Erdogan’s Campaign on Kurds Seen Backfiring at Polls - Again

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the People’s Democracy Party or HDP.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

As Turkey heads toward its second general election in six months, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against the surprise victor of the first ballot may backfire -- again.

The pro-Kurdish HDP won 13 percent of votes in June, helping to deny a wounded ruling party the supermajority it sought to transform Erdogan’s office into the nation’s power center. Since then, Turkey’s leaders have redoubled their efforts to tie the HDP to Kurdish PKK rebels, designated terrorists by Turkey and the U.S. They sent the air force to bomb the guerrilla’s bases, reigniting a three-decade conflict.

The rising tide of nationalist rhetoric and the spreading conflict in Turkey’s southeast haven’t dented support for the HDP, according to two opinion polls published in the last week which put the party on 12.8 percent and 14.1 percent. Both are above the 10-percent threshold it must cross to seat lawmakers in parliament.

“Escalating violence may chip away at support for the HDP in the west of the country,” said Naci Sapan, who analyzes Kurdish politics at the Tigris Communal Research Center in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. But the party will benefit from a widespread feeling in the Kurdish southeast “that the president rekindled violence” for electoral benefit, he said.

Palace Rule

HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who built his reputation investigating human-rights abuses during the Kurdish conflict, led his party to 80 seats in the 550-member parliament in June, vowing a new inclusive politics and the defeat of Erdogan’s attempts to install a “dictatorship.”

His pitch was aimed at Kurds who had previously voted for the governing AK Party as well as Turkish secularists living outside the southeast. The HDP gains left Turkey with a hung parliament and talks over forging a coalition have foundered. Erdogan’s desire to usurp parliament’s powers and rule from his 1,150-room palace in Ankara was a major factor.

During a speech on Friday, Erdogan triggered outrage with comments suggesting he was already at the wheel.

The presidency wields de facto, rather than symbolic, power “whether one accepts it or not,” Erdogan said. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, accused the president of seeking a legal basis for a “coup.”

Devlet Bahceli, chief of the leading nationalist group, the MHP, said he had “no tolerance for a locally produced Hitler, Stalin or Qaddafi.”

Repeat Election

The deadline for forming a government based on June’s results is Aug. 23. Erdogan, who led the AKP for more than a decade before becoming president in August last year, may then order a fresh poll for as early as the end of October.

Erdogan, who as prime minister embarked on peace talks with the PKK, now says the group poses an equal threat to Turkey’s southeast as Islamic State militants across the border in Iraq and Syria, whom Turkey is also targeting.

Acting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has repeatedly denied accusations that Erdogan secretly pushed for a repeat election to accomplish his political aspirations. He says the AKP, which he now heads, is best placed to prosper from a fresh ballot.

PKK Ties

Demirtas and other HDP politicians don’t deny connections to the PKK -- Demirtas’s older brother is a fighter for the group and the PKK’s jailed founder Abdullah Ocalan is seen as the ideological father of the party. What they reject is accusations that the HDP is an advocate of armed conflict.

“None of Turkey’s problems can be solved with guns,” Demirtas said in a statement published on Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s security forces, PKK or civilians -- the deaths have to stop immediately.”

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Customers browse souvenirs and other goods in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015

Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Erdogan has promised that won’t happen.

“I’ll say it clearly -- these operations will continue,” he said in a speech to supporters in his hometown of Rize on Aug. 12. “As long as the terrorist organization doesn’t drop its weapons, as long as its militants don’t leave the country, and as long as the political party acting under its guidance doesn’t cross over to real democracy, all bodies of the state will do what’s necessary to protect the nation and its people.”

Speaking in Ankara a day earlier, Erdogan described the HDP as an “extension of the terror group.”

Kurdish Votes

Attempts to define Demirtas’s party as controlled by the Kurdish militants are unlikely to swing the electorate substantially in Erdogan’s favor, analysts say.

“Support for the AK Party among Kurds will further decline if there’s an election,” Ozer Sencar, head of MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research, said in an interview in Ankara. In the past, “Kurds were voting either for the AK Party or the HDP, now they just have the HDP to vote for.”

Turkey’s political impasse and spiraling violence -- intense clashes have forced authorities to declare temporary curfews in at least two towns in the southeast -- is eroding already shaky confidence in the economy.

The lira has posted the third-biggest drop among major currencies this year, threatening to unwind the recent slowdown in inflation and narrowing of the current-account deficit. Turkey’s central bank on Tuesday left all its main interest rates unchanged, citing recent volatility in the currency and and rising food prices.

An election in October rather than November “would be welcome by the markets as the period of uncertainty will be shorter,” Teneo Intelligence Managing Director Wolfango Piccoli said last week. “Yet, the key issue for investors relates to the prospects of a return to a stable single-party government and not so much the timing of elections.”

That’s something Erdogan’s increasingly divisive strategy can’t deliver, Naz Masraff, director for Europe at Eurasia Group in London, said by e-mail on Friday.

“Erdogan is likely to continue to target the HDP during the campaign period to discredit them with the hope of keeping them below the 10-percent threshold,” she said. Still, “a coalition government cannot be avoided next time around.”

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