Pro-Kurdish party switches to new banner to contest Turkish elections

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) will run its parliamentary candidates in May’s election under another political banner to avoid a possible legal ban, underscoring the challenges of mounting a campaign against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party.

The HDP, the country’s third-biggest party, faces court charges of having ties to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU. The HDP denies links with the militants and accuses Erdoğan of politicising the judiciary to depress its vote ahead of the May 14 poll.

Anticipating a ban, the HDP said on Thursday that it would contest the vote under the allied Green Left party’s ticket. Green Left, which campaigns for ecological sustainability and equal rights, has backed the HDP since the party first contested elections in 2014.

Turkey’s constitutional court this week rejected the HDP’s request to postpone its defence in the case by a month. Mithat Sancar, the HDP’s co-chairman, said the threat was akin to a “sword of Damocles hanging over us as we go to elections. For this reason, we have concluded that contesting the elections as the HDP carries serious risks.”

The HDP this week announced it would not field a candidate for president, signalling its support for the joint opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who leads the centre-left Republican People’s party. The HDP, whose base is largely Kurdish and attracts about 12 per cent of the electorate, is widely seen as the swing vote.

Erdoğan faces his toughest election test after two decades in power, a task that has been complicated by the devastating earthquake that killed more than 57,000 people in Turkey and Syria last month. Voters have expressed unhappiness at his stewardship of Turkey’s $800bn economy and inflation of 55 per cent.

Recent polls have shown Kılıçdaroğlu, who is backed by a six-party alliance that does not formally include the HDP, leading Erdoğan but with both candidates short of the 50 per cent needed to clinch the presidency without a runoff.

The HDP has faced a crackdown since 2015, when peace talks between the government and the PKK collapsed.

At least four of the HDP’s predecessors have been banned in Turkey since 1993 while thousands of Kurdish activists, including former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, are in prison for their political activities.

Demirtaş had positioned the HDP as a leftwing party advocating for minority rights, gender equality and environmental protection to appeal to non-Kurdish voters.

Soner Cağaptay, director of the Turkey programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the HDP was “doing the safe thing” given the risk of its candidates being barred.

“Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition has been brutalised for so long, it’s become a master of getting around bans and limitations. [The HDP] have an extremely well-organised and disciplined voter base, and voters will migrate en masse to the new party.”

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