During a week-long trip to Turkey’s southeast, TRT World reporters met several people from the Kurdish community.
On a recent visit to Mardin, an ancient city in Turkey's southeastern region, I broke bread with members of various political parties. It took a lot of persuasion to get them together over an Iftar feast while the country was transfixed on the looming crucial elections slated for June 24.
Mardin is an ancient city with mosques, churches, palaces and mansions spread across a rocky hillside protruding from orange-brown fields. Amidst this quaint and charming landscape, we all sat at a restaurant and ate Sogan Kebabi (Onion Kebab) and Kaburga Dolmasi (Stuffed Lamb Ribs), the two delicacies the city is known for.
But the easy-going atmosphere began to change as the conversation drifted toward politics. The Kurdish question and PKK violence soon dominated the exchange.
“If you identified Kurds with the PKK, then you would bring all the Kurds together under one leadership. The PKK is a terrorist organisation that is the continuation of ASALA,” said Ahmet Cemil Mataraci, a former head of the central right True Path Party (DYP).
ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) is an Armenian armed group that targeted and killed a number of Turkish civilians and diplomats abroad during the 1970s and 1980s. As most of the ASALA activities ceased in the mid-1980s, the PKK launched its first attack in Turkey in 1984.
Mataraci now supports the leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP) for which he recently ran as a candidate for the city’s mayorship.
“The PKK has also been described wrongly to the Kurds. The real issue is not to establish a Kurdistan, but to establish a great Armenia,” said Mataraci, who puts a Turkish flag pin on his jacket, a rare sign in the region.
PKK violence has affected mostly Kurdish-populated southeastern and eastern provinces, costing more than 40,000 lives. The armed group wanted to establish a separate Kurdish state until its founding leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and jailed by Turkey in 1998. The group is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Before the iftar meeting, we trudged along and came across the region’s ongoing problems with high unemployment and political upheaval, which is partly created by the PKK’s four-decade-long armed campaign against the Turkish state.
Kurdish question or PKK problem
The CHP member, Mataraci, believes the Kurdish issue in Turkey is nothing but "a PKK problem." But Mehmet Sirat Aydin, who sat across the table, shot back.
“When we say there is no Kurdish question, it does not disappear [from our world]. At the first place, it indeed revealed because we have refused to accept its existence,” Aydin said.
A former board member of HADEP, one of the predecessor parties of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Aydin criticises the HDP's stance regarding the PKK’s trench warfare in the southeastern districts and provinces following the collapse of the peace process in 2015.
The violence, according to the government sources, claimed the lives of 483 Turkish security forces between late July 2015 and late May 2016. In the same period, 4,949 PKK members were killed. And more than 400 civilians have also been killed since July 2015.
The HDP leadership has been criticised for not being strong enough in challenging the PKK.
“It's true the HDP has a considerable [influence] over the Kurdish voters," Aydin said. "But there's more to the Kurds than the HDP. No one has monopoly over the Kurds.”
Referring to last year's referendum that changed Turkey's parliamentary democracy to the presidential one, Aydin said a considerable number of the Kurds voted in favour of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "Yes" campaign, ignoring the HDP's calls to vote "No."
“The president’s proposal has been saved by the Kurdish votes. Nobody should forget that,” Aydin said.
Erdogan launched Turkey’s ambitious peace process in early 2013 to address the Kurdish question in exchange for the PKK totally disarming and ending the violence against Turkey. During the peace process, legal obstacles to teach the Kurdish language were lifted and a TV channel TRT Kurdi devoted to promoting Kurdish culture was established by the government.
According to different estimates, there are 15-20 million Kurds living in Turkey: equivalent to one-fourth of Turkey’s population.
“I think most of the Kurds will support Erdogan,” said Mithat Toptekin, a former vice chairman of the AK Party’s youth wing in Mardin. “As the AK Party leader and prime minister, Erdogan has been a political leader who valued the Kurds more than any other leader. Once upon a time, there was six ministers of Kurdish origin in his cabinet.”
Is Kurdish vote a crucial factor?
It remains to be seen which way the Kurdish vote will swing. Political analysts say the Kurds hold a key position for both parliamentary and presidential elections. The HDP, which receives most of its votes from Turkey’s Kurdish population, has the third biggest bloc at the Turkish parliament.
Prior to early elections in June, the party was pretty much in an isolated state with no pre-poll alliance. Its alleged links with the PKK has turned it into a political untouchable.
There are two main political alliances. The combination of the AK Party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Great Union Party (BBP), locally known as the People’s Alliance. And four opposition parties, the CHP, the nationalist-rooted Good Party (Iyi Party), the Felicity Party (SP), which is the political wing of the religiously-minded Milli Gorus (Nationalist View) movement and the right-wing Democratic Party (DP), that have come together to form what they call the Nation's Alliance.
The AK Party can automatically seize the HDP constituencies if the HDP fails to pass the 10 percent vote share and move toward achieving the parliamentary majority.
If there is a second round, the HDP may play a game-changing role on who will be the next president of Turkey. But again if a considerable number of the Kurds, who mostly lean toward conservative politics, prefer to stick with Erdogan as they did in the April referendum, then they can help Erdogan be re-elected as the country's president.
Debate on the system change
In addition to the complex character of the upcoming polls, the elections are not only about who will be the next president of Turkey or the composition of the parliament. It’s also about the implementation of the new presidential governance model.
“It’s not clear how much benefit the presidential system will bring to the country. We will be in a stage where we will test a system which we do not know,” said Goksel Adibelli, a Kurdish-origin businessman from Mardin’s largest district Kiziltepe, during the iftar.
Adibelli says he'll not support any political party in the upcoming elections. Treading a neutral path, he offers both criticism and praise to Erdogan’s leadership.
“It seems that there will be a fragmented political composition following the elections. If there is, what would we do?” Adibelli asked.
“With the parliamentary system, the country could go nowhere fast,” replied Adnan Altun, another Kurdish-origin businessman and an AK Party candidate in the June 24 elections from Mardin. “As a result, by supporting our president to bring a new system, we hope it will make the country better.”
Altun, who helped organise the iftar meeting, offered a sharp criticism to the CHP legacy, saying the party has not done anything in the name of development and prosperity.
“What Erdogan has done in the last 16 years for the country is all clear. Turkey has not seen such development in its history,” Altun said.
“Nobody denies what Erdogan has done for the country,” Adibelli shot back.
But Altun thinks Erdogan’s leadership is crucial for the country. He remembers Mardin, a city where Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Circassians, and others have lived in peaceful coexistence.
“The elections give us a chance to unite because all the external powers without any exception are against us. Even Islamic countries do not support us,” he said.
“We can get cross with each other, but in tough times we come through by sticking with each other.”