Voters in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey flocked to polling stations on Sunday, despite concerns about vote rigging and potential clashes, with many voting to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.
The elections offer President Erdogan the chance to secure a parliamentary majority, as well as a presidency with sweeping new powers granted by a referendum last year, something that worries many Kurds, who make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 80 million population.
After the collapse of peace negotiations in 2015, eastern Turkey has seen sporadic battles between security forces and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation. More than 2,000 people have been killed and some 400,000 were displaced from their homes. Under a state of emergency, tens of thousands of President Erdogan's opponents have been arrested and hundreds of non-profit organisations across eastern Turkey shuttered.
Against this background, many Kurdish voters expressed skepticism that the vote would be conducted fairly. Outside a polling station near the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) office in Diyarbakir, one voter told The National that she believed President Erdogan and the AKP would engage in electoral fraud to shore up their victory. Nevertheless, Elif, who declined to give her last name for fear of repercussions, said she believed opposition parties had run an effective campaign. "Before the election, Kurds were so discouraged, but opposition parties have run such an inspiring campaign that it motivated me and my friends to vote."
How well the HDP performs will be critical not just for securing a pro-Kurdish vote in parliament but also for whether President Erdogan’s AKP secures a majority. Under Turkey’s parliamentary system, a party must secure 10 per cent of the vote before they can assume their seats. If a party fails to pass the threshold, their seats are allocated to the second placed party.
If the HDP fails to pass the 10 per cent threshold, their seats are likely to pass to the AKP.
Agit, a 24-year-old election monitor, said he was motivated to vote to propel HDP over the threshold to enter parliament. While the vote in Diyarbakir had proceeded without reported violations, he said that fewer elections monitors were present in outlying villages and towns.
In Cinar, a town in Diyarbakir province, there were reports that state-armed village guards had tried to prevent people from casting their ballots, according to one independent election monitor in the town. A fight reportedly ensued after four voters confronted the guards, which resulted in police officers detaining the four men.
A pro-Kurdish presence in parliament was the only way for Turkey to secure a lasting peace, many believe. “The government calls every Kurd who is against them a terrorist,” said Hasan Kale, a retired municipal employee in Diyarbakir. “Kurds don’t want to fight, but what does the government expect when they throw all of our youth and leaders in jail.”