Kingmaker party gives tacit backing to Erdogan rival in polls

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Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party said on Wednesday it would not field a presidential candidate in the May elections, giving tacit support to secular challenger Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the crucial vote.

The People’s Democratic Party’s (HDP) decision reduces the possibility of a damaging split in the anti-Erdogan vote, increasing the chances of fellow opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the last three national elections, the HDP was widely seen as the kingmaker in the tight race.

“We will not send a candidate in the presidential elections,” Pervin Buldan, co-chairman of the party, told reporters.

“We will fulfill our historical responsibility to end one-man rule in the upcoming elections,” she said, criticizing Erdogan’s consolidation of power over his two decades as prime minister and president.

The HDP’s decision blocks a key voting bloc of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in what is widely seen as Turkey’s most important election in its post-Ottoman history.

Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AKP party enjoyed some support from Kurdish voters earlier in his rule.

His government once worked with HDP politicians in an effort to end a decades-long fight by Kurdish rebels for an independent state that claimed thousands of lives.

But Erdogan now accuses the HDP of being the political wing of the PKK militants, seeking to dissolve it through the courts before the May 14 parliamentary and presidential vote.

The left-wing party denies the charges and says it is being singled out for its fierce criticism of the government’s social and economic policies.

– Erdogan’s toughest test –

Erdogan prides himself on never losing an election and enjoys a popular mandate for some of his controversial policies.

But the upcoming vote is shaping up to be its toughest electoral test yet.

The opposition coalition includes some of Erdogan’s former allies as well as right-wing and Islamist parties that could be eating away at his more traditional support base.

Some analysts believe that the HDP’s decision not to fully endorse Kilicdaroglu threatens to hurt Erdogan.

The Turkish leader has tried to portray his electoral rival as a supporter of the Kurdish militants.

The HDP also stayed out of the 2019 municipal elections in which opposition leaders were swept to power in Istanbul and Ankara for the first time since the 1990s.

On Wednesday, HDP co-chairman Buldan did not directly mention Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant who has led the traditional secular CHP party since 2010.

But she left little doubt who Kurdish voters should support, accusing Erdogan’s government of “leaving the Turkish people breathless” with its repressive policies.

“In order to implement democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, we are determined to bring this government to account for the great destruction it has done,” she said.

– Party members in prison –

The HDP already has many of its current and former members and local officials in prison for a crackdown following a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

Among them is former co-leader of the party Selahattin Demirtas, a talented campaigner and public speaker who launched his second presidential challenge against Erdogan in 2016 from behind bars.

Demirtas told AFP in written comments in January that he wanted the HDP to support the joint opposition candidate for president rather than put forward his own.

The HDP was excluded from the six-party opposition alliance that had assembled around Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.

The anti-Erdogan coalition includes staunchly nationalist politicians who refuse to work with the HDP.

Meeting with HDP leaders on Monday, Kilicdaroglu promised to end restrictions on the Kurdish language and address other Kurdish concerns.

“We are living in the 21st century. It is not right to dissolve a party,” Kilicdaroglu said on Monday.

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