Blood On the Ballot

As Turkey heads to parliamentary elections on Sunday, the country’s Kurdish heartland is hoping to defeat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the ballot box — even as some young Kurds say a guerrilla war is their only hope against the government.


DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Just a few short months ago, the square in front of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) headquarters in Diyarbakir, the heart of the Kurdish southeast, resonated with the sounds of car horns, fireworks, and celebratory gunfire. Thanks to a surprise showing in parliamentary elections on June 7, Turkey’s biggest pro-Kurdish party had turned the country’s politics on its head. With 13 percent of the vote, enough to win 80 parliamentary seats, it had stripped the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a majority it had held for over 12 years, seemingly ending President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dreams of one-man rule.

On Nov. 1, Turkish voters will return to the polls for snap elections in which the AKP will try to overturn this summer’s setback. But now, the gunfire in Diyarbakir is anything but celebratory: Peace talks between Kurdish militants and state officials have collapsed, the country is reeling from the deadliest terror attack in its modern history, and mounting frustration with Erdogan’s rule is pushing some young Kurds into the arms of a violent insurgency.

After a two-year respite in the long-running conflict between the Turkish state and the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), war has returned to Diyarbakir with greater force than most locals remember.

On a clear day in the middle of October, the city’s historical district, known as Sur, wearily picked itself up from four days of clashes between police and Kurdish gunmen. Sanitation workers swept up rubble and shell casings. A gaping, muddy crater marked the spot where an improvised explosive device had blown up a police vehicle. Two elderly men toured the grounds of a 16th century mosque, its facade, as well as the surrounding columns, heavily pockmarked by gunfire.

A few streets away, neighbors mourned Helin Sen, 12, reportedly shot by a police sniper’s bullet. A group of children crowded around the spot where Sen died, pointing to a patch of cement stained with what looked like dried blood. She was gunned down while going out to pick up bread from a nearby bakery, locals said.

Two weeks earlier, a neighboring town mourned another dead child, Elif Simsek, 9, reportedly killed by an errant PKK rocket.

Turkey’s war with the PKK left more than 30,000 dead over three decades, but appeared to be on the wane in the spring of 2013, when secret talks between the group’s jailed leader and state officials culminated in a cease-fire. In the wake of this summer’s election, the peace process unraveled. In less than four months, renewed clashes have claimed the lives of at least 159 Turkish security officials, hundreds of PKK fighters, and 81 civilians, according to open-source data compiled by the International Crisis Group. The violence has also been fueled by the fallout from the war in neighboring Syria, where the PKK’s local wing has fought off a range of Islamist groups, some of them supported by Turkey.

An Oct. 10 suicide attack at a peace rally in Ankara by Islamic State militants has poured more fuel on the fire. The HDP, whose supporters comprised many if not most of the 102 victims, has blamed the government for doing nothing to prevent the attack. Erdogan, in turn, has accused the PKK of having a hand in the bombing — claiming that the group conspired with both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime to kill the very people he refers to as PKK sympathizers.

The AKP also accuses the Kurdish militants of taking advantage of the 2013 cease-fire to stock up on weapons, recruit a new generation of fighters, and prepare for an urban insurgency.

“For the first time, they brought the fighting from the mountains to civilian areas,” says Galip Ensarioglu, the ruling party’s top Diyarbakir candidate. “They’re the ones who formally renounced the cease-fire, they’re the ones responsible for the deaths of these children.”

The Kurds, meanwhile, accuse Erdogan of stoking the violence to reverse the setback he suffered in June. The snap vote was called after negotiations to form a coalition government fell apart – and the AKP is now trying to win back nationalist voters that abandoned it during the election over the summer. “He looked at the polls, saw he had nothing to gain from the peace process, and decided to backtrack,” says Idris Baluken, an HDP lawmaker.

There is a chance that the fighting will subside after Sunday’s elections. The PKK, which appears to have suffered significant losses over the summer, may need to regroup. There is a high chance that the AKP will fall short once again of the majority it needs to govern alone, and will thus have little choice but to look for a coalition partner, which could act as a constraint on the AKP further escalating the conflict in the short term.

But such is the level of mistrust and polarization in Turkey, mostly between the Kurds and the state, that further bloodshed may be hard to contain.

In Diyarbakir, at a funeral for two local victims of the attack — a politician and a 70-year-old peace activist — Jindar, a woman in her late teens, said she no longer placed much faith in Turkey’s democracy.

“We crossed the threshold, we entered parliament, so they attacked us and called new elections,” she said, referring to the HDP’s victory in June. “The state no longer accepts us, so the Kurds have to revolt.”

If Turkey is to step back from the brink of a new civil war, said Abdullah Demirbas, a former Sur mayor, the generation of Kurds to which Jindar belongs needs to be given hope. “Otherwise, they might not be able to deal with this conflict as we did,” he said. “They don’t believe in politics anymore; they may be out of control.”

Demirbas was arrested this summer on charges of financing the PKK, and discharged in early October after developing severe blood clots in his legs. One of his sons recently returned from the army. The other joined the PKK in 2009.

“As a father, I don’t want to see any more deaths, on this side or that,” he said, speaking from his hospital bed. “It’s not who started the violence that matters now, it’s what we’ve lost in the process. … We need to start speaking again.”

Sunday’s election might be Turkey’s best, and last, chance to do so.


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