The Turkish opposition candidate challenging incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently addressed the nation in a pair of viral videos — including the most widely shared social media clip in Turkish history, which is Twitter’s most popular video outright since the start of 2022. With a typically avuncular twinkle, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu freely admits to being a member of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority and accuses Erdoğan of “slandering and stigmatizing” the Kurds to win election votes.
In fact, Kiliçdaroğlu has spent decades glossing over his minority identity rather than risking losing votes from Islamist, nationalist Turks — and he has offered support to both Erdoğan’s recent military attacks on the Kurds abroad and liquidation of the Kurdish-led domestic opposition. On the one hand, he has latterly made pragmatic overtures to the Kurdish-led opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP): but with the other hand, he has formed the symbol of the ultranationalist, hard-right Grey Wolves paramilitary group, in a sop to the millions of voters who loathe any move toward recognition of minority rights.
The epochal May 14 election undoubtedly represents Turkey’s best chance in a generation to depose Erdoğan, who has ruled for two decades with an increasingly iron fist. Particularly since the 2015 collapse of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a failed 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan’s rule has been marked by the destruction of effective parliamentary opposition, jailing of political opponents, and decimation of civil society. Erdoğan tried and failed to manipulate crucial 2019 elections where his party lost control of Istanbul, and these elections are widely seen as a kill-or-cure crisis point for what remains of Turkish parliamentary democracy, with Kiliçdaroğlu promising immediate reforms to reintroduce the separation of powers and rule of law. The president is using the entirety of the political, media, and judicial apparatus at his disposal to cling to power — with the possible use of military force to cling onto office hardly out of the question.
At this crucial juncture, Kiliçdaroğlu, who has a slight poll lead, certainly represents the best hope for an exhausted nation. But as HDP MP and foreign affairs co-spokesperson Hişyar Özsoy observes, as its name suggests, Kiliçdaroğlu’s “Nation Alliance” is “mostly nationalistic” — and Kiliçdaroğlu’s appeals to the Kurds mostly pragmatic. As such, Erdoğan’s challenger potentially stands to benefit from progressive rhetoric and public will for political transformation without offering genuine emancipation to the most marginalized. Crucial as the election is, the real political work will begin after, Kurdish politicians in Turkey, northern Syria, and Europe tell Jacobin.
Wind of Change
Nonetheless, the wind of change is undeniably in the air. I speak to Özsoy after a long day campaigning in the Kurdish heartlands. “People are excited, angry, frustrated, anxious. You see fear, then courage, then hope. It’s very confusing,” he says. Meanwhile, Murad — an ecological activist and HDP voter who lives in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, Amed (Diyarbakir) — says that journalists who have come to the city seeking even a single Erdoğan voter to include in their pieces for balance have left empty-handed. “Even those who previously received money from the state, and defended it on this basis, don’t believe Erdoğan will remain in power,” Murad adds.
Erdoğan’s two-decade rule was already bound to face its most serious challenge to date in the May 14 elections. But February’s devastating earthquake, which killed over fifty thousand people in Turkey alone, may have permanently altered the balance of power. “Corruption, nepotism, criminal behavior and cronyism have left Turkey unable to protect its citizens,” says Nilûfer Koç of umbrella political organization the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK).
This is a result not just of fiscal mismanagement, but cynical profiteering. Erdoğan came to power on the back of a promise to adhere to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program of aggressive privatization. While his relations with the IMF have soured, Erdoğan continues to transfer vast sums of public money into the pockets of his cronies — with a coterie of “Big Five” companies winning more public-private partnership projects than any other countries worldwide. Aggressive privatization has led to deaths from blizzards, train crashes, and a catastrophe at Istanbul’s megaproject airport, as power grids fail and unplanned urbanization leaves cities exposed to catastrophe.
