The decision of voters from ethnically Kurdish backgrounds, estimated to make up around 20 percent of the population, has traditionally been crucial in the general elections held in Turkey. The Kurdish vote will, no doubt, have a significant impact on the parliamentary and presidential elections, which will be held in less than 10 days. Experts say, and a recent poll shows, that while large numbers of Kurds in the predominantly Kurdish provinces in Turkey's southeast are expected to vote for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will also garner solid support and increase their percentage at the ballot boxes.
According to Vahdettin İnce, an author and Kurdish intellectual, voters behavior in the region has been shaped in recent years by how the parties have approached what has been termed as the "Kurdish issue," a problem that the Kurds are sensitive about. "Kurds nowadays ask this question: 'What does the 'Kurdish issue' mean for different parties?' and when they answer this question the [Republican People's Party] CHP is eliminated from being a choice due to its dark past with many incidents against the Kurds and a lack of self-criticism on the issue," says İnce.
Vahdettin İnce adds that while the HDP "seems to be for the interests of the Kurds at the discourse and rhetorical level, they also have a sour past which must be evaluated with PKK terrorism in the region."
The HDP has been accused of close ideological and political links with the PKK terrorist organization, which was founded in 1978 and has been in an armed conflict against the state since 1984. As a result of the conflict, nearly 40,000 people have been killed in more than three decades. Currently, HDP's former co-Chair and the presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş is held in prison for terror-related charges.
When it comes to AK Party, however, İnce says: "We see a transformation from 'there is no such a thing as Kurds' to 'there are Kurds'; we see a state-run Kurdish channel; we see Kurdology institutes and Kurdish courses at schools nowadays," he says.
He adds that such realities of the recent past will be taken into account when voters make their choices on June 24, and "this will mean strong support for Erdoğan."
The president of Diyarbakır-based Regional Research Center (YÖRSAM), Yılmaz Demirhan, who is also a professor of political science at Dicle University in southeastern Diyarbakır province, said that with rising political stability, maintenance of public order and visibility of the state services in the region, the AK Party has been retrieving the votes it had lost to HDP in the past elections.
In the June 2015 elections, AK Party lost nearly 25 to 30 percent of its votes in the region, while the HDP increased its votes, when compared to the 2011 and 2007 general elections. In overall results the AK Party had received 40.87 percent of the votes, failing to form a single-party majority government and snap elections were called by the president to be held on November of that year. Subsequently, in these November elections the AK Party claimed a landslide victory with 49.49 percent of overall votes and formed the government.
Many analysts and people in the region had said at the time that a democratic chance was given to the HDP on June 7, 2015 to detach itself from the PKK and to continue politics through democratic means at the Parliament. However, failure to do so on HDP's end, and the re-emergence of PKK violence in the region, paved the way for Kurdish voters to give solid support to the AK Party in the November 2015 elections.
"As politics normalize and an environment of trust is further stabilized, AK Party will continue to get back the votes that had swung to the HDP," Demirhan added.
For the June 24 presidential elections, Erdoğan will run for president as the joint candidate of AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) under the People's Alliance, and will also be supported by the nationalist Great Union Party (BBP).
Meanwhile the CHP, the Good Party (İP), Felicity Party (SP), HDP, and the Patriotic Party (VP) have declared their own candidates.
A YÖRSAM public survey, conducted in person in Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Batman provinces with the participation of 1302 individuals between June 8 and 11, asked participants who they would vote for in the June 24 presidential elections. The results showed that among the participants 31.1 percent supported Erdoğan and 55.6 percent supported Demirtaş. CHP candidate Muharrem İnce was the third in the polls with 3.5 percent. However, about 5.5 percent of the participants were undecided voters.
The results of the survey indicated that in the case of a second round of voting, İnce would receive more votes than Erdoğan. Mehmet Emin Ekmen, a former AK Party deputy of southeastern Batman province, said "in the first round İnce will not get substantial votes from the region. However, in case there is a second round between Erdoğan and İnce, then HDP's ideological supporters will either not go to ballot boxes or they would mostly vote for İnce."
YÖRSAM's research has also compared AK Party's performance in the Nov. 1 elections in 2015 with its public survey on the support for presidential candidates in the upcoming elections. Acccording to these results, support for Erdoğan in the region has increased 3 to 6 percentage points, since 2015.
When the same comparison is made for HDP's performance and Demirtaş, YÖRSAM results show that Demirtaş has lost more than 10 percent of the support from HDP voters in the presidential race.
The question of whether AK Party's alliance with the nationalist MHP will affect its support from the Kurds negatively still lingers. However, last year's referendum on constitutional changes, support both the AK Party and MHP's argument that the vote of the alliance will not be affected.
Although it was not a general election, the Kurds gave solid support to the AK Party's "yes" poll in the referendum on the constitutional amendments from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. The main partner of AK Party in the "yes" poll was then also the MHP.
Kurds are not homogeneous
The Kurdish citizens of Turkey are as diverse as Turkish society when it comes to political and cultural affiliations. While there are many Kurds who identify themselves as traditionally conservative Sunni Muslims and prioritize their religious identity, there are also secular, center-left and radical-left Kurds, who prioritize their ethnic identity. While the former has traditionally supported AK Party in recent decades, the latter has traditionally supported the HDP. Major Turkish parties, such as the main opposition CHP and the MHP have so far not been successful in attracting the Kurdish votes in the southeastern region of Turkey. While the HDP has been the stronger party in the region, mostly attracting the votes of the left-wing Kurds, there is also the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR), a conservative Islamist party which receives most of its support from the predominantly Kurdish provinces, although it does not have a very significant share in the overall votes. HÜDA-PAR officials have also announced that their party will support Erdoğan in the presidential race, while running independently for the Parliament.
Analysts also say that while the HDP voters stick to their party due to ideological reasons, the conservative Kurds can be the swing voters and as such their choices will be more determinate.
"HDP voters make choices based on their ideological attachments to the party, particularly the HDP voters outside the southeastern region, while there is more flexibility among voters in the southeast towards Erdoğan," said İhsan Aktaş, the chairman of Genar polling company who is also a columnist at Daily Sabah.
Aktaş adds that while the HDP is able to keep its ideological voters, it tries to attract conservative voters through manipulations over Erdoğan.
"Erdoğan has strong popularity in the eyes of the Kurdish voters. This is why HDP has been utilizing an intensified smear campaign and discourse of enmity against Erdoğan to cover their own shortcomings and flaws," Aktaş says.
Kurdish issue or the problem of terror?
As the Kurdish author Vahdettin İnce says, what has been termed as the "Kurdish issue" has been interpreted in many ways, with diverse political approaches to it.
The AK Party governments in the past decade or so have underlined that they do not have an "issue" with the Kurds, and they have supported their rhetoric through a number of social and political reforms regarding the rights of the Kurds and Kurdish identity. However, Erdoğan and the AK Party governments have said that there is a problem of terror in the country, referring to the PKK terrorist group, and underlined that the PKK is not representative of all Kurds. The Turkish president has vowed that the threat posed by PKK terrorists will be eliminated from the country; this is not a step against the Kurds. Rather, Erdoğan says that the elimination of the PKK will help the Kurds get relief from the oppression the PKK has imposed on the people of the region.
Turkey also went through a democratization period since the early years of AK Party's time in office with a series of reforms made to increase rights and freedoms of Kurds. Later, steps were taken in what was called the reconciliation process in 2013, an attempt to bring PKK terrorism to an end through a series of moves, including talks with the PKK's imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan and a cease-fire by the PKK. However, it was brought to an end in July 2015, when the PKK unilaterally ended the cease-fire.