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Turkey's Kurds may hold balance of power in referendum

Turkish Kurds wave flags with the lettering 'No' in Turkish and Kurdish as they gather for Newroz celebrations for the new year in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, on March 21, 2017.
Turkish Kurds wave flags with the lettering 'No' in Turkish and Kurdish as they gather for Newroz celebrations for the new year in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, on March 21, 2017. AFP/Ilyas Akengin

The result of Turkey’s constitutional referendum could be decided in the Kurdish-majority south-east because of divisions in the Turkish nationalist camp. There is even some dissidence in the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), leaving the country’s largest ethnic minority with a key role in the vote.


Polls show the majority of Kurds intending to vote No, largely because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to break off peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas in 2015.

That led to a military offensive that has seen curfews, thousands of arrests and hundreds of deaths.

“I’m going to vote No because I’m against all this fascist system and oppression,” says Isa, a supporter of the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is strong in Diyarbakir and the south-east. “Everybody is talking about economic problems but so many young people have lost their lives, mothers are crying and I don’t want mothers to cry.”

His remarks are greeted with applause in the shop decked out in No campaign banners and posters where he and his comrades are hanging out. And they would probably be well-received by the 57 percent of Kurds who said they would vote No in an opinion poll last month.

Nationalist rhetoric

Although Erdogan has won the backing of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) for the Yes vote, several of the party’s MPs oppose his plans, as do a small percentage of AKP members and supporters.

His response has been to ramp up appeals to Turkish nationalism.

“When you look at the conservative, nationalist rhetoric, especially on the Kurdish question, it shows they are agreeing with the MHP,” comments analyst Mehmet Kaya. “So in this referendum both the AKP and the MHP leaders are playing for the nationalist vote.”

That may prove to be a rare political miscalculation on Erdogan’s part.

The latest opinion polls show 53 percent of the country's population voting No, and only 25 percent of Kurds voting Yes.

Yes voters angry with PKK

One of those is Adil, a shopkeeper in the Sur district of central Diyarbakir.

He accuses the PKK of bad faith in the peace talks and caring more about Yazidi refugees from Iraq than Turkish Kurds.

“The Kurds are caught between two camps,” he complains. “Either we have to be for the AKP or the PKK. But people in Sur are saying that, to the state, we are less important than the Syrians, while to the PKK we are less important than the Yazidis.”

Young Kurds continued joining PKK, which was rearming and extorting funds from businesses while the peace process was supposed to be going ahead, according to Adil. “They just wanted the south-east of Turkey to be like Iraq, like Syria, like Libya or Yemen.”

Sur itself was under curfew for five months and has been heavily damaged by the military response to the PKK’s declaration of an autonomous zone, which led to armed youths digging trenches to try to keep the army out.

The beginning of the peace process led to a rise in tourism and economic progress, Adil says. But the trenches, and the military’s response, ended all that.

Diyarbakir centre ravaged

Parts of Sur were flattened and are still sealed off and under curfew today.

“Can you imagine? For 5,000 years there has been life in this area and all this life has been demolished in the 21st century,” says writer and activist Nurcan Baysal.

She saw bodies piled up in the street where she was born, some bearing the marks of torture, some with their eyes gouged out.

Erdogan broke off peace talks after the AKP lost the absolute majority in parliament in June 2015, a position it won back in a rerun in November after several months of fighting.

The PKK’s revival of its insurgency, which led to whole towns being placed under curfew and some being wholly or partly destroyed, was a miscalculation, according to Kaya.

“In the June election all Turkish Kurds – liberal and conservative – voted for the HDP because they thought it would mean the end of the conflict,” he says. “Now, it doesn’t matter who started it – to me this war is not solely the PKK’s responsibility – but to react to the state’s provocations in places where 85-90 percent of the population supported HDP and to bring the fight there was a mistake.”

Baysal blames the state for the bloodshed.

“In a lot of countries we have this kind of thing,” she says, referring to the rebellion. “But what do you do? OK, take them to prison. OK, a bad state will kill them, those groups, but what is the bombing about? We lost thousands of civilian people, who just go to buy bread. We lost students. A lot of people were shot by snipers. And there is immunity! You can’t go to court!”

Many Kurds hope that a defeat for Erdogan will force him to revive the peace process, while some Turkish politicians argue that a Yes vote might give him freedom to turn his back on the nationalists.

Like everything else in this country, the effects of this referendum are hard to predict.

To read our coverage of Turkey's referendum click here.

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