Months of conflict sour Turkey's election in Kurdish southeast

Reuters News
|
Posted: Oct 28, 2015 11:40 AM

By Daren Butler

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Five months ago thousands took to the streets in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast, dancing and setting off fireworks after a pro-Kurdish opposition party entered parliament for the first time. Now, the region is preparing for a repeat election in a more somber and bitter mood.

In the meantime, a two-year ceasefire between the state and the main Kurdish militant group has collapsed, unleashing an intensity of fighting unseen since the 1990s and killing hundreds of people. Each side blamed the other.

The June election produced a stalemate, forcing the nation to vote again on Sunday. This time fear rather than joy prevails in the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir and its surrounding province. Rallies have been canceled, militant youth groups man checkpoints, and buildings are pockmarked with fresh bullet holes.

"Instead of enthusiasm for the ballot box there is the silence of the coffins," said Idris Baluken, a senior figure in the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and its top candidate in Diyarbakir.

"Less than a week to the election, and everywhere in Kurdistan is under the shadow of guns and the sound of warplanes," he said in his office, as a jet roared overhead.

The conflict has scarred the alleyways of Diyarbakir's Sur district, the city's ancient heart, where gunfire and blasts resounded day and night in clashes between security forces and militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during curfews in the last couple of months.

Ditches and barricades set up by the PKK youth wing at street corners have been filled in by police but the walls of houses, shops and public buildings remain riddled with bullets. Gun battles outside the 16th-century Kursunlu mosque have damaged its facade significantly.

The AK Party, founded by President Tayyip Erdogan and which has run the country for more than a decade, says Kurds are victims of intimidation by the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

But many people in Sur direct their anger at the authorities. "What they did here was persecution. The police fired on the houses and mosque. It is a policy of repression because people here didn't vote for them," said Hamid Zengin, 67, wearing traditional Kurdish dress with baggy trousers and a cap.

A fellow resident of the area, 43-year-old shopkeeper Murat Seyyar, described the violence as "worse than the 1990s".

The HDP, which won all but one of Diyarbakir province's 11 parliamentary seats in June, canceled its campaign rallies after more than 100 people died in a double suicide bombing at a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Ankara on Oct. 10, the worst attack of its kind in modern Turkish history.

This was the third such strike on Kurdish interests, after an HDP rally in Diyarbakir was bombed on the eve of the June election and a meeting of activists near the Syrian border was hit by a suicide bomber in July, killing 34 people.

The Ankara prosecutor's office said on Wednesday it believed an Islamic State cell had been behind all three attacks.

But beyond the bombings, daily clashes have turned parts of the southeast into a virtual war zone. Candidates now make low-key visits to constituents, replacing election rallies where, in June, music blared out and flags festooned the streets.

"VICTIMS OF INTIMIDATION"

Fear is felt by all, whether they support or oppose the PKK. Many local people expressed anxiety about its YDG-H youth wing, whose members conceal their faces with scarves, clashing with police and setting up roadblocks to check documents.

The PKK began the insurgency in 1984, since when more than 40,000 have died, and AK Party Diyarbakir candidate Ebubekir Bal blames it for the current atmosphere.

"There's extreme psychological pressure on the people. They're scared and uneasy. They can't express themselves freely. We don't know how this will be reflected at the ballot box," he told Reuters.

Bal's party won 14 percent of the vote in Diyarbakir in June, down about 20 points from 2011, but he forecast a recovery on Sunday as people yearn for a return to stability.

Support for the AKP, which under Erdogan launched a peace process and pushed through pro-Kurdish reforms, used to be on a par with that of the Kurdish opposition in the southeast. However, the party drew only around a quarter of the votes in the region in June, when it lost its majority nationally.

"Nobody else had the courage to do what the AK Party did in starting this (peace) process and there is no political will outside the AKP capable of completing it," said Bal.

But many Kurds accuse the AKP of deliberately reigniting violence in the southeast to drum up nationalist support.

At the opposition HDP, Baluken warned of dire consequences should Erdogan or the AKP fail to respect the people's will on Sunday if no clear winner emerges again. He drew parallels with Syria, where Kurdish militia fighters are battling Islamic State as well as President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

"If parliament is not put to work, Turkey could be driven rapidly towards civil war," said Baluken. "The conflict we will experience in Turkey, the level of chaos, could reach the level in Syria."

PEACE PROCESS IN "INTENSIVE CARE"

Erdogan and the government have enraged Kurds by repeatedly describing the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, closely tied to the PKK, as a threat to Turkey equal to that of Islamic State.

The president has said the peace process he initiated with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan three years ago is in the "refrigerator" for now, and the fight with the PKK will continue until it lays down its weapons and leaves Turkey.

Baluken, part of the HDP delegation which visited Ocalan on his prison island of Imrali during the talks, said the process was in "intensive care" but emphasized the need to revive it. "Turkish society and the Kurdish people expect a rapid return to the peace process and the negotiating table," he said.

In the old covered markets of Sur, where traders say the conflict has driven tourists away from their jewelry, clothing and textile shops, people long for a return to at least the relative peace they enjoyed before July.

"People just want stability and calm so they can go about their work and make money," said bearded Gazi Ince, 48, sipping tea and bemoaning his loss of earnings, before returning to his job of repairing shoes.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and David Stamp)