The Kurdish Left Could Turn the Tide Against Erdoğan’s Authoritarian Rule

Ever since the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party made a breakthrough in Turkish politics, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to hound it out of existence through repression. The party’s supporters could tip the balance against Erdoğan in Sunday’s election.

Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) coleader Mithat Sancar gives a speech under the slogan “The unity of the Kurds is the freedom of the Kurds.” Diyarbakir, Turkey, April 3, 2023. (Mehmet Masum Suer / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) established itself as a key player in Turkish politics after it secured 13 percent of the popular vote and eighty seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in June 2015. This was possible because it managed to build a coalition with Turkey’s leftist and progressive political forces while incorporating influential local Kurdish political actors.

However, since this initial breakthrough, escalating levels of repression from the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have decimated the HDP’s institutional base and political influence. The Turkish authorities have jailed the leading figures of the party and removed its elected mayors from office. A vicious campaign by pro-government and state media has depicted the HDP as a focal point of violence and terrorism.

As a legal case designed to permanently shut down the HDP and ban many of its leading figures from participating in politics nears a conclusion, the party once again finds itself at the center of Turkish politics. On May 14, Turkey will hold parliamentary and presidential elections. Depending on the outcome, either Erdoğan’s conservative nationalist government will consolidate its grip on power, or else the country may start returning to parliamentary democracy under the leadership of the opposition’s mild-mannered presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Having been at the receiving end of much of Erdoğan’s repression over the past eight years, the pro-Kurdish bloc now has the opportunity to tip the balance in the opposition’s favor and bring an end to Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.

The Background

The HDP was founded in 2012 to unite Turkey’s fragmented left and the pro-Kurdish democratic movement and create a radical democratic alternative to the country’s right-wing and centrist political parties. It faced significant challenges from the start as the heir to the pro-Kurdish movement that has faced repeated cycles of repression since its foundation in 1990. The Turkish political and legal order has interpreted advocacy for the rights of Kurds and other minority groups as a threat to Turkey’s unity and territorial integrity.

HDP general election results, 2015–18
Votes Percentage Seats (out of 550)
June 2015 6,058,489 13.12 80
November 2015 5,148,085 10.76 59
June 2018 5,867,302 11.70 67


The emergence of this new force in Turkish politics in June 2015 came just as Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it rose to power in 2002. However, President Erdoğan was not in the mood for power-sharing, and talks to form a coalition government with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) went nowhere.

Turkey held another election in November 2015 amid growing instability in the country caused by the escalation of armed conflict with the Kurdish guerrilla movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There were several Islamic State (IS) terror attacks targeting mainly the Kurds and Turkey’s peace movement. This backdrop proved an ideal context for the AKP to secure a parliamentary majority.

President Erdoğan then used the failed coup attempt by his opponents in July 2016 to further centralize power in his hands. Soon after, Erdoğan formed an alliance with the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has grown stronger ever since. This enabled him to introduce a personalized presidential system and consolidate his authoritarian rule.

The HDP has been the main target of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. The government has focused on eliminating the institutional base that the pro-Kurdish movement has managed to build over the past two decades. Most of the leading figures in the party have been jailed, including its coleaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and thousands of rank-and-file members have been harassed, detained, and arrested.

In spite of this repression, the HDP was able to maintain its support base and obtain 11.7 percent of the vote in the general election of June 2018, winning sixty-seven seats in parliament. At the 2019 local elections, it won eight municipal councils in the Kurdish-majority east and southeast regions of Turkey. By the end of 2020, however, government-appointed trustees had taken over almost all the HDP-run councils.

In 2019, the HDP chose not to field candidates in most of western Turkey and encouraged its supporters to back the opposition candidates as part of its strategy to weaken the AKP’s power base. This support proved crucial, enabling the opposition to win the control of the politically influential metropolitan councils of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Antalya, and Mersin.

Legal Clampdown

The Erdoğan government has upped the level of repression over the past two years. In December 2020, the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli called for the HDP to be shut down. Weeks later, the Ankara criminal court accepted the indictment in the “Kobani” case, which relates to the violent protests that took place on October 6 through 8, 2014 across Turkey. The protests were triggered by the government’s refusal to facilitate aid to the Kurdish fighters who were then surrounded by the Islamic State in the north Syrian town of Kobani.

The indictment is mainly based on the statement of a secret witness. The trial has been in progress since April 2021. The case is widely interpreted as a step toward dissolving the HDP, with 108 HDP officials, including the former coleaders, on trial. The prosecutors would use a conviction in the Kobani case to argue that the legal conditions for dissolving the party have been met and that the HDP has become the focal point of terrorist activities.

Following Bahçeli’s call, the public prosecutor for the Court of Cassation announced in March 2021 that it was starting an investigation into the HDP and accused the party of having ties with the PKK. Having previously returned the indictment on grounds of legal shortcomings, the Constitutional Court accepted it in the HDP’s closure case in June 2021.

The indictment claimed that the HDP “has become the focus of actions against the indivisible unity of the state with its territory and nation” and demanded that 687 former and current members of the party be banned from involvement in politics for five years. The indictment also included requests for the HDP to be wholly deprived of the financial aid that Turkey’s treasury pays to political parties. It urged the court to block the HDP’s bank accounts and reclaim the financial aid that the treasury has paid in the past.

