Rodi Hevian: The return of giants into Kurdish politics

Celal Dogan and Dengir Firat greeting HDP supporters during an election rally in Adiyaman

With only three days to go for Turkey’s June 7 elections, the campaigns of parties continue in full swing. According to opinion polls, four major parties are expected to pass the 10 percent national threshold, which will enable them representation in the National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara. In this crucial competition, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) plays a key role.

Encouraged by its co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’ 9.8 percent electorate share in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections, the HDP, contrary to other Kurdish parties, who used to run with independent candidates, decided to run as a party, knowing the danger of falling short of passing the 10 percent barrier.

While campaigning with independent candidates, Kurdish political parties were focusing mainly on the Kurdish cities in south east of Turkey and Istanbul in western Turkey, where 3-5 million Kurds live. However, following its risky decision to run as a party, the HDP now has to expand the sphere of influence if it is to exceed the extraordinarily high 10 percent national threshold and reach out not only the Kurds but also those dissatisfied with AKP government. As the smallest party represented in the Turkish parliament, the HDP has performed a solid opposition against AKP government and its policies. On many occasions, this tiny group of courageous men and women played the role of main opposition party in the parliament.

HDP has succeeded winning the hearts and minds of conservative Kurds, who have been voting for the AKP for the last 12 years and it has become the hope of liberal democrats, non-Muslim minorities and government critics, who feel threatened by Erdogan’s dictatorial ambitions, with its colorful candidates’ profile and diversity.

HDP boosted its ranks

Mir Dengir Firat, a former deputy and the founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party and Celal Dogan, a former MP and the mayor of the Kurdish city of Antep for three consecutive terms, both of them considered heavy weight in Turkish politics, have joined the HDP ahead of June 7 elections.

Firat, who resigned from the AKP due to his differences with Erdogan on the Kurdish issue, was nominated from Mersin, a coastal city in southern Turkey with a majority Kurdish population. Dogan, who has been a member of the Republican Party (CHP), became HDP’s top candidate in Antep.

Firat is a member of one of the largest Kurdish tribes spread across Kurdish region and central Anatolia known as Rishwan. His family is originated from the Kurdish city of Kahta or Kolik in Kurdish. Although, his grandfather was one of the close allies of Musfafa Kemal during the First World War, he and his tribe were expelled from the Kurdish region by Kemal following 1924 Kurdish uprising in the region. Firat’s grandfather was exiled to Mersin while other tribesmen were sent to different regions in central Anatolia. Firat was born in Mersin in 1945, grew up there and studied law in Ankara. Firat’s courageous move created excitement among his tribe and encouraged the entire tribe members living in Kahta to join the HDP with a large ceremony in attendance of Osman Baydemir the former Mayor of the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir, who was nominated from Urfa. Firat supported HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas openly while he was running for presidential elections in Turkey.

Dengir Firat is HDP's top candidate in Mersin
Dengir Firat is HDP’s top candidate in Mersin

“I am looking for one vote”, Firat told Turkish tv channel Kanal D two weeks ago. “In order to cross the 10 percent hurdle, the HDP needs one vote” he said. “Despite my decision to retire from the politics, the zeitgeist forced me to return. Because I cannot sit and watch this country being ruled by a dictator like Erdogan.”

The 69-year-old Firat started his campaign with his grandfather’s hometown where his tribe has around 30 thousand votes. He went to the small Kurdish town of Sincik, a poor and underdeveloped region, where Turkey’s Erdogan got 96 percent of the votes in presidential elections. Speaking to a crowd of HDP supporters, Firat told the Kurds of the town to overcome their fears and join the HDP. The veteran Kurdish politician did not limit his campaign to his hometown and Mersin where is the top Kurdish candidate. He also led his party’s campaign in central Anatolian cities of Konya, Ankara, Kirsehir where tens of thousands of Kurds from his tribe live.

Dogan was born in Antep in 1944 and elected to parliament in 1978 on Republican Party’s (CHP) list. Following military coup led by Kenan Evren in 1980 and closure of all political parties in Turkey, Dogan returned to his hometown and continued his life as lawyer. He was elected Mayor of Antep with Social Democrat Party (SHP) in 1989 and ran the city until 2004 where he changed the shanty town into a modern city. He was also president of Gaziantepspor, a successful club of Turkey’s super league from 1993 to 2006.

Celal Dogan is HDP's top candidate in Gaziantep
Celal Dogan is HDP’s top candidate in Gaziantep

Dogan is a heavy weight in the region and is not a stranger to Kurdish movement. Although, the HDP failed to send its independent candidate human rights lawyer Akin Birdal to parliament in 2011, with the growing Kurdish votes and Dogan’s influence the Kurdish party is expected to win two seats from Antep.

With two newly joined giant politicians and fresh wind from powerful Kurdish tribes in the region, the pro-Kurdish HDP is pushing the limits of 10 percent threshold. A recent survey conducted by Turkey’s polling firm Konda shows the HDP with 11.5 percent of the vote, passing the ten percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

On the other hand, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using every possible means to prevent the HDP from crossing the 10 percent barrier.

Turkish president Erdogan presents his translation of Quran in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir during an AKP rally
Turkish president Erdogan presents his translation of Quran in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir during an AKP rally

The AKP’s election campaign has been dominated by Erdogan’s rallies. Although, it goes against the current Turkish constitution, Erdogan, who considers himself being the leader of “people”, has been touring Kurdish cities waving copies of Kurdish translation of Quran and asking the Kurds not to vote for the pro-Kurdish HDP. “I believe my Kurdish brothers will give a lesson to Zoroastrianists and infidels” Erdogan said, during a rally in the Kurdish city of Yuksekova. By Zoroastrianists and infidels, he means the leaders of Kurdish movement and the millions of its supporters. He is desperately trying to stop the major shift of the Kurdish votes from the AKP to HDP. Therefore, he is playing all possible cards available to him and going crazy.

Public opinion polls also indicate a major shift of the Kurdish votes from the AKP to the HDP. This shift concerns AKP leaders, especially the president Erdogan, who wants to change the constitution and introduce a Turkish style presidential system that will give him executive authority over the elected parliament.

Tarhan Erdem, the owner of KONDA, a leading polling firm in Turkey, said recently that if the AKP does not take extra measures to prevent the HDP on June 7, it will clear the 10 percent barrier comfortably.

Only 3 days to go for historic elections, the pro-Kurdish HDP seems to be on the course of victory, despite president Erdogan’s efforts and Turkey’s unfair election system.

*Rodi Hevian is a Kurdish journalist based in Europe. He holds a B.A. in International Economics and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Haifa International School. He specializes in Kurdish and Middle East Politics.