DIYARBAKIR, Turkey: Turkey’s Kurds are set to play a critical role in determining the outcome of elections this month, with their votes coveted not just by the main pro-Kurdish party but also President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his chief rival. Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey, has turned into an electoral battleground, even though the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its jailed presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas are sure to leave rivals trailing. Over the last week both Erdogan and his main challenger, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), have made trips to Diyarbakir to sway the votes of a potentially skeptical electorate.
Kurds make up at least one fifth of Turkey’s 80 million population, by far its largest ethnic minority. The Diyarbakir region is a stronghold of the HDP, which in Nov 2015 parliamentary elections won over 71 percent of the vote there and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) just 22 percent. Every Kurdish vote will count in the June 24 snap parliamentary and presidential polls. But not all Kurds vote automatically for the HDP.
For the AKP to win an absolute majority in the next parliament will depend largely on whether the HDP breaks through the 10 percent overall threshold needed for seats. Although in the presidential race Demirtas will be the favored candidate of most Kurds, their votes will be crucial in helping Ince if he succeeds in forcing Erdogan into a run-off. The election is taking place against the background of ongoing troubles in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged an insurgency since 1984 that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. And Demirtas, by far the HDP’s most charismatic figure, is having to run his campaign from behind bars after being jailed in November 2016 on charges of links to the PKK.
‘At the expense of Kurds’
Analysts say that the AKP faces an even greater struggle than usual to win Kurdish votes after allying itself with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which is despised by many Kurds. “The AKP chose the MHP at the expense of the Kurds,” said Mehmet Vural, president of the Dicle Social Research Centre. “This has irritated the Kurds in general, not just the HDP supporters but also those who vote AKP,” he added.
Many Kurds were also dismayed by Ankara’s bitter opposition to the Sept 2017 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Turkish military operation in the Afrin region of Syria earlier this year to dislodge a Kurdish militia. At his rally in Diyarbakir on June 3, Erdogan told voters the area was enjoying “peace like never in the last 40 years” and launched a lacerating attack on the HDP, saying “we (the AKP) build but they destroy”.
Winning votes in Diyarbakir is even tougher for the CHP, which in the Nov 2015 parliamentary polls took a mere two percent of the vote in the area. The party, which was set up by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has historically shown little enthusiasm for the Kurdish cause. But Ince, who held a rally in the city on June 11 in Station Square, the identical spot to Erdogan, has made a clear effort to forge a rapprochement. One of the first acts of his campaign was to visit Demirtas in jail, a move that was roundly condemned by Erdogan.
‘We will be kingmakers’
Some commentators noted that the turnout at Ince’s Diyarbakir rally was notably fuller than at the one for Erdogan, prompting the incumbent president to snipe that those who showed up to hear Ince “were almost all HDP”. “We are going to vote for Demirtas in the first round. And in the second round we will vote for Ince and we will work with him,” said Diyarbakir resident Mehmet Coban. Filiz Buluttekin, co-head of the HDP’s branch in Diyarbakir, predicted the party would win over former AKP voters as “Erdogan behaves like the enemy of the Kurds”. “If there is a run-off between Erdogan and Ince, we will be the kingmakers,” she added.
Diyarbakir is not totally representative of the entire Kurdish vote, with some Kurdish-populated regions like Adiyaman and Elazig opting for the AKP. “The large (Kurdish) clans and Sunni religious orders… will probably largely continue to support Erdogan and the AKP,” said Berkay Mandiraci, Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG). “A small segment of mostly urban conservative Kurds” has been disillusioned by the AKP-MHP alliance and Erdogan’s nationalism, he added. – AFP