The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kurdish voters could hold the key in Turkey’s hotly contested election

Supporters of Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), gather for a campaign rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on June 20. (AFP/Getty Images)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Repaired storefronts hide the scars of recent trauma, the bloody clashes between the state and Kurdish militants that ravaged this city a few years back. The idle men in cafes reflect a more persistent despair, the poverty and unemployment in this and other Kurdish-majority areas stranded on the margins of the Turkish state.

But there are times when this place feels wanted, even valued, residents say: when elections roll around.    

Diyarbakir, a city of 1 million people on a bank of the Tigris River and the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, wields a peculiar clout as the symbolic center of a powerful voting bloc able to sway national elections, including Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary polls. 

Kurds make up roughly a fifth of Turkey’s population, and their outsize influence at the polls contrasts sharply with their longtime struggle for recognition in a state that privileges Turkish ethnicity.  

The coming elections are no different. Analysts say that Kurds could help decide the future of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkey’s politics since 2002 but faces an unusually sharp challenge in this election from the political opposition.  

In Turkey, the opposition finally unites in bid to end Erdogan’s dominance

If a Kurdish-led grouping, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, is able to win a large enough slice of the national vote, it will be able to deny Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority.

The election is one of the most consequential in Turkey in years. A victory for Erdogan would allow him to assume broad new powers under a new system that abolishes the post of prime minister and dilutes the authority of parliament and the judiciary.  

Erdogan has argued the powers are necessary for him to govern effectively, while his opponents say the changes enshrine one-man rule.

Like voters across Turkey, Kurds are weighing the promises of candidates and issues such as the economy and security. But many Kurds in Diyarbakir said their preferences were also being shaped by a relationship with the government that has become more poisonous over the past few years — a possible blow to Erdogan’s party, which has won a large percentage of Kurdish voters in previous elections.  

The relationship deteriorated with the collapse of peace talks between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants and the reigniting of war between the two sides that descended on Turkish cities and towns, killing more than 1,000 people and reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble.  

Turkey’s government, which accused the HDP of supporting the militants, arrested the party’s leaders and removed other members who served as municipal officials, replacing them with state-appointed trustees. 

As Turkey sent its army to fight Kurdish militants across the borders in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s Kurds felt further isolated by the nationalist rhetoric of war deployed by Turkish leaders. 

“We have been under pressure for the past two years,” said a 57-year old laborer in Diyarbakir who gave only his first name, Murat, to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. He sat drinking tea with friends in the ancient Sur district on a recent afternoon, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that was decimated by the fighting.  

“The pressure is constant,” he said.   

The recent events have been a rueful reversal of fortune for the Kurds, who saw restrictions on their language and culture loosened under Erdogan’s leadership and hoped for greater prosperity as he pursued the peace talks with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a decades-long war against the Turkish state and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey as well as the United States.

Analysis: The quest to defeat Erdogan

And there was a path to political relevance, as the HDP surged to prominence, winning 13 percent of the national vote in one election. “It was like a dream,” said Mahmut Bozarslan, a journalist based in Diyarbakir.  

“The last three years have been a nightmare, a disaster — for the peace process to end, for the region to find itself in violence immediately, for the violence to be in the center of cities,” he said.  

While many acknowledged that the HDP made mistakes by not distancing itself forcefully enough from the militants, the government’s harsh rhetoric toward the party — and by extension, its millions of supporters — “creates the impression among Kurds that the state doesn’t want us,” Bozarslan said. “They are bringing people to the breaking point.”

Under the campaign banners stretched across Diyarbakir, young volunteers pass out fliers with pictures of Erdogan or Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the HDP who is campaigning for the presidency from jail. Conversations turn to whether Kurdish AKP voters will stand by the party — a question no one seems able to answer.  

Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate of the Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party, released this campaign ad from prison on June 18. (Video: HDP Yurtdışı Seçim)

Jets roar across the sky a few times a day in a reminder of Turkey’s continuing war with Kurdish militants. But no one looks up.  

The local candidates for parliament reflect the city’s recent ordeals and its divides. Oya Eronat, who is running for parliament on the AKP ticket, entered politics after her son, Eren Sahin, was killed in a bombing by the PKK in 2008. Eren, a high school student, was one of six students killed in the attack. 

“After my son lost his life in the bombing, I thought that I had to do something,” she said. “I wanted to enter politics with Erdogan against the PKK, against the HDP, against this pressure, against this oppression.”

The Kurds trusted Erdogan, she said, “because Erdogan is open to everyone.”  

An HDP candidate, Salihe Aydeniz, a former paramedic, said she and her husband, a teacher, lost their jobs in the purge of Kurdish workers that followed a failed coup in Turkey in the summer of 2016.

“This happened to a lot of people,” she said. “Kurds are tired of the AKP and will be changing their votes.”

Erdogan’s supporters say they that are confident they will retain a significant portion of the Kurdish vote and that despite the recent schisms, Kurds valued the overall improvements in their lives since Erdogan first came to power.  

“President Erdogan has done more for Kurds than any president or politician during the republican era in Turkey,” said Kahraman Haliscelik, a press adviser to Turkey’s foreign minister. Haliscelik is a Kurd; he recalled his childhood in a village between Diyarbakir and the city of Urfa, where electricity was scarce, roads were unpaved and there were no phone lines to the village. “I was punished for speaking Zaza in my class,” he said, referring to a language spoken by some Kurds.   

Erdogan’s government poured money into the Kurdish southeast for schools and development. And thanks to the president, Haliscelik said, “I can go anywhere and proudly say I am Kurdish.”

But many in Kurdish areas were also sharply critical of Erdogan’s recent political alliance with an ultranationalist party and his refusal to lift a state of emergency, said Vahap Coskun, a law professor at Dicle University in Diyarbakir. 

And the government’s recent discourse about Kurds struck many here as a worrying return to the past — with officials denying, for instance, that there was such a thing as a “Kurdish issue” or attacking the Kurdish leadership across the border in Iraq during an independence referendum there.  

“There were also people within the AKP who criticized this rhetoric.” Coskun said. “This is something the people will not forget.”  

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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