on civil society and opponents of all stripes. The goal was to consolidate power, including the creation of a custom-made, all-powerful presidency that was narrowly approved in a referendum last year. In snap presidential and parliamentary elections Sunday, Turkish voters will determine whether 16 years of rule by Mr. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will continue. Polls show Erdoğan may be vulnerable to a runoff, and his party’s majority rule in parliament threatened by the small, mainly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). To keep the party below the 10 percent threshold, the AKP and Erdoğan have been pulling out all the stops: imprisoning presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş and nine of 59 HDP deputies, attacking party offices, and painting the party as terrorists. Belgin Sunal, an HDP activist in Istanbul, is not Kurdish, but says she is “honored to be part of a cause against such injustice.” She says: “When you have this fascist thing going on in the country, you need an ‘other,’ and now that’s us.”

Even by Turkey’s high standards of political theater, the scene inside Edirne prison was a spectacle.

State broadcaster TRT set up a makeshift studio so that imprisoned Kurdish presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş could make a 10-minute address to the nation, as allotted by election law.

Turks vote Sunday in a landmark election that will determine whether 16 years of rule by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will continue.

Polls show that in the presidential race, Turkey’s authoritarian leader is vulnerable like never before and could be forced into a second-round runoff without a guaranteed victory.

And in the concurrent parliamentary vote, the AKP could lose its majority – ironically because of the small, pro-Kurdish party led by Mr. Demirtaş, whom Mr. Erdoğan accuses of being “leader of the terrorists” with “blood on his hands.”

If, despite the daunting array of obstacles placed in the way of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), it can once again reach the 10 percent threshold of national votes required to enter parliament, it would deprive the AKP of unfettered rule.

Such a result may restore a degree of faith in Turkey’s democratic process, which has been increasingly tarnished by years of manipulation by Erdoğan and the AKP. But it would be a blow to their plans, in a snap election that is meant to abolish the post of prime minister and usher in the start of a new, all-powerful presidency with sweeping powers that has been custom-made for Erdoğan.

The fact that such an outcome can even be possible, after Erdoğan has presided over years of intense crackdowns on civil society and opponents of all stripes, says something about the resilience of the democratic impulse in Turkey.

Potential kingmaker

“The only reason I am still here is that the AKP is scared of me,” Demirtaş said June 17. The charismatic human rights lawyer-turned-politician, now the potential kingmaker of Turkish politics, wears a suit and tie in the prison TV studio.

Though he has been forced to run his campaign from his jail cell over social media, the HDP still polls 10 percent support. If the HDP wins at least 60 seats in the expanded 600-seat parliament, it will be a natural coalition partner for the opposition, and force the AKP to find its own coalition to govern.

“They think tying my hands here and going from square to square spreading accusations about me is being courageous,” said Demirtaş. Imprisoned since November 2016, he denies all charges, and told Turks they should “absolutely” vote.

Supporters of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party hold masks of their jailed presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş at a rally in Ankara, Turkey, June 19.
Umit Bektas/Reuters
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The new presidential system was narrowly approved in a national referendum last year. If Erdoğan wins, a five-year term would keep him at the helm at least until the 2023 centennial of the Turkish Republic.

But Erdoğan indicated for the first time Wednesday that AKP victory in the parliamentary vote might not be inevitable. He said in an interview there could be a “search for a coalition” after voting day.

Blocking the way may well be the HDP, which first entered parliament in June 2015 with just over 13 percent of the votes, to claim 80 seats in the 550-seat assembly. Another vote in November 2015 resulted in 10.75 percent of the vote, yielding 59 seats.

Keeping the HDP below the 10 percent barrier would almost certainly guarantee continued one-party AKP rule, because if the HDP – or any party – does not reach that threshold, then the seats in the districts it wins are automatically given to the runner-up party in those districts. In many cases for the HDP, that means the AKP would collect the seats.

“The HDP is the most important element in this election. Everything comes down to us,” says party activist Belgin Sunal in Istanbul. Electoral rule changes and insecurity in the mainly Kurdish stronghold of the HDP in southeast Turkey mean that “having a fair election will be very difficult. The AKP knows this and are taking advantage of it.”

Intimidation tactics

The scale of the obstacles put in the HDP’s way indicates the outsize importance of this small opposition party, which under Demirtaş’ co-leadership broadened its Kurdish base enough for its success in June 2015.

Since then, HDP lawmakers have been arrested and thousands of local officials detained. From 2016, several hundred local HDP offices have also been attacked and sometimes burned.

In the first five weeks of campaigning, starting in late April, 136 party officials were detained and 14 of them arrested, according to HDP officials. They also report a multitude of intimidation tactics, especially in Kurdish regions. At a recent HDP rally in Istanbul, police openly filmed the crowd.

Nine of the HDP’s 59 lawmakers remain behind bars.

HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan, the first member of parliament of Armenian descent in decades, who is running for a seat in Diyarbakir, the cultural capital of Turkey’s Kurds, said he first thought reports of pressure he heard were “exaggerated.”

“But I saw with my own eyes [that] state officers, local officials were campaigning with AKP candidates, and police and gendarmerie were all campaigning together,” says Mr. Paylan.

“They were going to the villages, and just saying, ‘You should vote for the AKP because we are going to keep governing the country,’ ” he says. “In city centers, people are going to vote for us, most of them. But in the countryside people feel more vulnerable.”

One root of the anti-HDP campaign is Erdoğan rewriting the narrative of the war in southeast Turkey, by conflating the HDP with the Kurdish militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose bloody war against the state for nearly four decades resumed in 2015.

Entire urban centers have been destroyed in fighting by the Turkish military and dug-in Kurdish militants. And an ongoing state of emergency, declared after a failed coup in July 2016, has enabled authorities to easily spread the fight to a crackdown on HDP officials.

The terrorist label

During the current campaign the HDP has rarely made it onto broadcast media, much of which is controlled by the AKP. It is also subject to hostile reporting that takes its cue from Erdoğan’s “terrorist” charge.

“How quickly do you forget that HDP is ruled by murderers?” read one headline in the pro-government Sabah newspaper, for example.

“When you have this fascist thing going on in the country, you need an ‘other,’ and now that’s us,” says Ms. Sunal, the HDP activist, who says she is not Kurdish but is “honored to be part of a cause against such injustice.”

“They stamp us with the label of terrorist, and conflate us with the PKK [fighting] up in the mountains, and that label is all people see,” she says.

Soner Çağaptay, a Turkey expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” wrote in an analysis Wednesday that Erdoğan jailed Demirtaş because he felt threatened.

“Blessed with charisma, Demirtaş is a long-term threat to Erdoğan, as he has proven even from his jail cell,” he wrote.

Lost in the melee have been HDP policy positions, and the party’s message of unity between Turkish citizens of all ethnic backgrounds.

Citizens voting for other parties are not enemies of HDP, Demirtaş tweeted Wednesday, saying the AKP is causing great damage by “insisting on … a language that encourages enmity to your neighbor.”

But, he added, “Anyone who does not vote for me and the party is [still] my brother.”

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