Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to emerge victorious in his bid to become the country’s first directly elected president, but a third, unlikely candidate for the post is being hailed as the top choice among the country’s once marginalised voters, backed by Turkey’s Kurdish population and leftist movements.
Selahattin Demirtas’ candidacy for president has been supported by the newly formed Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a party that he co-chairs. The HDP garners much of its support from the country’s Kurdish citizens.
“You will stamp yes for the most pro-peace and the most pro-fraternity, the most pro-people, the most handsome, the youngest [candidate],” said the 41-year-old candidate during an election rally in Istanbul ahead of the August 10 polls.
Similar to past elections, Kurdish voters’ priorities have centred on religious unity, and recognition and preservation of their ethnic identity.
“Islam has served as a successful rallying point for some Kurds, yet the trend in Kurdish politics in Turkey is to espouse secularism, individual rights, and equality. That’s why Erdogan’s strategy yielded mixed results and the process favours those Kurdish politicians who offer a discourse outside of Islamism,” explained Dr Akin Unver, of Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
Still, the main competition is expected to be between Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who is backed by the country’s two major opposition parties, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
According to the latest polls, Erdogan is expected to get 57 percent of the vote, while Ihsanoglu will get 35.8 percent, and Demirtas only nine percent. A candidate must win over 50 percent support to be elected after the first round, or the vote will go to a run-off on August 24.
While Demirtas isn’t expected to move beyond the first round of voting, his campaign has garnered attention across Turkey’s divided political spectrum. Sinan Ogan, a prominent lawmaker from the far-right MHP praised his inclusive campaign, saying: “In this election, Demirtas has single-handedly transformed HDP from what it was initially, from a party of rigidly ethnic to being a party for the whole of Turkey.”
Harun Tekin, a popular Turkish musician and columnist, publicly endorsed Demirtas, saying that the candidate transcended the usual emphasis on Kurdish identity. “The extra votes he’ll get will mean that voters value the shift in Kurdish political movement towards including all [the] people of Turkey,” he said.
He is also the only candidate to mention LGBT rights and promised a fight against homophobia. He is the only candidate that respects diversity and change in society.
Demirtas’ campaign has also been embraced by left-wing voters because of his stance on a range of social issues, from LGBT rights to environmental conservation. This, according to political analysts, is a bid to extend the newly formed HDP beyond its strong Kurdish base.
“Tomorrow, I will go and vote for Demirtas. He is the only candidate who did not sing the ‘national anthem’, a symbol of Turkish nationalism and narrow-mindedness, during his campaign,” said Kerem Bicmen, a Master’s degree student and researcher in Istanbul. “He is also the only candidate to mention LGBT rights and promised a fight against homophobia. He is the only candidate that respects diversity and change in society.”
Bekir Agirdir, a prominent researcher at KONDA, a company that accurately forecast the outcome of the local elections in March, said that voters would cast their ballots along party lines.
“AKP’s Kurdish voters will vote for Erdogan, while BDP [pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] supporters will vote for Demirtas. Even if HDP’s vote climbs up to 10 percent, roughly four million votes, that would not be because of Kurdish votes, but because of Turks’ support for Demirtas’ campaign,” Agirdir said.
Mehmet Emin Aktar, the former head of the Kurdish city Diyarbakir’s BAR Association, also argued that Turkish voters do not regularly change their voting habits. Kurds who don’t vote for Demirtas, however, would vote for Erdogan, he said.
“Ihsanoglu has been nominated by the CHP-MHP block, and … he has no personal appeal with Kurdish voters,” Aktar said, explaining that Erdogan’s efforts to deal with the Kurdish issue and negotiate a peaceful settlement to the fighting between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has garnered support among Kurds.
The peace process has been a major focus of Erdogan’s presidential campaign, as he has attempted to get more votes from the Kurdish community. Kurds have tentatively supported Erdogan’s efforts, and other steps his government has taken to guarantee greater rights for their community, including strengthening Kurdish language rights and education.