The general elections conducted on 14 May 2023 in Turkey resulted in no candidate obtaining the necessary majority of fifty percent of the votes to assume the role of the country’s next president. It is worth noting that Kurdish and Alevi votes significantly contributed to the success of the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, preventing President Erdoğan from securing a victory by a mere half a percentage point. However, in the subsequent runoff elections held on 28 May, Sinan Oğan, the third presidential candidate who initially garnered approximately five percent of the votes, aligned with Erdoğan, securing him a majority and effectively reelecting him as president. If Erdoğan manages to maintain his position until the next scheduled election cycle in 2028, it would signify a quarter-century of his rule in Turkey. This sequence of events raises important questions about the state of politics and democracy in the country.
It is important to acknowledge that the aforementioned analysis of the recent elections assumes the absence of election fraud. However, many within the opposition hold the belief, and in many instances have provided evidence, of widespread election fraud. The fact that Erdoğan accepted the election results at 49.52%, an unorthodox move, even before all the votes were counted, has further heightened suspicions of potential electoral misconduct. Certain analysts were swift to portray this as a demonstration of Turkey’s democratic advancement, whereas others suspected that it could be a deliberate maneuver by Erdoğan to create an illusion of democratic processes in the country. They questioned whether his apparent adherence to rules and regulations, though they are biased in his favor, was a calculated strategy.
Regardless of such allegations, Kılıçdaroğlu’s ability to secure forty-five percent support in the first round and forty-eight percent in the second round is undeniably a significant accomplishment. His achievement is particularly noteworthy given the extent of Erdoğan’s control over the country’s institutions, including the media, as well as the widespread racism against the Kurds and Alevis that hinders opposition unity against him. Hailing from Dersim, a region with a tragic history of mass state violence and where the two deeply racialized identities—Kurds as alleged terrorists and Alevis as deviants from “true Islam” (read: Sunnism)—of Turkey’s large Kurdish and Alevi communities intersect, Kılıçdaroğlu’s background has brought the “race question” to the forefront of the Turkish politics.
Following a long tradition of exclusionary racialization of the Alevis and Kurds through electoral politics, among other racializing policies, these communities united behind Kılıçdaroğlu in an effort to deliver a decisive blow to Erdoğan’s autocratic regime, which would have generated a significant victory for the opposition in Turkey and a rare opportunity for the country’s democratization, as well as for peace in the Middle East and global security at large. Although this was not entirely out of the realm of possibility, the official results indicate that in a country where there is a lack of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, elections can often contribute not to the advancement of democracy, but rather to the consolidation of autocratic regimes, the legitimization of corruption, and the escalation of political oppression. Regrettably, this is precisely the trajectory that Turkey has been experiencing.
Regardless of the outcome, these recent elections carry significant implications and ironies for the racial dynamics in Turkey. They are even more symbolically significant than usual, since 2023 marks the centenary of the founding of the republic.
Erdoğan’s Election Politics
Until recently, Kurdish and Alevi votes have been divided among various political parties, limiting their electoral impact. In the last elections, since they were largely united behind Kılıçdaroğlu, Kurdish and Alevi votes posed a serious threat to Erdoğan’s hegemony over Turkish politics. There were many ironies in this situation, the biggest of which was the de facto alliance between the Kurdish political movement, also supported by many Alevis, and the Kemalist secularists who have previously marginalized and racialized both the Kurdish and Alevi identities, even massacring thousands of Alevis and Kurds—including in Kılıçdaroğlu’s hometown of Dersim in 1937–38.
An electoral triumph achieved through such an alliance had the potential to serve as a pivotal moment for race relations and democracy, not only in Turkey but also with far-reaching consequences throughout the Middle East and beyond. However, with the recent victory of Erdoğan in the elections, some analysts have adopted the belief that regardless of the opposition’s efforts, Erdoğan would have emerged victorious. These assumptions overlook the significance of historical contingency and, more importantly, the intricate dynamics among various groups and factions at the local and national levels.
To gain a deeper understanding of these dynamics, it is essential to explore the historical context of Erdoğan’s political journey and the ways in which institutionalized racism played a role in his rise to power within a racially biased electoral system. An Islamic conservative with an ever-increasing dose of Turkish nationalism, Erdoğan began his political journey in the 1970s, but it was not until 1994 that he achieved his first major victory. That year, he won the mayoral race in Istanbul with only twenty-five percent of the vote. This experience provided him a valuable lesson in politics: A divided opposition is the key to success. Istanbul is not only Turkey’s largest city but also home to almost a quarter of the country’s population and more than a third of Turkey’s economic activity. Given Turkey’s ranking among the world’s top twenty economies, Istanbul’s human and financial capital is enormous, and Erdoğan gained political and economic control over it with the support of only one out of every four voters in that city.
