Millions of Kurdish votes could determine Turkey’s March 31 local elections, as the main Kurdish party has decided to sit out races in the largest cities in an effort to boost the main opposition’s chances against the ruling party, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
Kurds make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 80 million people, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) draws most of its support from the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
Following the collapse of a peace process in mid-2015, and a failed 2016 coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have increasingly linked the HDP to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
The party’s former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, has been in prison for more than two years on terror charges. In the last three years, more than one in three party members have been detained as the government has dismissed at least 95 elected HDP mayors and appointed replacements.
In October, Erdoğan threatened to do this again if the HDP won in southeast cities. Early this month, he again called HDP lawmakers terrorists.
Yet the HDP has fielded candidates in the southeast, where it remains the most popular party, while sitting out key races in Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, the capital.
“The strategy aims to deliver HDP votes to Turkey’s main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and its alliance with a small nationalist party,” AP said.
Opinion polls suggest Ankara could be won by CHP mayoral candidate Mansur Yavaş, after being held by Islamist parties for 25 years. The race for Istanbul may also be tight, between AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım, a former prime minister, and the CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu.
“We are a party that will determine the fate of the elections in Istanbul,” Pervin Buldan, HDP co-chair, said at a rally on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of Kurdish supporters attended the Istanbul rally marking Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, waving flags and chanting slogans.
Ridvan Tekin, a 35-year-old HDP supporter, said he would vote for the main opposition. “It’s not because I love the CHP, but because this regime needs to change now,” he told AP.
According to the HDP, 10 lawmakers, 40 mayors and nearly 5,000 activists remain jailed, with thousands in prisons on a hunger strike to demand better treatment for the PKK’s leader.