Simmering resentment in south-eastern Turkey threatens Erdogan's presidential plans

Kurds in Turkey have borne the brunt of military operations against the PKK

A man watches a campaign event by Turkey's main pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) from a window of a building which was damaged during the security operations and clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, in Silvan, a town in Diyarbakir province, Turkey, June 5, 2018. Picture taken June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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When Elisir’s family arrived at the hospital to pick up his body, they found bullet holes in his chest and shoulder, purple bruises across his back, and burns on his face and legs.

As a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), his family were aware that he might be killed, but they were still shocked by his mutilated body. The authorities never revealed how he died, the autopsy merely stated that he was killed in conflict on October 5, 2017.

The death of the 25-year-old Elisir – his PKK nom de guerre – galvanised his sister Siyajin, who said he had joined the group in 2014 because he was discriminated against as a Kurd during his military service. As presidential elections approach on June 24, she says that defeating incumbent leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has led a crackdown against Kurdish groups in eastern Turkey – would be a way of avenging her brother’s death.

“This election is the last hope for Kurds,” said Siyajin, who withheld her last name for fear of reprisals, from a cafe in Turkey’s largest Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir. “We want a future where our young don’t feel the need to have to run away and fight.”


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After narrowly winning a constitutional referendum last year – changing Turkey from a parliamentary system to one that gives the president sweeping powers – in April, Mr Erdogan called a snap election in hopes of cementing his rule. But simmering resentment among Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, many of whom have suffered from harrowing state violence in recent years, threatens to undo that plan.

The elections will select 600 members of parliament, as well as Turkey’s president.

Most Kurds plan to vote for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). They also intend to vote for HDP's leader Selahattin Demirtasfor president, who is campaigning from prison due to terrorism charges.

But assuming the presidential race goes to a run-off, if Mr Erdogan fails to win more than half of the vote, as most polls predict, many Kurds say they will support Muharrem Ince from the Republican People's Party (CHP), who has been campaigning for the Kurdish vote.

Muharrem Ince, Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Diyarbakir on June 11, 2018, ahead of the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections which will be held on June 24, 2018. / AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN
If the June 24 presidential elections proceed to a run-off, many Kurds plan to vote for presidential candidate Muharrem Ince from main opposition the Republican People's Party. AFP

The latest polls predict HDP will surpass parliament’s 10 per cent threshold, which would deny Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority. That outcome would be enough to curtail Mr Erdogan’s powers even if he is elected president.

“Parliament is still substantial,” said Sinan Ulgen, an expert on Turkish politics and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels. “If the opposition dominates it then it would be able to override presidential decrees, while maintaining control over the state-budget.”

In Diyarbakir’s historic district of Sur – which was levelled in clashes between the government and PKK in 2015 – deep-seated antipathy towards President Erdogan is driving support for the opposition.

Ahmat Sen, who is the state representative of Sur, is just one person who intends to vote for HDP.

During the fighting in 2015 – which claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people and uprooted more than 400,000 – the military stripped naked Mr Sen and other male relatives as they fled with their families. "It was winter and we were freezing," said Mr Sen, a man with greying hair and tobacco-stained teeth. "One of the soldiers punched my nephew in the face."

Boys walk among rubble and damaged buildings in the Sur district in Diyarbakir on December 11, 2015.
A policeman was killed on December 9, 2015 by sniper fire as he tried to defuse an explosive device in the Sur district of Diyarbakir province, which has been under military curfew for eight days. Turkey has been waging a relentless offensive against PKK strongholds in the southeast of the country and in northern Iraq following the collapse in July of a two-year truce with rebels.   
Boys walk among rubble and buildings damaged in fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK in the Sur district in Diyarbakir in 2015. AFP

After violence calmed in 2016, Mr Sen was the only local allowed to see the destruction of Sur thanks to his status as an elected representative. More than half the homes, he claims, were damaged from the clashes. But when he returned to Sur two weeks later, he found that almost all the homes were bulldozed to the ground, including his own. The demolitions raised Mr Sen’s suspicion that the military operation was linked to a plan to gentrify the district. Furious at the AKP, he vows to vote to get rid of President Erdogan.

“I will vote HDP because I want a parliament that represents me,” he says.

Younger Kurds such as 26-year-old Gulan, who was also afraid to disclose her last name, also want justice. Her younger brother, Shamos, was thrown in prison last February for posting pro-PKK material on Facebook, which the state considers a terrorist offence. While Shamos is expected to be released in two months, Gulan says that the stain of a criminal record has ruined his future.

“My brother will face a lot of difficulties because of Erdogan. I hope we vote him out,” she said. “Kurds hardly have any rights, and if Erdogan wins the next election then we won’t have any rights at all.”

Umit Setiner, a 30-year-old psychosocial worker, is one of tens of thousands of perceived opponents who was fired from a public service job in 2016. Like many of them, Setiner wasn’t told why he was dismissed, but suspects that he was punished for aiding civilians from Sur during the fighting.

“I volunteered to give psycho-social support to children who were traumatised by the violence,” said Mr Setiner, a former Diyarbakir hospital employee. “Many were suffering from anxiety or harrowing nightmares after they escaped.”

In 2016, Erdogan used a state of emergency to close 370 non-profit organisations in the south-east, including legal, feminist and aid groups. Their assets were confiscated, while employees often suffered further consequences; many were arrested and charged for “aiding a terrorist organisation” through their work.

Despite the oppression, Kurds such as Siyajin, Sen, Gulan and Setiner are clinging to hope.

“I will use my vote to respond to all the injustices that Erdogan has perpetrated against me and the children of Sur,” Mr Setiner said. “This election is more than an election; [for Kurds] it’s a matter of life and death.”