In 1999, Erdoğan was briefly incarcerated for reciting a poem at a political rally that was deemed to incite religious hatred. He was released after four months of imprisonment, but substantial legal restrictions were imposed upon his involvement in politics. These were lifted with the support of Republican People Party (CHP) led by Kılıçdaroğlu’s predecessor Deniz Baykal, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded in 2001, secured 34% of the votes in the 2002 national elections, and around two thirds of the parliamentary seats. This was enough to make Erdoğan the prime minister. The stark imbalance between the votes received and the parliamentary power achieved was primarily due to an election law that mandated a “ten percent national threshold” for a party to be represented in the parliament. This regulation was implemented by the military coup leaders of 1980, to prevent “reactionaries and separatists” (read: Islamists and Kurds) from entering the Turkish parliament.
In the 2002 election, almost half of all votes (46%) went to parties that could not pass the ten per cent national threshold, including the pro-Kurdish DEHAP, which received slightly more than 6%, and thus could not be represented in the parliament. Instead, those votes were proportionally divided between the two parties that had exceeded the threshold: Erdoğan’s AKP, which received 34% of the votes, and the main opposition CHP, which received 19%. This outcome, stemming from a racially biased system crafted by the Kemalist generals with the intention of excluding figures like Erdoğan from the political sphere, served to further solidify Erdoğan’s conviction that as long as the opposition remains fragmented, the country’s undemocratic election laws and regulations, which are set to produce racially segregated outcomes, would disproportionately benefit him. Leveraging these advantages, he capitalized on the situation and opted to maintain the existing electoral system, thereby securing his dominance over Turkish politics.
The Turning Point When History Did Not Turn: The 2015 Elections
Between 2002 and 2015, Erdoğan’s voter base steadily increased, but his party’s parliamentary representation never matched the levels of his initial election, since fewer vote percentages fell below the ten percent threshold, thanks in part to the tactics of the newly founded Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a coalition party supported by the Kurdish political moment and several other oppositional groups. Since the threshold applied to party involvement in national elections, the HDP initially ran independent candidates for each election district. Then, in 2015, the party accurately predicted that it had reached enough support to exceed the threshold and changed its strategy. The HDP participated in those elections as a party and received 13% of the votes. The opposition overall gained 59%, leaving Erdoğan’s AKP with 41% and thus unable to form a government.
Despite a rigged and anti-democratic electoral system designed to heavily favor the AKP, Erdoğan’s loss was offset by the “race question,” which led the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with 16% of votes and a racially charged anti-Kurdish agenda, to refuse to work with the pro-Kurdish HDP. To wrest control from Erdoğan, the HDP offered support for a CHP-MHP coalition government, but the MHP declined, even with the HDP outside of the governing coalition. Without the HDP’s support, the MHP and CHP’s combined 41% (the same as AKP) was insufficient to form a government. The election results demonstrated that, without the HDP, the country was equally divided between two sides: one conservative and spearheaded by the AKP and the other progressive—in comparison to the AKP—and headed by the CHP. The HDP was thus put into the role of effectively determining the winner of general elections. However, events did not unfold as anticipated.
Unable to form a government due to the MHP’s refusal to work with the HDP, Turkey was plagued with a period of intense turmoil. The country experienced several violent bombings in Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakır; even though the state officially alleged that these were orchestrated by the Islamic State, the opposition argued on social media, the only form of media available to them, that Erdoğan collaborated with the deep state to clandestinely facilitate such violence. Erdoğan weaponized this tense situation to his advantage, quickly calling for a new round of elections and publicly urging the populace to vote for his party to escape this chaos and to save the “fate of the state (devletin bekası),” a popular axiom of Turkish nationalism, which he presented as being under threat from the rise of Kurdish political power both in Turkey and in the neighboring states of Syria and Iraq.
When elections were held four months later, Erdoğan’s party garnered 50% of the vote, thereby able to form a government by itself on the basis of an explicitly anti-Kurdish campaign. He started a widespread crackdown on the Kurdish political movement, both within the country and beyond its borders. He targeted the HDP domestically and conducted military operations across the border into Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan to destroy the increasing power and legitimacy of the Kurds following fierce Kurdish resistance against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. This large-scale crackdown continues to the present. There were no further alleged Islamic State bombings following the rerun elections of 2015, strengthening arguments that the violence racking the country between the two elections might have indeed been perpetrated by clandestine paramilitary organizations supervised by the government under Erdoğan.
