As Turkish voters get ready to head to the polls for general elections July 22, tension is rising among the Kurds in Turkey's southeast. Although the Kurdish nationalist party has been gaining support in the region, it has been prevented from entering parliament because it has never received at least 10 percent of the vote in any national election, the percentage that Turkish law requires for parties to be represented in parliament. To get around this law, Kurdish party members are fielding candidates as independents who would then form a party once they took up their individual posts as lawmakers. For VOA, Dorian Jones has this report from southeast Turkey.
As Kurdish nationalist activists leave their headquarters in Diyarbakir for a day of campaigning, the roar of Turkish fighter jets is a reminder of the urgency of their work. In the last few months there has been a large Turkish military build-up in the southeast region of the country to fight the Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.
The build-up comes as a result of a resurgence of attacks by the PKK. But the military's increased presence in the region is also seen by analysts as a way of eroding support for the ruling AK party in the run-up to the July elections.
The military continues to portray the AK party as capitulating to Kurdish "separatism and terrorism." The army, which views itself as the protector of the policy of secularism favored by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, already has deep suspicions of the islamic roots of the governing party. In light of the political struggle, the Kurdish national party is pushing ahead.
Traveling to the Gullu village with one of the Kurdish candidates, Gulten Kisanak, on her way to drum up support among local villagers, we encounter one of the numerous army checkpoints.
"Today we are lucky, Kisanak tells me, the soldiers are from her home village and appear sympathetic. But it is not always like this," she said.
She says this is the place where they stopped us yesterday and checked for IDs. Soldiers were everywhere, some pointing their guns at us. There were even tanks. The soldiers searched all our cars and it took several hours. It was a show of force to tell everyone that they were in charge. We are little bit used to it now but we are very sad that we still face such treatment during democratic elections.
After two hours on the road, we arrive at Gullu village. For decades, it has been at the center of the conflict between separatists and the Turkish army. Over 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Most were villagers like the people living here.
Kisanak receives a warm welcome. Election fervor is just as strong here as in the cities of the region, fueled by the belief that their votes will count. While this region overwhelmingly votes in support of the Kurdish nationalist party, it has failed to win any parliamentary seats.
Speaking to villagers like this man, Hasan, there is widespread feeling that this election is special.
"Every election is important, but this one is even more important," said Hasan. "Because of the 10 percent barrier in the elections, our previous votes have been wasted and other parties benefited. But this time our candidates will win and they will be our eyes, ears and voice in parliament."
Listening to Hasan, Kisanak says she still expects to face numerous difficulties before Election Day. After the elections were called, the government rushed through legislation to make it more difficult for independent candidates to be elected. There have also been claims that some voters have been told to cast their ballots in far away cities. But Kisanak, like her fellow independent candidates, remains confident.
"This election is important because Turkey is at the crossroads," she said. "Either it is going to opt for developing democratic alternatives or will bring the oppressive policies back on to the agenda. We are hoping for the democratic forces to come out of these elections much stronger and help to establish the options of democracy dialog and peace. We'll search for solutions not in violence, but in parliament. The people are also hoping for this, that's why this election is very critical.
The word crossroads can often be heard among Kurds. Its believed there are over 100,000 Turkish soldiers in the region, and nearly daily clashes with Kurdish separatists.
But despite such a massive military presence, And a resurgence in attacks by the PKK, the hope here is that these elections will be the start of a new process in which the ballot box will replace the gun.