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Turkey: Pro-Kurdish Party Gains Ground

Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday to vote in local and parliamentary elections. A pro-Kurdish political party, HADEP, is expected to make record gains in the southeast and possibly elsewhere, as RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from Ceyhan:

Ceyhan, Turkey; 15 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first thing an alert visitor notices upon entering the southern Anatolian town of Ceyhan is a big sign with the name of Turkey's only legal pro-Kurdish political party, HADEP.

HADEP -- the People's Democracy Party -- is a left-of-center party that claims to represent the interests of Turkey's Kurds, Arabs and other minorities. HADEP is expected to win numerous local elections this Sunday in southeastern Anatolia in cities such as Diyarbakir, Van and Mus and has a good chance of taking first place further west in Ceyhan. But HADEP is unlikely to get over the 10 percent hurdle nationwide required to claim seats in parliament.

Ceyhan -- like nearby Adana and Mersin, as well as Istanbul and Izmir -- has been overwhelmed in recent years by an influx of large numbers of ethnic Kurds. The ethnic Kurds are coming from war-torn southeastern Anatolia, where the Turkish armed forces have been battling to suppress the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

HADEP's stronghold is the emergency zone in the southeast, historically home to a large concentration of Kurds. Western diplomats describe the typical HADEP voter as "rural migrants to urban squalor who have no hope and get no help from the government."

HADEP is competing for the Kurdish vote against the Islamist Virtue Party (FP), which also goes after the alienated newly urbanized classes. But support for the Islamists may be past its peak, while Kurdish pride appears to be on the rise, particularly since Turkey's capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan two months ago.

Turkey's Kurds are estimated to number between 10 and 15 million -- or between one-sixth and one-quarter of the population -- and thus constitute a huge potential voting bloc.

Support for HADEP now appears to be considerably greater than in the last elections in 1995, when HADEP did poorly in cities outside of the emergency zone.

Kurds now make up about one-third of Ceyhan's population of some 100,000. HADEP leaders in Ceyhan say their party has a good chance of gaining the largest number of votes of any party in town and taking City Hall.

A spokesman for the mainstream Motherland Party (ANAP) in Ceyhan -- which is sponsoring incumbent Emin Civelik for mayor -- told RFE/RL that if HADEP were to win, ANAP would respect the outcome. ANAP is also going after the Kurdish vote, playing on the Kurdish origins of its founder, the late president Turgut Ozal. It also pledges support for programs that are bringing telephones and paved roads to remote communities.

Ceyhan is a rundown market town that was at the epicenter of an earthquake last June that left some 140 people dead and destroyed several office buildings and villages in the center of town. But Ceyhan is best known as the proposed terminus of a pipeline for Caspian Sea oil. As a campaign worker for Motherland put it, "Just wait a few years and Ceyhan will be New York!"

HADEP activists are less optimistic and note that an existing pipeline to Ceyhan from Kirkuk in northern Iraq has had relatively little economic impact on the town. That pipeline has been repeatedly attacked by insurgents of the PKK, most recently near Mardin on March 21.

A HADEP victory in Ceyhan would come as a political shock for Turkey because of the significance of the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline for Turkey's economic future and because Ceyhan is not in the southeast, where HADEP is traditionally strong.

Western diplomats question whether HADEP-run municipalities will be able to secure any funding from Ankara due to the party's allegedly close ties with the PKK. Moreover, in the words of one diplomat, the "government has failed to create the political space for a moderate party representing Kurdish interests to develop."

HADEP's candidate for mayor in Ceyhan is Abdullah Aydemir says:

"It is the media in Turkey that makes the PKK into terrorists. Houses are being broken into in Kurdistan by counter-guerrillas (i.e. special forces). In Diyarbakir, four teachers were killed, and it has been proven that it was the counter-guerrillas who killed them, not the PKK."

Aydemir blames the military for burning down numerous houses in villages in the southeast. He accuses the authorities of having undertaken numerous covert operations against people who have no connection at all with the PKK or any other group.

Aydemir's campaign promises are simple and straightforward: peace, ethnic equality, clean politics, responsible use of the budget, establishment of a municipal bakery to ensure cheap bread, and construction of a bus station.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Constitutional Court on Wednesday -- for the second time in five weeks -- turned down a renewed request by Vural Savas, chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, to ban HADEP from Sunday's elections. The court gave the same reason for its decision as it did last month, saying that a case to close the party completely is already in the courts.

Ever since HADEP's two predecessors, DEP and then HEP, were banned, the party leadership has had no illusions about the future. It has already founded a replacement party, DHP -- the Democratic People's Party.

HADEP has faced widespread official harassment during the campaign in Ceyhan and elsewhere. Police have confiscated HADEP campaign materials, such as leaflets and posters. Police have insisted that HADEP use only one campaign vehicle to cruise through the city and have enforced a ban on Kurdish songs being broadcast from campaign vehicles. The authorities have also banned HADEP rallies, most recently yesterday in the eastern Anatolian city of Diyarbakir, where HADEP is expected to win more than half the vote.

The harassment may well backfire. An editorial yesterday in the Ankara-based Turkish Daily News termed the harassment a "counterproductive adventure" and "self-defeating."

Similarly, a commentary in Milliyet this week said the state must now realize that Kurds need to be free to express their identity within the democratic system. But the article also said HADEP must ask itself whether by opting for ethnic nationalism, it is exceeding the boundaries of democratic freedom of expression. In Milliyet's words, "HADEP must turn into a truly democratic party, into a party which exercises its free will. It must, without further delay, formulate a new policy which embraces the realities of the country. As part of that new policy, it must take a stance against terrorism."