As this brief background indicates, in Turkish politics, race should be understood as the fundamental category separating hegemonic Sunni Turks from the rest of the society. Despite enduring a century of oppressive measures such as massacres, systematic incarceration, forced resettlement, banning of the Kurdish language, stigmatization of Alevis as deviants, and the exile of intellectuals and political activists, Kurdish and Alevi communities have resisted assimilation into a Sunni Turkish identity and managed to maintain their substantial demographic presence. Turkish state elites have presented citizenship-based Turkishness as an umbrella identity to cover all groups, but the “umbrella” redefined and reinforced a racial divide along ethnic and confessional lines: Turks and Sunnis on the one side and Kurds and Alevis on the other. Sunnism and ethnic Turkishness remain the dominant identities.
Intersectionality of Kılıçdaroğlu’s Public Identity
The province of Dersim, where opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu hails from, sits at the symbolic intersection of the Kurdish and Alevi questions in contemporary Turkey, as well as the Armenian question historically. With a predominantly Alevi Kurdish population, previously known as the Kizilbash (literally “redhead”), which had relatively more peaceful relations with their Armenian neighbors, Dersim was considered an anomaly during both the late Ottoman imperial and Turkish republican periods and was targeted for removal or correction by the state elites.
In line with the global trend of racial ideology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ruling elites of the Ottoman Empire and later the Republic of Turkey systematically racialized the ethnic and religious identities of the people in the peripheries and borderlands, including Dersim. Racialization, in this context, refers to the process by which these identities are understood, constructed, and perceived in association with specific physical traits, stereotypes, or assumptions. Racial thinking leads to the reinforcement of hierarchies among different groups or the marginalization of certain communities, which intersect with other forms of oppression, such as colonialism, slavery, and mass violence. Both Kurds and Alevis faced systematic racialization and coerced homogenization policies, but those who identified as both Alevi and Kurd, the ethno-religious community centered around Dersim, were particularly concerned that the intersectionality of their racialized identities, which also included their association with the mountainous topography of Dersim, might lead them to face a similar fate as their Armenian neighbors.
During this period, state elites in many parts of the world embraced racist ideologies, including the implementation of extensive eugenic projects. In the early republican Turkey, these projects aimed to validate the superiority of the Turkish race and establish Turkish origins for several civilizations, including those of the modern Western world. This racist trend reached its peak in the 1930s, with the formulation of state-sponsored theories such as the Sun Language Theory and the Turkish History Theory in state center alongside a premeditated plan to violently transform places such as Dersim under the colonial slogan of mission civilisatrice. During 1937–38, the Turkish state literally destroyed over half of the region’s Alevi Kurdish population in a genocidal operation, one that has continued to the present.
After 1935, the city was no longer named Dersim, the Kurdish name of a tribal federation in the region, but instead renamed Tunceli, a Turkish word referring to the “lands of bronze.” In doing so, the Turkish state sought to erase Dersim and the Alevi Kurds who lived there from the map, both literally and symbolically. Even mentioning Dersim remained taboo until 2009 when, in a speech criticizing Erdoğan’s ill-fated Kurdish Opening policy, Onur Öymen, a senior member of the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu’s party (also known as Atatürk’s party) cited the Dersim massacres as the exemplary method that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk employed against the Kurds. This statement sparked a public debate about the Dersim events of 1937–38, which has lasted for over a decade.
Erdoğan has criticized Kılıçdaroğlu for his party’s alleged responsibility in massacring his fellow Dersimis in the 1930s. Kılıçdaroğlu, though, has mostly avoided discussing the issue until now, only occasionally stating that “past tragedies should not be brought up for debate.” Kılıçdaroğlu has been politically cautious about being too closely associated with the Kurds and Alevis or criticizing Atatürk’s violent policy against these groups. Still, he has remained engaged in issues around his identity. In the 1980s, Kılıçdaroğlu conducted an interview with İhsan Sabri Cağlayangil, a high-ranking state official and politician who was directly involved in the late 1930s politics of Dersim. Among other important details, Cağlayangil revealed to Kılıçdaroğlu that the Turkish army used poison gas in Dersim, killing the Dersim Kurds trapped in caves “like they were rats.” This interview has since become one of the most significant sources in academic and public discussions, demonstrating the violence inherent in Dersim events.
