The question of how Turkish minorities will vote is of crucial importance in the upcoming Turkish elections. Rival forces are trying to gain the vote of various religious, doctrinal, ethnic, and national groups within Turkey, including Alevi, Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Assyrian (including Syriac and Chaldean), Kurdish, and Arab minorities, among others. Various candidates and parties have tried to make their case to these minorities and to lay out the general features of their policies towards these groups. This is due to the immense strategic importance of minority voting blocs, especially Kurds and Alevis. These two groups comprise 17-20 percent of the total vote, which is likely to decisively tip the scales towards the candidates they choose to support. This is especially true since opinion polls conducted in recent days indicate that the two competing electoral alliances—the Nation Alliance and the People’s Alliance—will not be able to claim victory in the presidential elections without the support of minorities in general, and of Kurds and Alevis in particular.
Focusing on Minorities
The electoral alliances competing in the upcoming Turkish elections on 14 May 2023 have shown increasing interest in getting minorities to turn out to vote for them. However, this is not necessarily a new phenomenon in Turkish elections. Minority voting blocs have always been on candidates’ agendas, but this time their electoral clout appears to be more decisive. As a result, candidates have competed fiercely to gain minority votes and improve ties with these groups.
While the Table of Six was trying to expand relations with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (the Kurds’ political wing), the AKP-led People’s Alliance managed to gain the support of the Kurdish Free Cause Party, which was founded on 19 December 2012. This latter party’s popular base is located in southeastern Anatolia. Erdoğan is counting on the conservative Free Cause Party to help his alliance win Kurdish votes to balance out the Peoples’ Democratic Party, which has significant electoral clout.
These competing alliances have also tried to win the support of Alevi minorities. Table of Six candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu broke one of the taboos of Turkish politics when he announced on 20 April that he was a member of the Alevi minority. Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized the importance of addressing discrimination against minorities in Turkey, including Alevis; some extremist Sunnis remain hostile to this minority group. Kılıçdaroğlu also promised to end discrimination and "sectarian conflicts" that had caused suffering in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country with a secular constitution.
In recent months, President Erdoğan promised to address the grievances of Alevi minorities in order to win over this voting bloc. Government officials visited what are known as cemevis, or Alevi places of worship, which was seen as an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of these spaces by Erdoğan’s government. On 7 October 2022, Erdoğan also issued a decision to establish a body within the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for Alevi and Bektashi culture and cemevis in order to manage the affairs of these houses of worship and provide services for them under the institutional oversight of the state.
There are many reasons for the increased clout of Turkish minorities in the upcoming elections, which will shape how these groups will vote. These factors include:
1. Broad Electoral Base: Turkish minorities have the capacity to change the course of Turkish national elections. Alevis constitute the second largest religious group in Turkey, after the Sunnis. It is estimated that approximately 10-15 percent of the country’s 84 million people are Alevi. Other estimates suggest that there are at least 4.5 million Alevi voters, who live in various areas of eastern and western Turkey.
Meanwhile, Kurds comprise around 20 percent of the population of Turkey. There are around 6 million Kurdish voters, or 18 percent of all voters in Turkey. This means that minority blocs will play a decisive role in the outcome of the upcoming elections. Kurdish minorities were key to the opposition alliance’s success in major municipalities in the local elections held in 2019, after these minorities quietly advocated for opposition candidates. This helped the latter gain the upper hand against the ruling party’s alliance. Given that the Turkish opposition hopes to repeat what happened in the local elections—and the ruling party’s fears that this could again come to pass—minorities will be front and center in the 14 May 2023 elections.
2. A Thorn in the AKP’s Side: The current interest in attracting the support of minority voters in the upcoming elections is tied to these groups’ ability to shape and challenge the stances of the Turkish government. The AKP and President Erdoğan were frustrated when the Peoples’ Democratic Party issued a statement calling on their supporters to vote for opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Meanwhile, Alevi minorities have also ramped up pressure on the ruling regime. It has become clear that the Alevi minority is leaning towards supporting the center left, i.e., Kılıçdaroğlu and the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP). The Alevis are wary of the AKP’s promises to reform Alevi affairs given the timing with the elections, especially since previous efforts to address these issues have failed. Kurdish and Alevi electoral blocs will be decisive in determining the next president of Turkey, as well as which alliance establishes a majority in parliament.
3. Domestic Sympathies for Injustices against Kurds: Turkish minorities currently find themselves at the forefront of Turkish politics. There has been domestic sympathy within Turkey for the injustices that Kurds have suffered, including the 2016 imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtaş on false charges. This accounts for the relatively rapid rise of the Peoples’ Democratic Party to the third strongest political party in the country (after the AKP and the leading opposition party, the CHP). It has also enabled the Peoples’ Democratic Party to expand its presence in Turkish society and to win support beyond Kurdish circles and outside southeastern Turkey.
4. Minority Connections with Western Countries: Alevi, Greek, Christian, and Armenian minorities in Turkey have developed a growing presence in Turkish society. These groups also have connections with a significant number of Western powers, especially Germany, where the largest Turkish diaspora community lives. Reaching out to Alevis and other minorities during the election period could have implications in shaping how Turkey approaches Europe.
5. Minorities Favor Restructuring the Turkish Political System: According to various opinion polls conducted recently in Turkey, minorities agree on the importance of restoring the parliamentary system as the most effective means to ensure political space for minorities in Turkish society. The most immediate outcome of minority participation in Turkish elections is likely to be significant turnout in support of the political opposition, which favors reestablishing parliamentary rule and the pre-2017 system of governance. This is why the current regime is concerned. It is aware that if minorities vote against the ruling party at the ballot box, this could pave the way for the opposition to gain control of parliament, and create conditions conducive to restoring parliamentary governance.
The effects of minority voters in the Turkish elections therefore seem likely to extend into the parliamentary sphere, which will make things more difficult for the People’s Alliance on 14 May. The primary objective of the opposition’s Nation Alliance is to return the country to a parliamentary system of governance, which a broad spectrum of Turkish minorities also support.
6. Demographic Change: The upcoming Turkish elections on 14 May have highlighted the demographic change that has occurred among minorities in Turkey over the past decade. This demonstrably affects the size of voting blocs, how rival parties campaign, and the kind of discourse that candidates employ. The number of Alevi and Kurdish minorities eligible to vote has increased, which means that the younger generation of these minority groups will be able to exercise significant influence in Turkish politics. Such demographic changes could be crucial in the outcome of the elections. According to various observers, the Turkish opposition retains a clear advantage in terms of support from Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian, Christian, and Greek youth.
In conclusion, minorities will play an important role in the upcoming Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections. This helps explain why rival electoral forces are so keen to win the support of various Turkish minorities, which make up a significant proportion of registered voters in many provinces. Minorities are expected to vote for the opposition due to the AKP’s systematic violence and exclusionary practices against them. This has included efforts to shut down the Peoples’ Democratic Party on legal grounds, preventing Kurdish mayors from taking office after local elections and appointing state officials in their stead, and stalling on key issues for Alevi minorities. Erdoğan’s government has also adopted problematic practices towards other minorities, including Armenians and Greeks.