The litigation process in the case has continued, and the HDP has submitted its written defense. In January of this year, the court put a temporary block on the financial aid the HDP receives from the treasury and ordered the HDP to present its oral defense on March 14. The HDP requested a three-month extension to the date of the oral defense, arguing that it would not be able to present it because of the earthquake that hit southeastern Turkey in February and the forthcoming elections.

While the court rejected the HDP’s request, it set April 14 as the new date for the oral defense and removed the temporary block on its bank accounts. The HDP has refused to present an oral defense during the election campaign. A two-thirds majority, or ten votes, is required for the Constitutional Court to dissolve the party.

Election Strategy

On March 20, the opposition standard-bearer Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu paid a visit to the HDP’s coleaders and presented the democratic reforms that he would carry out if elected. He also talked about the need to find a solution to the Kurdish question via parliament. Two days later, the HDP decided to take part in the elections under the Green Left Party (YSP) banner. It also chose not to field its own presidential candidate. On April 28, the HDP openly declared its support for Kılıçdaroğlu and urged its supporters to vote for him.

In August 2022, the HDP and other socialist parties took part in founding the Labor and Freedom Alliance as the third bloc for the forthcoming elections. This is the continuation of a strategy that the HDP pursued — one that paid dividends for both the HDP and Turkish socialists.

This was possible because the alliance parties managed to agree on a joint list in the previous elections. For the forthcoming election, however, it has not been possible to cover over the cracks that have opened up between the alliance partners. The Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) insisted that while it would remain part of the alliance, its candidates would contest the election under their own banner rather than as part of the YSP list.

The TİP has been emboldened by some opinion polls that put its support at around 3 percent. Being part of the HDP-led bloc means that the 7 percent national threshold for winning seats in parliament will not apply to it. The TİP leader Erkan Baş has argued that being a part of an alliance does not change the fact that his party is an independent force with its own program, organization, political goals, and decision-making body.

For the pro-Kurdish bloc, the conditions are not the same as they were in June 2015, when the HDP made real headway by appealing to a wide range of voters. Nor does the situation resemble that of the 2018 elections, when the country was emerging from two years of emergency rule and coming to terms with extensive damage to its political institutions.

The Labor and Freedom Alliance is targeting one hundred seats in the parliament. Analysis by reputable pollsters shows that a figure close to that target might have been achievable had there been a single list. However, it is now unlikely that the alliance will reach this level, because in many electoral districts TİP and YSP candidates will be competing against each other, dividing the bloc’s voter base.

Prospects for Change

There is optimism in the opposition camp that it has a real chance to end Erdoğan’s rule. Widespread poverty due to spiraling inflation has left millions of Turks barely meeting their essential needs, and this has eroded the government’s support base. In recent weeks, Erdoğan has broadened his People’s Alliance with the addition of the Free Cause Party (Hüda Par), a small Islamist Kurdish political party, as well as some minor right-wing and Islamist groups.

The opposition Nation Alliance comprises of the main opposition force, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the nationalist Good Party (İP), two breakaway groups from the AKP, and a minor center-right party. Its election platform offers an alternative to Erdoğan’s Islamic-conservative and Turkish-nationalist identity politics. The alliance promises a return to normalcy with respect for the rule of law, the strengthening of state institutions, and the reconstruction of parliamentary democracy.

This is by no means a progressive, left-wing platform. The HDP’s support for the opposition candidate has a different motivation. As well as the desire to oust Erdoğan, the party has also listened to Kılıçdaroğlu’s talk about solving the Kurdish question through legislation to improve Kurdish rights, and the formation of a national consensus on the accommodation of different cultural groups.

The Erdoğan government has responded to the country’s economic woes by announcing new policy measures to win back its lost voters, including a program to build affordable housing for the poor and an increase to the minimum wage. It has also scrapped a minimum-age requirement for workers to access their pensions. Erdoğan has tried to turn the crisis caused by the earthquake into an opportunity, promising to build houses for everyone whose home was destroyed within a year.

In addition, Erdoğan and senior figures in his alliance have promoted the claim that the Nation Alliance is connected to terrorist groups and serves the interests of the West. His government has intensified its efforts to disrupt the HDP’s election campaign by targeting its members and activists in several waves of arrests in recent weeks.

After the Vote

However, these economic measures may not be enough to win back the AKP’s lost supporters. The opposition parties have criticized the government for its slow response to the earthquake and are framing their election campaign around Turkey’s cost-of-living crisis and poor economic conditions.

The presence of some 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey is also likely to be a crucial election issue. The opposition parties have long argued for scrapping Turkey’s disastrous Syria policy and promised to prioritize the return of these refugees back to Syria. They propose to reestablish links with the Syrian government and convince it to accept the return of the refugees. Tensions around the presence of Syrians in Turkey have been high in recent years, and this policy is likely to resonate with a large section of Turkish voters.

Credible opinion polls suggest there will be a high turnout on election day, with Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance likely to lose its parliamentary majority. The main parties gathered under its banner will contest the election under their own lists, which means that they will not be able to pool together the vote of all the alliance parties. While the opinion polls place Kılıçdaroğlu marginally ahead of Erdoğan, there will probably be a second-round runoff as neither candidate will receive over 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

The opposition is unlikely to secure a majority in parliament because, much like the Labor and Freedom Alliance, it will contest the election under two separate lists. A Kılıçdaroğlu victory combined with a hung parliament would empower the pro-Kurdish bloc as the Nation Alliance would need the votes of YSP lawmakers to pass its ambitious legislative program.