In Turkey’s Kurdish heartland, the rhetoric is getting nasty before a high-stakes election — and many believe it’s spurring a wave of violence.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Turkey’s election season had long been nasty. Now, that overheated rhetoric is turning to violence.
A pre-election rally for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) party in this southeastern city was the target of a bomb attack today, which claimed the lives of two people and injured more than 100. The blast interrupted the rally shortly before HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas was to speak, transforming what had been a celebration of the party’s new-found electoral strength into another round of violence and recriminations.
“AKP, murderers,” some of the demonstrators chanted as they rushed to leave the rally, blaming the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the explosion. No evidence yet exists tying the AKP or any other party to the crime, but locals in Diyarbakir blame the government for a wave of violence they believe is intended to keep the party from overcoming the critical 10 percent threshold for entering parliament in the upcoming vote on Sunday, June 7.
The Diyarbakir explosion today is not the only recent attack on HDP supporters. On June 4, an HDP rally in the city of Erzurum devolved into clashes after protesters arrived to disrupt the event. On June 3, unknown men raked an HDP campaign bus with gunfire outside the eastern city of Bingol, killing the driver. Last month, the local election offices of the party were attacked in the cities of Istanbul, Izmir, Adana, and Mersin.
Turkish elections have often been the scene of theatrics and exaggerated rhetoric — in this campaign, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son dressed up in Ottoman attire and shot a bow and arrow, and political rivals loudly argued over whether there were actually gold toilets in the gargantuan presidential palace. But now, HDP leaders suggest that government officials’ overheated rhetoric has led directly to the wave of violence.
“Mr. Erdogan, [Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu — they go around, and they say we are linked to PKK,” said Ziya Pir, an HDP candidate for parliament and the nephew of the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is banned as a terrorist organization. “And that says: ‘They are terrorists, do you want to have these terrorists in the parliament?’ So young people think it is legal to make these attacks.”
“Until today, we had 160 attacks — and Erdogan doesn’t care about this,” Pir said. “They don’t do anything to stop these kind of attacks.”
As polls show the HDP exceeding the 10 percent election threshold, Erdogan has escalated his rhetoric against the pro-Kurdish party. In a June 3 rally in eastern Turkey, he said the movement was supported by the “Armenian lobby, homosexuals, those who believe in Alevism without [Caliph] Ali,” Marxist-Leninist terrorists, and some international media outlets.
If the HDP successfully enters parliament, it will likely spell the death of the AKP’s ambitions to win a supermajority in the legislature. Turkey’s election system works in such a way that those parties that pass the threshold win a significant number of seats — in the case of the HDP, likely 50 to 60 seats — while parties that fall below the 10 percent level have their seats redistributed to the larger parties. For this reason, the HDP has become Enemy Number One for AKP officials, who hope to drive its vote-share below the threshold.
The pro-government media has also joined the attack. Turkish daily newspaper Takvim devoted its front page today to an image that purports to show how the leaves in the tree that makes up the HDP’s logo secretly spells “PKK.”
That’s not to say that HDP supporters are hiding their sympathy for the banned guerrilla movement. At the Diyarbakir rally, before the explosion, one of the crowd’s most popular chants was “Long live Apo!” — the nickname of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has long been imprisoned. “Greetings to the fighters on the front lines,” sang another group of young men.
With Ocalan now engaged in talks with the Turkish government, however, HDP leaders contend that they can both be supportive of the PKK and the ongoing peace process. “We stand for freedom and for peace in Turkey,” Pir said. “We don’t want fighting between the PKK and the army.
Diyarbakir tonight is the scene of clear anger — residents gathered in their homes and banged pots and pans, a frequent type of protest — but it seems unlikely that the frustration will immediately reignite the cycle of violence from which this part of Turkey long suffered. HDP leader Demirtas referred to the attack as a “dirty provocation” and urged his supporters to remain calm. “We will prevail, peace will prevail,” he said.
If the HDP fails in its bid to enter parliament, however, and the peace process shows no sign of progress, the anger that has been stirred during this campaign will create a very volatile mix in southern Turkey.
Photo credit: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images