Gael le Ny, a Basque journalist who recently visited the epicenter of the earthquake zone, adds that even in a city like Adiyaman where “about 67 percent of the population” typically backed Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), it was now difficult to find anyone with a good word to say about the AKP as they picked through the rubble of their homes. Unorthodox economic decisions by Erdoğan have contributed to runaway inflation, leaving ordinary citizens destitute. “This winter, I visited many houses where people couldn’t afford to heat their homes,” Murad says. “People can’t afford to fill their stomachs or meet their basic needs.”
Erdoğan has maintained his grip on power through increasingly authoritarian measures aimed at centralizing control of the legislature and judiciary and crushing the civil-society sphere. At the time of writing, police had just swept through Amed arresting over 150 journalists, politicians, and artists linked to the HDP. More broadly, 40 percent of rank-and-file HDP members have faced criminal charges, sixty of sixty-five of its democratically elected mayors have been summarily jailed and replaced with state-appointed overseers widely despised by local populations, eleven HDP MPs are in jail, and the HDP will soon become Turkey’s ninth pro-Kurdish party in succession to be banned outright. Kurdish lawyers, journalists, and artists are all also targeted — Turkey is among the world’s worst jailers of journalists.
Neither Left nor Right?
It’s business as usual in Erdoğan’s Turkey; but now Kiliçdaroğlu is consistently polling higher than Erdoğan, with the restoration of democratic, parliamentary norms a central campaign promise. “People are seeing the fact that in 2018, Erdoğan’s promise was: ‘give me power, centralize, I will stabilize and centralize the country to make it richer and safer’ — but none of these promises were kept,” Özsoy says, arguing that even many formerly pro-AKP voters recognize the damage Erdoğan’s centralization of power has done to Turkey’s social fabric. For the first time, the HDP is not running its own presidential candidate, fulfilling a king-maker role by leaving Kiliçdaroğlu free for a tilt at the presidency, with its supporters expected to back him.
So, who is Kiliçdaroğlu? His Republican People’s Party (CHP) represents the Kemalist tradition dating back to the foundation of the Turkish Republic, standing for a more or less authoritarian, centralized Turkish nationalism on the basis of a unitary national identity — anathema to the Kurdish movement’s calls for decentralization and pluralism. “The CHP has prolonged the life of the Erdoğan regime because of its ‘national unity’ sickness,” Koç says. He points to its support for Turkey’s deadly ground invasions of Kurdish-led North and East Syria. The assault killed hundreds of civilians and resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis by Turkish-backed militias sanctioned by the United States for sheltering former ISIS members and committing atrocities.
In this context, Kiliçdaroğlu’s recent claim that Erdoğan is weaponizing the Kurdish issue rings hollow to many Kurdish voters. The veteran politician could have opposed the government on these issues before, but elected to court nationalist votes through supporting Turkey’s foreign military ventures and has remained silent on the plight of thousands of jailed Kurds. By claiming there are no “right or left politics” in Turkey, and thus advancing right-wing nationalist candidates in elections, Kiliçdaroğlu has further demonstrated a cynical opportunism. Rather than heralding a transformative new approach to the national question in Turkey, Kiliçdaroğlu’s comments on his Alevi identity and the Kurdish issue are simply intended to forestall Erdoğan’s expected attack lines. This is what makes them palatable to voters disgruntled with Erdoğan’s own politics. As one commentator has suggested, Kiliçdaroğlu is effectively reconstructing the AKP’s original political constituency by appealing to religious, conservative voters — including rural Kurds.
Accordingly, the CHP’s electoral alliance includes ultranationalist and conservative Islamic parties, including two AKP splinter groups. As Özsoy notes, this is a “strange coalition” and a “politics of consensus is by definition limiting.” These parties have made it clear that they would not tolerate the HDP, or its successor party, participating in government, despite the fact that it has signaled tacit support for Kiliçdaroğlu. (The HDP will seek to evade the expected ban by running its parliamentary candidates via a smaller coalition partner, the Green-Left party, through which it hopes to win up to one hundred seats.)