Is Kılıçdaroğlu Turkey’s Obama?
While Kılıçdaroğlu had previously been cautious about embracing his marginalized background, everyone in the country knew Kılıçdaroğlu’s identity and acted accordingly. In Turkey, the nationalist adage “how happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’” suggests that self-declaration is a key factor in determining one’s identity. However, for marginalized groups like Alevis and Kurds, publicly declaring one’s identity can lead to discrimination and persecution. Consequently, they may opt for takiye (taqiyya in Arabic) strategy, roughly comparable to the notion of “passing” used by Black individuals in predominantly white environments in the US, whereby they feign belonging to the dominant group without fully assimilating to evade mistreatment.
Now that Kılıçdaroğlu has publicly acknowledged being Alevi and, though refraining from identifying himself as a Kurd, signaled a progressive politics towards the Kurdish question in two brief, heart-to-heart videos taped in his kitchen and watched by millions of people on social media, he has made his identity as the “other” known to a larger audience, including actors outside Turkey. These recent public declarations strengthen the parallels that have been drawn between his role in the dynamics of difference in Turkish politics and Barack Obama’s role as the first Black American president. Nevertheless, such a comparison should be taken with a grain of salt. In contrast to Obama’s election, Kılıçdaroğlu did not secure victory in the elections, and it is evident that his identity had a negative impact on his electoral prospects.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent statements, while they represent a notable departure from the takiye tradition, exhibit notable vulnerabilities. In the recent social media sharing, he stated that he is an Alevi, specifically addressing young, first-time voters. The indication is that this degree of disclosure may have been too much for the older generations to accept. Similarly, in the video where he discusses the Kurdish issue, it should be noted that he did not explicitly identify himself as a Kurd, but rather accused Erdoğan’s supporters of demonizing the Kurdish people as terrorists through attacks on his personality. Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu faces significant shortcomings in formulating an anti-racist agenda. Following the setback in the initial round of elections, he did not hesitate to adopt a distinctly racist stance, particularly towards refugees hailing from Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite all this, Kılıçdaroğlu’s move is unprecedented for a mainstream politician in Turkey. He has done so even though many in the opposition have been unwilling to accept an Alevi and presumed Kurd from Dersim as the country’s potential president, even if it meant defeating Erdoğan. Others have been more restrained, claiming that Kılıçdaroğlu was unlikely to win because of his ethnic and religious identity and place of origin. “Most people,” they argue, would not vote for a candidate with such a stigmatized background and identity. A significant portion of the 5% of votes obtained by the relatively unknown presidential candidate Sinan Oğan in the first round of the recent elections can be attributed to Turkish nationalists who, despite not supporting Erdoğan, were reluctant to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu due to his background and identity. Oğan’s campaign, which was characterized by an anti-Kurdish and anti-refugee agenda, resonated with these nationalists.
Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu’s transparency, though limited, regarding his identity did not deter Erdoğan from actively exploiting and weaponizing popular racism against Alevis and Kurds throughout the election campaign. In a blatant attempt to discredit Kılıçdaroğlu, he circulated fabricated videos, including on the state-owned television channels and large screens placed in public squares in city centers, falsely depicting him singing an election song alongside members of the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party) on the Kandil Mountains in Northern Iraq.
Unlikely Alliances Forged by Pragmatic Considerations
The ongoing racism by Turkish state and society against Kurds and Alevis takes the form of excluding and marginalizing the HDP from the Turkish body politic. During the latest elections, Erdoğan’s Cumhur coalition constantly weaponized the racism evident in the Millet Alliance by accusing the opposition of collaborating with “terrorists,” and “those who do not have a mosque,” respectively the Kurds and Alevis. A clear indication of this racism was evident in Meral Akşener’s sudden withdrawal of support from Kılıçdaroğlu when his candidacy was initially announced, although she backtracked under widespread pressure a day later. Incidents like this show that there is popular demand and substantial public pressure to unite the opposition parties against Erdoğan. In the process, one hopes, Turkey may be coming closer to acknowledging and hopefully solving the widespread structural racism that has shaped its past and present.
