HDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş's recent remarks comparing the Taksim Square, where unions wanted to hold Labor Day celebrations, to the Kaaba, the most sacred site for Muslims, elicited contraversy
On June 7, approximately 50 million Turkish citizens will vote in the parliamentary elections that will determine the distribution of seats in the Grand National Assembly. While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) aims to claim at least 330 seats to hold a referendum over its draft constitution, which most notably features a transition from a parliamentary to presidential regime, opposition parties seek to prevent a fourth consecutive single-party government. Nowadays, all eyes are fixed on the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) whose leadership announced that they would participate in the race as a party instead of endorsing independent candidates. Meanwhile, political commentators seem to agree that the HDP will need to lure away conservative Kurds from the AK Party while winning over young urbanites who have traditionally voted for the Republican People's Party (CHP). The Kaaba controversy, which surfaced against the backdrop of the International Labor Day celebrations, indicates that the HDP's aggressive election campaign leaves the organization vulnerable to effective attacks from their competitors.
If you have been distracted from Turkish politics for the past couple of days, it is only natural for you to question how exactly the country ended up talking about the Kaaba out of the blue. It all started when HDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş compared the Taksim Square, where unions wanted to hold Labor Day celebrations, to the Kaaba, the most sacred site of the Islamic faith located in Mecca: "Muslims visit the Kaaba for pilgrimage while Jews travel to Jerusalem. You cannot perform [the pilgrimage] elsewhere. For the workers, Taksim Square is an equally irreplaceable location." Over the next days, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu delivered a powerful response by suggesting that Mr. Demirtaş acted like a spokesperson for Israel by ignoring the fact that Jerusalem was a sacred site for the Muslim community. "He should know his place. We will not let anyone speak about the Kaaba in this manner," the prime minister warned at a campaign event in Niğde. Elsewhere, Mr. Davutoğlu announced that he refused to use the HDP chairman's first name, Selahattin, in light of the most recent developments while noting that Mr. Demirtaş bears the name of Salahuddin Al Ayyubi, the legendary Muslim commander who conquered Jerusalem in 1187. Although the HDP leader, whose impressive performance in the 2014 presidential race paved the way for his party's ambitious bid to break the 10 percent mark on June 7, appeared on live television to refute the allegations, the damage was already done.
In another electoral setting, the HDP chairman's controversial remarks would have probably been consumed in a single news cycle but the unusual amount of media coverage that the Kurdish political movement has received ahead of the June 7 parliamentary elections makes the largely inexperienced organization vulnerable to such attacks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's emphasis on the Kaaba controversy indicates that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is keen on reminding the conservative wing of the Kurdish community, over whose votes the party has established an uncontested monopoly over the past decade, that the HDP's outreach campaign does not eliminate the vast cultural differences between the conservatives and the secularists.
The Kaaba remarks, combined with PKK militants' failure to show due interest in disarmament, will presumably consolidate the AK Party base in eastern Anatolia and the southeast. There is little doubt that similar issues will be at the forefront over the next weeks in an attempt to keep the Kurdish political movement below the national threshold. At this point, not only the AK Party but also the Republicans will move to consolidate their base against advances from the Kurdish radicals.
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