Wary of further alienating conservative voters already angered by his overtures to the Kurds, and under pressure from his right-wing coalition partners, Kiliçdaroğlu is yet to offer a serious, systemic alternative to the neoliberal economic policies, extractive approach to impoverished, rural regions, and repression of fundamental labor rights which have left many ordinary Turkish citizens laboring for a pittance.
CHP policy toward North and East Syria, the multiethnic polity established around the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava, illustrates this nuance. For now, Kiliçdaroğlu’s focus is likely to be on rebuilding Turkey post-earthquake (and post-Erdoğan), making another devastating ground invasion less likely. The CHP candidate has stated he will not back future cross-border operations.) But Kiliçdaroğlu has appealed to nationalist voters in Turkey by promising to repatriate the millions of Syrian refugees currently living in his country. This, taken along with his more conciliatory diplomatic style, will mean normalizing relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and potentially entrenching ethnic cleansing in the Kurdish north through the forcible return of Syrian refugees to these regions via a deal with Damascus.
Salih Muslim, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician, says: “We would like for all refugees to return to their homes, but not to be used as a tool for population exchange in the Kurdish areas. We are opposed to forcible demographic change, and we see how the situation is in regions under regime control.”
Kiliçdaroğlu is also likely to continue backing the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, a position which again diverges from the European consensus, rather than backing any more transformative federal solution. But overall, he is likely to pursue a more unambiguously pro-NATO, pro-Western line than Erdoğan, who has sought to play Washington against Moscow and style himself a crucial interlocutor between the two blocs. Kiliçdaroğlu will likely crack down on refugee flows, scrap Turkey’s Russian-provided air defense system, and bring an end to Erdoğan’s recent strategy of using Turkey’s NATO veto to secure concessions for fresh attacks on and repression of the Kurds — as when demanding Finland and Sweden extradite scores of Kurdish politicians, exiles and journalists, including a Swedish-Kurdish MP with no links whatsoever to Turkey.
Back in the Fold
Europe and the United States will be happy to see Turkey return to the fold — so happy, in fact, they may well reward Kiliçdaroğlu with reentry into crucial Western weapons technology, perhaps even the F-35 fighter jet program from which Erdoğan is currently excluded. Seen through the NATO prism, Syrian refugees who may suffer forcible return into Assad’s brutal prison system, and the civilians and Kurdish political, civil society, and military leaders who continue to lose their lives in Turkey’s brutal air war across northern Iraq and Syria, are disposable collateral. To some extent, the Kurdish movement has benefited from friction between Ankara and Washington, and if Turkey toes the line by participating more wholeheartedly in Russia’s international isolation, the West may be more willing to turn a blind eye to excesses against the Kurds.
But even if Kiliçdaroğlu is only seeking to distance himself from the ancien régime through pragmatic appeals to the embattled Kurdish minority, the restoration of rule of law and potential release of some political prisoners would be a huge relief for the progressive, pro-Kurdish opposition. “Though there may be an end to Erdoğan’s rule, nobody is expecting the Kurdish issue to go away,” says Özsoy. “But in a new political landscape, with some degree of separation of powers and a somewhat free judiciary and media, we can reposition and continue wage a democratic struggle for our rights.”
Particularly in Kurdish regions, many votes for Kiliçdaroğlu are more likely to be votes against Erdoğan than votes for his opponent’s “strange coalition.” “It’s not that people have hope in Kiliçdaroğlu,” says Murad, “They just want Erdoğan to go.” Whether this is enough to countermand Erdoğan’s still significant nationalist voter base, and whether the incumbent is likely to quietly step aside if he loses the election, remains to be seen. But only then will there be space for the progressive opposition to begin broadening its program of empowering local democracy, municipalities, and grassroots political organizing.
When I ask her what will change if Erdoğan’s rival does assume the presidency, Koç’s response is clear: “First, I don’t know which ‘opposition’ you are talking about. For me, as a Kurd, a woman, and a cosmopolitan, the HDP is the real alternative for a secure future in Turkey.”