A discrete, decade-long alliance between Iranian-backed Turkish Hizbullah and the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become official, with four Hizbullah figures securing nominations on ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tickets.
According to the nominee list submitted to the Supreme Election Board by Erdoğan's party on April 9, four people from Hizbullah's political arm, the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR), were listed as candidates for parliamentary seats in the May 14 elections.
The Hizbullah members were nominated from provinces where the AKP enjoys strong support and are likely be elected to parliament. This is the first time Hizbullah as a political front will be represented in Turkey's legislative body. Their nomination is part of a bargain between Erdoğan and the Hizbullah leadership in exchange for Hizbullah's support among the Kurdish electorate for Erdoğan's presidential bid.
Turkish Hizbullah has a strong presence in some parts of Turkey's Kurdish population, especially in religious and conservative segments, and is considered an arch-enemy of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community. With the deal Erdoğan hopes to get a boost from Kurdish voters against the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which is competing in the elections under the banner of the Green Left Party (YSP) and is seen as linked to the PKK.
Erdoğan has allied with HÜDA-PAR in national and local elections since 2014, but the deal was discreet, was not public and did not carry an official seal or nominations on AKP tickets. In return for the support, Erdoğan secured the release of all convicted Hizbullah terrorists including notorious killers who were serving life sentences for the murder of 91 people in the 1990s and early 2000s in Turkey.
The government also allowed the re-establishment of banned Hizbullah organizations such as Mustazaf-Der (meaning "The Oppressed," Mustazaflar ile Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği in Turkish).
Apparently Hizbullah wanted more for the upcoming elections in which Erdoğan needs each and every vote to win the presidential election against the joint candidate from the opposition bloc, who has a narrow lead over Erdoğan, according to polling data.
The four Hizbullah politicians who will be running on AKP tickets are Zekeriya Yapıcıoğlu, the chairman of the HÜDA-PAR, nominated from Istanbul's third election district; Şehzade Demir, the general secretary of the party, nominated from Gaziantep; Serkan Ramanlı; party spokesperson, nominated from Batman; and Faruk Dinç, a member of party's executive board, nominated from Mersin.
In terms of political support, HÜDA-PAR is not a popular party. In the 2018 elections it received only 155,539 votes, or 0.31 percent of the total vote. However, in highly contested districts, it may tip the balance, with every vote carrying critical importance.
What is more, HÜDA-PAR and Hizbullah have a highly organized structure, with the Consultative Body (İstişare Heyeti) deciding all matters. It will help Erdoğan push his religious narrative, which appears to be the main theme of the AKP's election campaign this year. Erdoğan has positioned himself as the protector of Muslims and defender of Islam against the West, and his campaign speeches are based on this divisive narrative.
Hizbullah is able to appeal to larger masses using religious themes such as Quran burning incidents in Europe and the Palestine issue and punches beyond its political weight in organizing rallies and demonstrations across Turkey. Erdoğan wants to tap into that potential as well.
By enlisting Hizbullah as its ally, Erdoğan also sent a positive signal to Iran, which which has been secretly funding Turkey's predominantly Kurdish Hizbullah and affiliated entities and providing intelligence and arms training to its militants. In other words Erdoğan secured for his own benefit Iranian influence operations in Turkey, which cover multiple media outlets, organizations and foundations. In 2013 corruption probes that involved money laundering activity on behalf of Iran using Turkish state banks, it was revealed that Iranian funds were used to pay for polling work for the AKP as well as the distribution of free food in poor neighborhoods to buy votes.
Confidential documents obtained by Nordic Monitor show that Turkish police and military intelligence units had in the past mapped out the money trail leading to Mustazaf-Der and other Hizbullah-linked entities and individuals from Iran. The documents, incorporated into a terrorism investigation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, identified the transfer of half a million dollars from Iran to Hizbullah in February 2012 alone.
A report filed by the counterterrorism bureau of the Diyarbakır police department on May 9, 2012 stated that Hizbullah received $100,000 every month from Iran in addition to lump-sum payments for special operations. It noted that Mehmet Hüseyin Yılmaz, the head of Mustazaf-Der; Mehmet Göktaşa, the owner of Hizbullah publication Doğru Haber; and Sait Gabari and Fikret Gültekin, Hizbullah propagandists, received half a million dollars from Iran in February 2012. It also added that Iran sent $10,000 to the family of Ubeydullah Durna, a Mustazaf member who was killed by the PKK in the town of Yuksekova near Turkey's border with Iran on May 5, 2011.
The report further revealed that Iran set up a special unit in Hizbullah for espionage and surveillance in Turkey to monitor military activities, especially around NATO installations. Members of this group were selected from people who work in government jobs and the media for easy access to sensitive sites and installations. It underlined that the unit ran surveillance of a NATO radar base in Malatya province, photographed and videotaped the base and its surroundings and passed the results to its Iranian handlers.
The Quds Force probe was hushed up by the Erdoğan government in 2014, and the investigating prosecutor was sacked before he had a chance to secure detention warrants for the suspects or file an indictment. The report on Hizbullah and other evidence in the case file were all buried by Erdoğan's people, who were in bed with Hizbullah.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.