Skip to main content

Turkey elections: Kilicdaroglu's dilemma of keeping support of 'ultranationalists' and Kurds

Kurds reluctant to vote for opposition leader as he courts far-right party ahead of election run-off
Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R) with the leader of the Victory Party, Umit Ozdag, in Ankara, on 19 May 2023 (AFP)
By Yusuf Selman Inanc in Istanbul, Turkey

The pro-Kurdish Party of Greens and the Left Future (YSP) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) have reaffirmed their support for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the joint presidential candidate of the opposition, in the run-off election on Sunday.

However, this support is laced with reluctance, primarily due to the agreement reached between Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP) and the far-right Victory Party (ZP). 

According to the agreement signed on Wednesday, the fight against terrorist organisations, such as the Fethullah Terror Organization (Feto), the Islamic State group (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), would continue. Additionally, court verdicts would still lead to the appointment of trustees in local municipalities.

Since a failed coup attempt in 2016, the Turkish government has wielded significant power, using consecutive curfews as a pretext to eliminate elected HDP mayors on the grounds of alleged involvement in terrorist activities. 

Since the last local elections in 2019, the government has appointed 48 trustees to 65 HDP municipalities. HDP sources have criticised the government for violating the rule of law, arguing that the new mayor should be elected by the municipality council in the event of the removal of an incumbent mayor. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Furthermore, Turkey's current interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, said in a pre-election interview that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his dissatisfaction with HDP mayors upon assuming his position. Soylu added: "Within two days, we dismissed them."

The trustee policy has become a major factor motivating HDP and YSP voters to support Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP. Kilicdaroglu had previously announced his plan to end the trustee policy by adopting the European Charter of Local Self-Government before the first round of elections. 

However, following the inclusion of Umit Ozdag, the leader of the Victory Party, Kilicdaroglu has adjusted his stance, saying that the decision to appoint a trustee should be left to the courts.

Ozdag, who has referred publicly to pro-YSP individuals as "murderers" and quarrelled with them during his election campaign, appears to be the most disliked political figure among YSP voters. The exclusion of YSP from the negotiations after objections from the Good Party before the first round of the elections has also generated discontent among some YSP voters.

An opportunity for Ozdag

This presents a challenging dilemma for Kilicdaroglu in the upcoming run-off. He had aimed to address the concerns of Turkish nationalists by adopting a tougher stance on refugees and distancing himself from his approach to trustee appointments.

Meanwhile, he still needed to maintain the support of pro-YSP voters, who were reluctant to vote for him in the first round as well due to his party's problematic history in the region

However, his increasingly anti-refugee rhetoric has disappointed the YSP, which positions itself as a leftist and anti-racist party. 

Turkey's anti-refugee landscape leaves Syrians with just one choice
Read More »

In a statement, Pervin Buldan, co-president of the HDP, criticised the use of refugees for political purposes, deeming it wrong and inhumane.

Although the statement presented the run-off election as "an opportunity to end the one-man rule", there have been conflicting signals from party members. 

For example, Erol Katircioglu, a former HDP deputy, initially stated that it was impossible to vote for a candidate from such an alliance but later confirmed his support for Kilicdaroglu following the party's statement.

Saruhan Oluc, one of YSP's founders, emphasised that the party's position was clear in the statement made by the co-presidents. He dismissed calls for a boycott as being made by government-funded trolls on social media.

In the first round of elections, the voter turnout rate remained lower in Kurdish-dominated cities compared with the overall turnout rate of around 87 percent. The regional turnout rate in the Kurdish areas was about 80 percent.

Oluc believes that these rates do not necessarily indicate reluctance among Kurdish voters to cast their votes, pointing out that the participation rate was only slightly lower than in the 2018 presidential elections.

Reha Ruhavioglu, director of the Diyarbakir-based Kurdish Studies Centre, however, suggested that many Kurdish voters have lost their motivation to support Kilicdaroglu. 

"The insufficient number of Kurdish votes for Kilicdaroglu has created an opportunity for ultra-nationalist Ozdag. This situation has left Kurds disappointed and questioning why the YSP did not name a candidate," he told Middle East Eye.

'Ending Erdogan's rule'

Omer Kaya, a resident of the predominantly Kurdish city of Van, expressed his frustration in a phone call with MEE, saying: "Our vote is almost nine percent, and people from the opposition parties are afraid to mention our name. Yet, they make an agreement with a party that only has two percent!" 

He questioned why the YSP didn't name its own candidate, as it could have positioned them as kingmakers in the elections.

Kaya criticised the opposition for still urging them to vote for Kilicdaroglu, even though, in his opinion, Kilicdaroglu would potentially give an important position to "a fascist", alluding to Ozdag's tweet about sending refugees back as an interior minister.

The CHP has denied any negotiations or plans to appoint Ozdag as the interior minister in the event of winning the elections.

'The focus of Kurds is on ending Erdogan's rule rather than considering the consequences of a Kilicdaroglu victory'

- Sidar Simsek, HDP supporter

Ruhavioglu also predicts an even lower turnout in the run-off, citing the lack of a significant campaign by the YSP and the unlikely consolidation of its voters. 

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that there are still a considerable number of Kurdish voters who may reluctantly vote for Kilicdaroglu to remove Erdogan from power, but doubts whether these votes will be sufficient for Kilicdaroglu to win the presidency. 

Sidar Simsek, an HDP supporter, said the agreement between Ozdag and Kilicdaroglu has demotivated him from taking part in the election. However, he acknowledged that they had no other choice.

"The main demand of the Kurds is to remove Erdogan from power at any cost, and their focus is on ending Erdogan's rule rather than considering the consequences of a Kilicdaroglu victory," he told MEE.

While some YSP voters were angered that their unconditional support of the CHP was dismissed, Simsek said that, after the joint press meeting between Kilicdaroglu and Ozdag on Wednesday, many Kurds have decided not to vote for Kilicdaroglu in the run-off.

However, he also noted that the sense of despair might motivate them to still go to the polls.

Oluc, on the other hand, was more confident that YSP voters will support Kilicdaroglu in the upcoming elections, saying:  "YSP voters will put their stamp for Kilicdaroglu on Sunday, no worries!"

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.