Erdogan faces wrath of Kurds in Turkey’s local elections
Crackdown on Kurdish politicians in south east unlikely to deter voters this weekend
Supporters of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) at an election campain rally in Batman, south east Turkey, on March 12th. Photograph: Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images
When police came to arrest her as the campaign for Turkey’s local elections got under way, Berivan Kutlu was not surprised: it was the third time the Kurdish opposition politician had been detained in four years.
But even the 34-year-old, who is running for mayor in the Kurdish-majority town of Cizre, was taken aback by the harsh interrogation she says she faced in January during two days of questioning.
“It was because of the elections,” she said of her arrest, referring to municipal polls taking place across the country on Sunday. “They wanted to break our will and to break the sense of hope among the people. They wanted to break our campaign.”
Dozens of elected HDP politicians such as Kutlu have been removed from their posts and jailed on the accusation of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militia that is classified by Turkey, the US and the EU as a terrorist group.
Erdogan has said repeatedly ahead of Sunday’s elections that, if the HDP is voted back into office in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated south east region, the state could once again dismiss its representatives and replace them with state-appointed trustees.
Yet despite the warnings, Cizre – a battle-scarred city on the Syrian border in south-east Turkey – is expected to elect Kutlu and her running partner with a hefty majority. As one local volunteer with Erdogan’s ruling party admitted: “If we win here it will be a miracle.”
Cizre, which has a population of 140,000, was plunged into violence in 2015 as Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces closed on the narrow city centre streets following the collapse of a ceasefire with the PKK.
Youths linked to the PKK, which has been waging a decades-long armed campaign for greater autonomy and rights for Turkey’s 15-20 million ethnic Kurds, barricaded roads and declared autonomous zones. In December, Turkish police backed by tanks launched an offensive to clear them out.
Whole parts of the town were flattened and thousands of people were displaced. According to the International Crisis Group, a think-tank that monitors Turkey’s Kurdish conflict, 236 people were killed during four months of intense fighting, among them at least 55 civilians.
After the clashes, the authorities ratcheted up their pressure on the HDP, which draws the vast majority of its support from Kurdish voters. Kutlu was removed from her post as mayor of a nearby district and spent seven months in jail on accusations of being a PKK member – a charge she denies. The two joint HDP mayors of Cizre were also removed, and replaced by a government appointee.
Three years on, something akin to normal life has resumed in the city. Families stroll along the banks of the Tigris river that runs through its centre, and fruit and vegetable markets in the central shopping district are busy.
The central government and trustee mayor have ordered a flurry of rebuilding. The parts of the city that witnessed the heaviest fighting have today become giant construction sites, with the sounds of clucking chickens interspersed with the whirring of drills. The western Cudi district is a mix of pockmarked old pastel houses and rows of brand new brown-and-white apartment blocks built by Toki, the state housing agency, to replace homes that were bulldozed. New parks and playgrounds stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding potholed streets.
Investment is at the heart of the campaign being run by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose promises include a new bus terminal and the town’s first university. AKP officials were unwilling to be interviewed, but its activists said they were urging voters to think of the money that would flow in if the party won.
Many locals, however, say they are unmoved by such offers. “It’s not about services,” said a manager at a local business. “It’s about ideology, politics, identity.”
Behind the façade of renovation, the mood remains uneasy. The city is still ringed by checkpoints and the centre is dotted with heavily fortified military posts. Many locals say they feel oppressed by the black armoured vehicles that patrol the streets day and night. “If they’re suspicious of you, they stop you and ask for ID,” said a young corner shop owner.
Some say they are fearful of speaking Kurdish, their mother tongue, in public. “We are afraid to say we are Kurds,” says Kadriye, a 50-year-old woman whose son has spent the last three years in prison. “We are like hostages in our own city.”
Others are angry at the rhetoric of Erdogan, who in years past attracted Kurdish support by going further than any of his predecessors in seeking a solution to the conflict with the PKK. Now he is using Turkish nationalism to boost his flagging support – threatening to “bury” Syrian Kurdish militias and telling those who want to live in Kurdistan to “piss off to northern Iraq”.
The resilience of HDP support is likely to put the party on a fresh collision course with Erdogan following this weekend’s vote. The president told a rally last month that he would appoint new trustees “without hesitation” if elected officials used state money to support the PKK – an accusation that the HDP has always denied.
The party and its supporters remain defiant. “Yes, if we win, maybe they will take our victory away from us again,” said Kutlu. “But we won’t stop working. It won’t stop us.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019