Kurdish nationalists, more defiant than ever, are set to boost their parliamentary clout in Sunday’s polls as fighters in the mountains pile pressure on Ankara with threats of increased violence.
In Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey’s southeast, Kurdish music blares in the streets, there are election posters in Kurdish and belligerent youths openly display their sympathy for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara brands a “terrorist” group.
Transformed under EU-inspired reforms, the region is a far cry from the peak years of the PKK-led insurgency in the 1990s when any expression of Kurdish identity was a deemed a crime and bloodshed a daily routine. The Kurds have now raised the stakes: they now want Ankara to hold negotiations to end the 26-year conflict and are demanding regional autonomy, Kurdish-language education as well as an amnesty for the PKK.
“We have reached a point of no return… Our people have overcome fear,” said lawmaker Emine Ayna, campaigning for re-election in Diyarbakir amid supporters flashing the victory sign and shouting pro-PKK chants.
“We insist on a political settlement. Moreover, we want to draw the PKK to the political arena,” she said, calling for the liberation of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — “like the example of Mandela.”
Ayna is one of some 30 candidates pollsters predict will enter parliament with the backing of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s main legal Kurdish movement, and increase by half the 20 seats the party currently holds. They are running as independents.
Among them is iconic activist Leyla Zana, poised to return to parliament where her first appearance in 1991 caused an uproar when she uttered a single sentence in Kurdish — a peace message — while taking oath. Subsequently banished from politics, she spent 10 years in jail.
Since March, the BDP has led “civil disobedience” protests, ranging from open-air prayers to shun government-run mosques to violent demonstrations that have seen youths pelt police with stones and petrol bombs. Tensions have mounted with a renewed army onslaught on the PKK and deadly attacks on police despite a truce the PKK had declared last year.
Ocalan, who retains his influence in spite of being behind bars, has warned that “all hell will break loose” after the elections unless sporadic contacts officials have had with him in prison are upgraded to serious negotiations.
Discreet meetings with Ocalan began as part of a “Kurdish opening” Ankara announced in 2009 in a bid to reconcile with the PKK, raising unprecedented hope to end a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.
But the initiative faltered amid continued violence and a Turkish nationalist backlash. Kurdish frustration has deepened over a massive probe into alleged PKK collaborators that has landed hundreds in jail, among them mayors and activists, including six who are now on the list of BDP-backed election candidates.
On a quest for a third straight term in power, Islamist-rooted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared “there is no longer a Kurdish problem,” braving a blow to the solid popularity he has enjoyed in the southeast.
Erdogan has called the BDP “bandits” and hostile to Islam, while seeking to lure less militant, conservative Kurds with a messages of Muslim fraternity and pledges of economic prosperity.
Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker, one of some 60 Kurdish lawmakers in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, accuses the BDP of inciting violence, in unison with the PKK, and undermining peace efforts.
“What compromise can you reach while armed men remain in the mountains and threaten you?” he said. “We are open to discuss all democratic demands but one cannot accept the legitimising of terror.”
The News International
June 8, 2011