The Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş and his Kurdish constituency could decide the fate of Turkey, argue researchers Huseyin Tunc and Dr. Haluk Baran Bingol.

Turkey will hold general and presidential elections on 24 June 2018, more than a year and a half earlier than originally scheduled after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved the date forward because of his ambition to be reelected for the presidency and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to again hold parliamentary majority while opposition parties are still unprepared and in disarray. The stakes are high: these elections will determine, among other things, whether Turkey will restore parliamentary democracy or enforce a presidential system that enshrines the centralization of power rather than its separation. If Mr. Erdoğan wins, he will consolidate his grip on state institutions and society, leaving Turkey essentially under one man’s rule.

Turkey’s governing party, AKP, and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party, declared President Erdoğanas the joint candidate of the “Popular Alliance” (Cumhur Ittifaki). Despite the broad and strong anti-Erdoğancoalition, the president might still win this election thanks to the opposition parties’ failure to find a unifying, national candidate that has the charisma and political weight to challenge Mr. Erdoğan. On 28 April 2018, one of the last hopes faded when Abdullah Gül, ex-president of Turkey and co-founder of the AKP declared that he would not run against Mr. Erdoğan, his long-time ally, because he failed to get the support of and consensus among a broad coalition of opposition parties. 

In order to have the maximum chance of defeating President Erdoğan, the opposition formed a coalition, called the “Nation Alliance” (Millet Ittifaki), which is a broad front that consists of the Kemalist Republican Peoples Party, the Islamist Felicity Party, the newly formed nationalist Good Party, and the right-wing Democratic Party. However, three of the four parties have put forward their own presidential candidate. This will, of course, disperse the opposition votes. But the Nation Alliance is hoping that President Erdoğan will fail to secure more than 50 percent of the vote, which would force him to enter a second round against a single candidate. 

In the Turkish presidential election system, if no single candidate obtains a majority of votes in the first round of Turkish presidential elections, the first two with the greatest votes will compete in the second round. Mr. Erdoğan will certainly be one of the two candidates in the second round if he does not win with majority of votes in the first round on 24 June. The oppositionist Nation Alliance then will gather around their one candidate who makes it to the second round. 

According to a national survey conducted in May 2018 by REMRES, a public survey consultancy firm, the pro-government Popular Alliance will receive about 44 percent of the vote and the opposition coalition of Nation Alliance will receive about the same. This means the Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with only 12 percent of the votes is likely to be the decisive force in electing the candidate for the office of the presidency, a position that comes with added powers granted in the April 2017 referendum.

It will indeed be an extraordinary turn of events if the Kurds, who have been on the receiving end of the Turkish state’s repressive measures, end up deciding the outcome of this high stakes election. If Mr. Erdoğan loses because of the Kurdish vote, it will be because he had alienated them in order to buy the favor of the ultra-nationalist. Similarly, if the opposition candidate wins, it will mean that only with the help of the Kurds have Turkish opposition parties, including the main opposition Kemalist Republican Party, been able to accomplish what they have failed to do for the last 15 years. 

The Kurds will vote while their nominee, the HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, languishes in prison. He is among tens of thousands imprisoned by the government following the failed coup of 15 July 2016. Although Mr. Erdoğan blames his long-time ally Fetullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric in self-exile in Pennsylvania, he used the coup as an opportunity to clear out critics of his government, including journalists, academics, military personnel, public servants, and nearly 4,700 HDP members, from public life. 

Mr. Demirtaş’ indictment runs 550 pages and he faces up to 142 years in prison for speeches he has given and because of his alleged allegiance to the PKK, a Kurdish insurgency fighting against the Turkish state since 1984 for the communal rights and political autonomy for the Kurds. Mr. Demirtaşdenies the charges, and describes his indictment as “politically motivated.” Criticizing President Erdoğan’s control over Turkish judiciary, Mr. Demirtaş stated in June 2016, before his detention, that: “We [HDP members of parliament] are not afraid of being trialed and we are ready to give account to any allegations, but I don’t believe we will have a fair trial.”

A human rights lawyer and a member of the Turkish parliament, Mr. Demirtaş, 44, is a popular politician with wide recognition and respect among the Kurds and liberal segments of the Turkish society. He was the head of the Human Rights Association of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city, at perilous times when Kurdish leaders could still face arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, torture, and even summary execution by the Turkish military. His unrelenting resolve for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict, struggle for justice and democracy in Turkey coupled with his personal charisma brought him to the co-presidency and leadership of the HDP—which he shared with Figen Yüksekdag, who is also in prison on terrorism charges awaiting her trail.

Mr. Demirtaş’real crime is threatening the ruling party’s complete hold on the parliament and Mr.Erdoğan’sauthoritarian ambitions. In August 2015, Mr. Demirtaş’proclaimed famously: “We won’t let you [Mr. Erdoğan] become president.” Under his leadership, HDP won more than 13 percent of the votes in the June 2015 general elections, striking the biggest blow to AKP’s dominance for the first time since 2003. 

However, Mr. Demirtaşand his party have not always been nemesis of state. From 2013 to 2015, under his leadership HDP was crucial to the peace process that came close to ending the bloody conflict with the PKK that has been raging mainly in the country’s southeast regions since 1984. Despite the general sense of optimism for a peaceful resolution, the peace process was derailed because of the government’s unwillingness to take practical steps for peaceful resolution (including legal measures, and thus raising suspicion among the PKK members), its support for the radical Salafist groups fighting the Kurds in Syria, and the sporadic violence erupting as a result of the fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK. With the end of the peace process, the government resumed its military crackdown against the Kurds in July 2015.

Still, few are as well positioned as Selahattin Demirtaşto end the violence in Turkey’s Kurdish region, to reinstate democratic institutions, and to again integrate Turkey with the democratic world. Kurdish votes and Mr. Demirtaş’leadership will be deciding factors in the upcoming presidential election. While he might be a candidate in prison, he and his Kurdish constituency could be Turkey’s kingmaker and shape the country’s political future.


Huseyin Tunc is a Research Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, and a PhD student in Political Science; his email is ht2360@columbia.eduDr. Haluk Baran Bingol is a post-doctoral Research Fellow and Instructor in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University; his email is hbaranbingol@gmail.com.