Troubles brew for Erdoğan as Turkey’s opposition CHP wins Kurdish sympathy

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has made important changes to its Kurdish policy in recent years, winning it support among the Kurds at the expense of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s governing party.

Since CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, born in the overwhelmingly Kurdish war-ridden province of Tunceli, became leader in 2010, the party has gradually evolved into a social democratic movement from a predominantly nationalist group.

The CHP’s success in garnering sympathy and votes among more than 10 million ethnic Kurds in Turkey could spell trouble for Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as it gears up to fight presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

Politicians who lamented the CHP’s transformation since Kılıçdaroğlu’s arrival from a nationalist-Kemalist party initially resisted change. Fights erupted in party congresses. Kılıçdaroğlu’s rivals engaged in a "who is more Kemalist" contest, some key party figures were removed or resigned, while other more liberal names arrived. Among them was Emine Ülker Tarhan, once a rising star of the nationalist wing of the party, who left the CHP and founded the Anatolian Party in 2014.

But the Anatolian Party, which entered the 2015 elections, could only gain 0.06 percent of the vote. Tarhan disappeared from the political scene after his defeat. Breakaway parties such as the New Party, founded by Tuncay Özkan in 2008, and the People's Rise Party, established by Yaşar Nuri Öztürk in 2005, were equally unsuccessful.

Still, political dissension to Kılıçdaroğlu persisted. As the party formed alliances with other opposition groups and political figures in parliamentary and presidential elections, objections were voiced by traditionalists who saw the agreements as undercutting the CHP’s Kemalist roots.

But Kılıçdaroğlu, 72, did not deviate from his reformist path. In the local elections of 2019, Kurds voted for the CHP because of the new political outlook under his leadership. Thus, the CHP won many metropolitan municipalities, including Istanbul and the capital Ankara, where millions of ethnic Kurds reside.

Kılıçdaroğlu Erdoğan
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Despite its election success, political rebellion within the CHP did not end. Several parliamentarians resigned, including Mehmet Ali Çelebi, Hüseyin Avni Aksoy and Özcan Özel. The deputies accused the leadership of becoming too close to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). However, almost no one saw the resignations as a threat to party unity, except for the pro-government media. So, what kind of relationship does the CHP have with the Kurds?

According to a survey published this month by the Rawest Research Company, which focuses on Turkey’s mainly Kurdish east and southeast regions, the Kurds look upon the CHP far more favourably than in the past.

There is a significant increase in support for the CHP in Kurdish provinces, while the governing AKP is losing ground, the survey of 497 people in the provinces of Diyarbakır, Mardin, Urfa and Van showed. One in four people who previously voted for the AKP now no longer support it, Rawest said.

The CHP, which garnered around 2.5 percent of the vote in the predominantly Kurdish regions of Turkey in the 2018 general elections, has almost tripled its tally to 7.4 percent. At the same time, Kurdish backing for former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), established in 2020, stands at 5 percent, while support for former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party is running at 3.1 percent.

Why have the Kurds, divided politically between the AKP and the HDP over the past two decades, become more supportive of the CHP? Rojesir Girasun, director of Rawest, explains:

"Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been introducing democratic reforms since 2011,” Girasun said, referring to the arrival in 2010 of Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a human rights lawyer who has supported the rights of Kurds, and Mehmet Bekaroğlu, a human rights activist of Laz origin, in 2014.

Giresun said that Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership is perhaps the most critical factor in the switch of Kurdish votes to the CHP because many believe that, without him, the party would return to a more traditional, hardline approach to the Kurdish issue.

The victory of CHP moderate Ekrem İmamoğlu in the 2019 mayoral elections for Istanbul has also garnered Kurdish support for the party, with some believing that such success might be repeated in general and presidential elections in 2023. Through an albeit informal electoral alliance with the HDP, the CHP may win seats in parliament in predominantly Kurdish cities such as Van, Diyarbakır and Mardin in the next election, Girasun said

“In the past, there was no interest in the CHP. It was seen as a sham party. That’s no longer so,” he said. “There are popular names such as Oğuz Kaan Salıcı, Mehmet Bekaroğlu and Canan Kaftancıoğlu within the party. This popularity makes it easy to vote for them.”

Assistant Professor Vahap Coşkun, who teaches law and politics at Diçle University in southeast Turkey, says there will not be a substantial increase in the CHP's votes in Kurdish provinces in 2023, but that there will be a significant decrease in support for the AKP.

"Kılıçdaroğlu has followed a strategy of getting closer to both the conservatives and the Kurds,” Coşkun said. “He strives to reach voters outside the CHP's classical electoral base. He got positive results in the local elections.

“In the big cities in particular, a significant portion of Kurdish voters supported the CHP. But if you ask whether this will cause a sharp political break in the short term, I think it is too early.”

The CHP has been absent from Kurdish regions for nearly 20 years, according to Coşkun.

"The political landscape has been dominated by the AKP and the HDP since the early 2000s. But now the AKP will probably see a significant decrease in support,” he said. “The two parties emerging from the AKP base will likely bring about a significant change in AKP votes.

“The CHP continues its policy of rapprochement with the Kurds, but it is difficult to say that it will yield positive results in a short space of time. It has to put more effort into this.”

Noting that the Kurds are showing more interest in the party, CHP Diyarbakır Provincial Deputy Chairman Mahmut Aziz Usal said the CHP will be even more effective in garnering Kurdish support in the coming period.

"I was in the lead as candidate for parliament in the 2018 elections. If I had received 3,000 more votes, I would have been a deputy from Diyarbakır,” he said.

"With Kılıçdaroğlu’s arrival, the democratisation process within the party gained ground. The view and perspective of the Kurds has changed. There are also now people with different views within the party.

Other leading figures within the CHP have resigned recently to form alternative political parties. Öztürk Yılmaz, a former ambassador during the AKP government, was elected to parliament on the CHP ticket in November 2015. He left in July last year to form the Kemalist centrist Innovation Party (YP).

Mustafa Sarıgül, a former CHP mayor for the Istanbul district of Şişli and candidate for the party leadership in 2005, resigned to establish the Party for Change in Turkey (TDP) in December. Muharrem İnce, who was the CHP’s candidate in presidential elections in May 2018, left this month to form a new political group.

“Three deputies recently resigned from the CHP. Everyone knows why they quit. It is caused by the rapprochement with the HDP. Getting closer to the HDP ultimately means getting closer to the people in the region. It stems from our belief in solving the Kurdish problem in the parliament.”

CHP Van Provincial Chair Mehmet Kurukçu said Kurds are now adopting a more moderate view of the CHP.

"Ten years ago, there was a perception that the CHP was an enemy of religion, an enemy of the Kurds," he said. “These perceptions have been shattered. Moreover, after Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu became the party leader, a moderate approach was created towards the east and southeast of Turkey. The CHP has become accepted among the Kurds, based on its principles of leftist politics, democracy and social justice. I think we will see that more clearly going forward and in an increase in votes for the party.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.