Cracks appear in Turkey’s opposition alliance over ties to HDP Kurds

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Turkey’s alliance of six opposition parties is in a war of words over the role of the country’s largest pro-Kurdish group, part of an escalating debate that only Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can benefit in the run-up to the crucial elections that be held in June 2023.

Meral Aksener, the leader of the right-wing nationalist Iyi of Good Party, stated at an internal party meeting on Sept. 6 that “we will not sit at the same table” with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and that “the HDP cannot sit at the same table.” sit like us.”

Aksener was responding to comments from a member of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). CHP lawmaker Gursel Tekin had claimed in a Sept. 5 televised interview that HDP members could be appointed as ministers in a government formed by his party and other opposition groups. His words sparked a spate of angry tweets from Iyi officials. Aksener’s statement gave them an official seal of approval.

The HDP, the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament, has been accused of advocating on behalf of banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants. Numerous HDP officials and supporters, including former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, are serving lengthy prison terms for barely proven convictions. On September 3, HDP lawmaker Semra Guzel was arrested as she allegedly tried to flee the country.

Guzel is accused of PKK membership and funding of the organization. She was stripped of her parliamentary immunity in March. The evidence against her is based on a romantic relationship between herself and a guerrilla, which makes her a “terrorist” herself. A photo of Guzel posing in front of a waterfall with her late fiancé was found on his body when he was killed in clashes with the Turkish army in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

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Guzel denies the charges and says the relationship took place when the current government was holding peace talks with the PKK. The talks broke down in 2015 along with a mutually perceived two-and-a-half-year ceasefire, paving the way for a new cycle of violence that claims dozens of lives on both sides.

In June 2021, the Constitutional Court accepted a charge filed by the Chief Prosecutor to ban the HDP. His fate, conventional wisdom goes, will largely be determined by Erdogan’s own electoral calculations.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has sought to achieve this balance by excluding the HDP, while impressing party leaders with the need to unite against Erdogan. However, as the response to Tekin’s comments shows, it’s an almost impossible task, with Iyi pushing harder and harder against any association with the HDP.

Today, Iyi’s provincial chairman of Yozgat, a nationalist stronghold in central Anatolia, resigned from the party in protest. Metin Ozisik, a former major who fought in the ranks of the Turkish army against the PKK, said: “As someone who fought terrorism for four years, carried those martyrs in his arms… I can’t sit around the same table with a mentality which says ministers’ posts can be given to the PKK.’”

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One of the reasons for Iyi’s increasingly aggressive stance is the rise of the Zafer of Victory party led by ultra-nationalist academic Umit Ozdag, which is campaigning on an openly racist platform to evict the country of its estimated eight million immigrants. Some commentators have suggested that Ozdag is being instigated, if not supported by the AKP, to draw votes away from the opposition, especially Aksener.

Kilicdaroglu tried to defuse the spat, citing claims that the HDP was promised to post “all the lies”. He called for calm yesterday, saying: “We are tired of the fighting.” The CHP leader nevertheless emphasized that the HDP was a political party whose rights had to be respected in accordance with democratic norms: “The HDP is a separate party and they want to form a separate alliance,” Kilicdaroglu said.

The joy within the AKP ranks is palpable. Hilal Kaplan, a pro-Erdogan columnist for the government mouthpiece Sabah, shared a video on social media of Iyi lawmaker Yavuz Agiralioglu saying he too would never accept sharing power with the HDP. “The HDP is not sitting at the table, but the largest partner of the six-member alliance has already promised it cabinet positions. For example, I am convinced,” she tweeted.

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The HDP’s response has been fairly muted so far. HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas said the party “has no haggling over ministries with anyone and has no approach beyond its stated principles.”

“We’d love to hear how those who want to denigrate HDP members through their artificial debates using ugly language, plans to embrace society and run the nation,” Bestas tweeted. Private HDP officials are airily disgusted, but do not do so in public so as not to be blamed for a possible collapse of “the table”.

The Kurds are not the only factor spoiling the opposition’s attempts to stick together. The question of who they will draft as a joint candidate to run against Erdogan for the presidency is another. In recent months there has seemed to be a consensus around Kilicdaroglu. Current opinion polls suggest he could beat Erdogan in a second round, although he still lags behind the CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.

The CHP’s signature internal strife, coupled with Iyi’s allergy to the HDP, could yet prove the opposition is being undone. At least that’s what Erdogan is counting on. If nothing else, he wants to “neutralize” the Kurds — that is, get them to boycott the polls, said Roj Girasun, the founder of RAWEST, a research and polling agency based in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.

“The Kurds are realistic and rational. They don’t expect to be ministers or anything like that,” Girasun told Al-Monitor. But the rhetoric of the last days “has hurt their pride, left a scar,” he said.