This possibility extends beyond alliances formed solely in the recent elections. In the 2019 elections, the MHP joined forces with Erdoğan, enabling him to build on earlier electoral gains. At the same time, the HDP’s support for CHP candidates in municipal elections for Istanbul and Ankara secured a clear victory for the opposition, marking the first time Erdoğan lost Istanbul to an opposition candidate since 1994. Also, in the same period, a faction within the MHP led by Meral Akşener grew dissatisfied with the party, breaking away to form the Good Party (IP) and later joining the Millet (nation’s) Alliance coalition spearheaded by Kılıçdaroğlu ‘s CHP, as opposed to the Cumhur (people’s) Alliance coalition led by Erdoğan’s AKP. The IP moved into this opposition alliance while still holding a significant level of anti-Kurdish sentiment. Nevertheless, their split from the MHP was a crucial factor in the recent elections since the party was technically unable—perhaps also unwilling—to oppose the widespread Kurdish and Alevi support for Kılıçdaroğlu, the Millet Alliance’s candidate for presidency.
The pro-Kurdish HDP, which was recently renamed as YSP to prevent a possible scheme by Erdoğan to shut down the party just before the elections, unconditionally supported Kılıçdaroğlu against Erdoğan. But the HDP’s backing of Kılıçdaroğlu remained informal, partly because most IP members, as well as some within CHP, do not want to establish a formal alliance with HDP, who are stigmatized in the public sphere, especially by Erdoğan and his allies, as “separatist terrorists.”
The HDP took the decision to unconditionally support Kılıçdaroğlu despite the opposition’s subtle (in comparison to Erdoğan’s overt) racism against them for two reasons. The first reason was Kılıçdaroğlu’s relatively more positive approach to the Kurdish question as compared to Erdoğan’s increasingly militaristic one. The second concerns the current political trajectory in Turkey: to have any hope for a truly democratic governance in Turkey, Erdoğan must go. By being a major force behind Kılıçdaroğlu’s potential victory, the HDP literally held the key to establishing and sustaining democracy in Turkey. That strategy failed, but the HDP’s role for the future of Turkey’s democracy remains crucial.
The Kurds and the Future of Racial Dynamics in Turkey
Despite the complex tensions and paradoxes, the Millet Alliance remained united behind Kılıçdaroğlu. Not only did his party, the CHP, lead a formal alliance with five other opposition parties, but he also received widespread support from Kurds and Alevis, many of whom are HDP voters. Despite Erdoğan’s heavy-handed crackdown on the HDP’s leaders and electoral base, as well as allegations of widespread election fraud, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish-populated eastern regions of Turkey, the Labor and Freedom Coalition led by the HDP managed to secure over 10% of the overall votes for parliamentary seats. The HDP’s resilience stands as a beacon of hope for the survival of Turkey’s democracy.
However, electoral politics alone falls far too short of providing a comprehensive understanding of social and political dynamics. In the present Turkish context, relying solely on election results can be misleading. When a ruling party has complete control over all branches of government, relinquishing power becomes unlikely. Instead, the legitimacy of their position, particularly in the eyes of external actors, is often achieved through manipulation of the electoral system. After all, how can a political system allow an individual to remain in power for twenty-five years while still being referred to as a democracy?
It may appear paradoxical that Kemalist secularists, who historically marginalized and even perpetrated massacres against Alevis and Kurds, as seen in the case of Dersim in 1937-38 and in several other instances, have now formed an alliance with these groups against Erdoğan. However, this alliance has been evolving over time during Erdoğan’s rule. Currently, marginalized groups, including but by no means limited to the Kurds and Alevis, find common ground with the Kemalists as they share similar objectives: a commitment to secularism, support for democracy, respect for human rights, a desire to become a member of the EU, and, perhaps most importantly, opposition to Erdoğan. These groups recognize the necessity of presenting a united front to challenge Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, which has resulted in political and economic hardships for many.
Though not successful in defeating Erdoğan in the recent elections, if the opposition alliance continues and achieves positive results in the upcoming local elections in 2024, it could strengthen the bond between these groups and pave the way for a more effective struggle against autocracy. Uniting against a common adversary may lead to a better understanding of their common goals and desires, which has the potential to transform race relations in Turkey, a country that has historically shaped the development of racial thinking in the Middle East. The struggle against Erdoğan, in other words, is a dynamic process with a potential for a better future for Turkey.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s identity has been at the heart of this emerging moment. Considering the prevailing racism in Turkey, both in popular sentiment and structural inequalities, Kılıçdaroğlu has faced the challenge of navigating the diverse constituents within his electoral base, which included secular and nationalist Turks, Kurds, and Alevis. These diverse groups encompass a wide range of histories, perspectives, and interests. Without Kurdish support, however, it is unlikely that the opposition would have a chance to defeat Erdoğan, who has turned the country into a single-party—or even a single-man—regime.