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03 June

Who represents Turkey's Kurds?

Turkey's ruling AKP is bleeding votes in the country's southeast after a nationalist turn on Kurdish peace negotiations

Since the day his father christened Diyarbakır's first branch of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) 14 years ago, Mürsel Kaymak has counted himself among the AKP's staunchest supporters in this overwhelmingly Kurdish city.
But with less than a week remaining before Turkey's parliamentary elections, Kaymak recently deserted his post as AKP deputy in Diyarbakır's local parliament, denouncing the party whose influence among Kurds his family once helped to build.
 
“My heart skipped a beat in 2005, when [then-Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood in our city and called for peace,” Kaymak, 46, told P24. “In those days, the AKP was the party of Kurdish rights. Now that is no longer the case.”
 
Pledging his support to the Kurdish-rights focused Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), Kaymak's defection is evidence of the AKP's struggle to retain Kurdish votes amid stalled negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and controversy over Turkey's policies in northern Syria.
 
That electoral slide has taken a backseat to the larger dramas of Turkey's election, which has seen President Erdoğan flaunt his country's constitution to rally votes for his former party, while the HDP, hoping to overcome Turkey's 10 percent election threshold, has called on secular Turks to help derail the AKP's dream of winning a supermajority on June 7th.
Here in the southeast, however, the stakes of the election seem higher than anywhere else in Turkey.
 
On the morning of June 8th, millions of Kurdish voters may find themselves wholly unrepresented in parliament, risking riots and a security crackdown that would threaten a 2-year old ceasefire.
Beyond that fear, it is the southeast “where the elections will truly be decided,” suggested Kaymak. “Religious Kurds remain undecided for the first time in a decade. Can the HDP win their votes?”
 
In journalist shorthand, the HDP and its predecessors have long enjoyed status as Turkey's 'pro-Kurdish' party. But the AKP has enjoyed a higher percentage of the Kurdish vote over the last decade, a study by pollster Konda pointed out in January. 49 percent of the study's Kurdish respondents indicated support for the AKP, while 40 percent said they supported the HDP.
 
Kobane's electoral effect
 
But the AKP's currency among Kurds has been under threat since October, when Islamic State militants besieged the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobane.
 
In that month, Turkey's Kurds felt enraged by Erdoğan's declaration that Kobane's PKK-affiliated defenders were “the same for Turkey as ISIS,” and his later opposition to US-airdrops to the besieged city. “I and most other AKP deputies of the local parliament were in Suruc, just watching the battle,” said Kaymak, referring to a Turkish border town that sits just north of Kobane. “I remember thinking, 'Erdoğan cannot say these things'.”
 
In the town of Midyat, a two-hour's drive from Diyarbakır, AKP candidate Orhan Miroğlu warily agreed that his campaign has been complicated by the pan-Kurdish nationalism awakened in Kobane.
 
“There has been a reaction to [Kobane], absolutely,” he said. A veteran Kurdish rights campaigner who was nearly assassinated alongsidefellow activist Musa Anter in 1992, Miroğlu vehemently defends the AKP's record on Kurdish peace. “The AKP brought a lasting ceasefire for the Kurds, but now Kurds feel like their war is continuing in Kobane,” he said. The HDP has channeled support to its cause by “turning the funerals of fighters coming home into rallies,” adds Miroğlu, who complains of threats against his campaigners in pro-HDP towns.
 
Even among AKP faithful, it is easy to see how deeply the HDP's rhetoric on Kobane has resonated. In the town of Batman, 36 year old cafe owner Izettin Soydan says he will vote for the AKP on June 7th, but nodded his head when asked if Ankara has supplied military aid to ISIS, a claim often made by HDP politicians.
 
Stalled peace process
 
Against the surge in Kurdish nationalist sentiment, Miroğlu and other AKP candidates once counted onAnkara's peace process to win back voters.
 
In March, after years of negotiation between Ankara and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the latter called on the PKK to convene a congress that would end the group's armed operations in Turkey.
 
Only days earlier, however, Erdoğan had signaled a pre-election reversal on the historic deal. Erdoğan declared that “there is no Kurdish question,” suggesting that Kurdish demands for greater rights had already been met. Days later, he voiced his displeasure at concessions granted to Kurdish lawmakers as part of the negotiating process. The PKK soon announced that it was no longer planning on holding a disarmament congress.
 
That has clearly complicated the campaign of Haşim Haşimi, an AKP candidate in Diyarbakır. Speaking at an election office crowded with hundreds of eager supporters, he defended Erdoğan as “the man most committed to [Kurdish] peace in Turkey.” But he struggled to explain the president's sudden about-face. “During elections, politicians make harsh statements. They shouldn't be taken too seriously,” he said. It's hard to see how that line might win back wavering supporters.
 
Religion enters the fray
 
In his own visits to the region, President Erdoğan has appealed to the religious convictions of his electorate, brandishing a Kurdish-language Quran and lashing out against the HDP's election promise to abolish Turkey's religious affairs directorate.
 
A survey released by Metropoll on May 20th suggested that that Erdoğan's offensive may have blunted the HDP's electoral gains, registering 9.2 percent of votes for the HDP, down from 10.2 earlier in the month.
 
Erdoğan has continued his attack, blasting the HDP for fielding a transgender candidate in the country's west and labeling HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş as a 'Zoroastrian.' A chorus of pro-government media outlets have piled on attacks against Demirtaş, labeling the politician as a 'secret pork eater.'
 
Countdown to catastrophe?
 
Throughout the southeast, voters seem to be turning from the AKP for a reasons practical as well as political. In the city of Urfa, several voters told this correspondent that they planned to vote for the HDP to protest the AKP's liberal policy on Syrian refugees. Tribes across the region have meanwhile been swayed by “persuasion commissions” launched by the HDP earlier this year (http://www.al-monitor.com/).
 
“We're telling people that as regional problems grow, there should be some Kurdish representation in parliament,” said Mithat Sancar, a HDP deputy in the province of Mardin. “Turkey may not be a heaven if the HDP gets into parliament, but it will be a hell if they don't.”
 
But with the HDP hovering precariously close to 10 percent in national polls, that may prove to be more true than Sancar would care to admit.
 
If his party is locked out on June 7th, Sancar says the HDP will work to further peace negotiations from outside parliament, and dismisses suggestions that Kurds might create a local parliament in the southeast.
 
“But there is a limit to what we can do” to stem the violent street protests which are likely to flare up across the region if the HDP loses, he says. Last week, HDP affiliates killed two Islamists in a shootout near the city of Şırnak, echoing the deadly Kobane riots which began with the killing of several Islamists by PKK-affiliated youth groups in October of last year.
 
Tension has been stoked by near-pervasive accusations of state-sanctioned voter fraud. Last week, PKK leader Murat Karayılan predicted that fraud would be the deciding factor in baring the HDP from parliament, while Özgür Gündem, a pro-PKK outlet, claimed that the government had already begun to stuff overseas ballot boxes in favor of the AKP. Even if the HDP loses fairly, its supporters aren't likely to believe so.
 
While every indicator in the southeast seems to show the HDP set to win major swing votes, and while HDP politicians have urged caution in case of a lockout, “it's impossible to know what will happen if they don't pass the threshold,” said former AKP supporter Kaymak. “That's why I only hope they do.”
 

Tags: noah blaser , diyarbakır , erdoğan , demirtas hdp , mürsel kaymak , election

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