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Turkey's Kurds could hold key to 2018 presidential election

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Baris Cengiz sits with friends in an Istanbul street Tony Cross/RFI

Turkey’s Kurdish minority could be kingmakers in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP) facing a tighter race than expected, the major candidates are courting their votes


The scruffy streets of a Kurdish neighbourhood in Istanbul are festooned with flags of the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party, the HDP.

A van tours the area blasting out music and calling for support for the party’s parliamentary candidates and its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas.

The view from the HDP's office in Istanbul Tony Cross/RFI

The HDP is strongest in the Kurdish-majority south-east, the scene of a long-running and often brutal conflict between the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, and government forces.

Demirtas is fighting the campaign from jail, accused, like many of the party’s MPs and activists, of links to “terrorism”, in other words the PKK.

On Friday he held what he described as “the first-ever e-rally in history”, tweeting to followers via his lawyers’ mobile phones.

His incarceration adds to his hero status for Kurds like Mehmet Dinier, a textile worker hanging out near the HDP’s Istanbul headquarters.

 “As a Kurd, of course I’m going to vote for Selahattin Demirtas,” he says, as if the question does not even bear asking. “They are scared of him and that’s why he’s in prison.”

HDP candidate Celal Alphan Tony Cross/RFI

Turkey’s largest city counts two to four million Kurds among its 14.6 million population.

Dinier came here for nearly 30 years ago.

He likes it here but the fallout from the conflict in the south-east can be felt here, too.

“For instance, when I was about 20, police stopped me, took my identity card and put me in prison for no reason because they saw from the city where I was born that I am Kurdish,” he remembers. “I don’t understand why they do this.”

Kurdish identity makes life “very difficult”, says Baris Cengiz, a 58-year Istanbul resident who is sipping tea in the street with a group of other men.

He is voting HDP, too, and hopes the election will bring “peace and happiness”.

Kurds make up about 17 percent of the electorate and in the last presidential election, four years ago, Demirtas scored nearly 10 percent, winning votes not only from Kurds but also from the non-Kurdish left.

So his voters could be decisive in the final outcome if Erdogan fails to win 50 percent in the first round.

The secular People’s National Party, the CHP, appears to be giving the incumbent a run for his money and its candidate Muharrem Ince has high hopes of reaching the second round.

Another contender is right-wing secular nationalist Mera Aksener.

Although the secular camp has always opposed Kurdish nationalism, both have called for Demirtas to be released and called for reconciliation in the conflict.

Even before he became a presidential candidate, Ince went against his party’s whip in parliament to oppose lifting the immunity of HDP MPs , including Demirtas.

So would the HDP support any candidate against Erdogan if there is a deciding round?

“It’s too early to say,” HDP parliamentary candidate Celal Alphan says but he goes on to give a pretty good idea. “The candidates always forget their promises after they are elected, just as Erdogan did. But we are not going to vote for any kind of fascism, like Erdogan. So that can give you some kind of answer.

A Kurdish shop in Istanbul's Fatih district Tony Cross/RFI

Not all Kurds vote for the HDP.

The more conservative among them back the AKP, attracted by its Islamic identity or its pro-business policies.

“They have done so much for this country over the last 16 years,” says Ibrahim Geza, who works in a shop in the old city. “They have built bridges, roads, airports and hospitals and I think that Turkey is in great condition right now. All the people, Turks and Kurds, are living in fraternity.”

In 2015 there were two elections.

In the first, the HDP won 13 percent, depriving the AKP of an absolute majority.

But the war with the PKK flared up again and Erdogan called a second election, where the party’s vote fell, apparently because some voters regarded it as too close to the guerrillas.

“We are a bit disturbed by the HDP because we know they are connected to the PKK,” says Geza. “They test the patience and disrupt the happiness of Turkey.”

So can the party win back conservative Kurds?

Alphan thinks so, especially because of the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurd militias in Afrin, northern Syria.

“Erdogan has already revealed his anti-Kurd policies, especially with the Afrin operation,” he says. “So I believe most of the conservative Kurds will see what his real aims are. So I believe we will also win the votes of these conservative Kurds.”

Turkey has also launched raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq and these attacks have intensified during the election campaign.

During its first years in power the AKP improved Kurdish rights, scrapping a ban on broadcasting in the Kurdish language and, after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, declaring a truce and starting peace negotiations.

But since the reopening of hostilities in 2015 the war has started up again in earnest, leaving some towns and villages devastated and many activists and other civilians killed, injured or jailed.

Erdogan has spent a lot of time in the south-east during this campaign, telling one rally that the AKP has saved “Kurdish people from the despotic old regime’s oppression”.

But he remains unrepentant about the jailing of HDP members and on Friday crticised the election board of becoming “emotional” and making a “mistake” in allowing Demirtas to stand.

By law a party must win 10 percent of the vote to have seats in parliament, a bar that the HDP passed for the first time in 2015.

So both the presidential and general elections are crucial for the party this time, as they are for Erdogan and the other opposition parties.