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Main Pro-Kurdish Party Also Winner in Turkish Local Elections

  • Dorian Jones

Kurdish people dance during the Nowruz celebrations in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 21, 2014.

Kurdish people dance during the Nowruz celebrations in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 21, 2014.

Turkey's pro-Kurdish BDP party was the other winner in Turkey's local elections, defeating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast and and extending its control across virtually the entire region. The BDP expressed impatience with the government-backed peace process and declared it would take steps for greater autonomy.

Prime Minister Erdogan was not the only one celebrating victory in Turkey’s nationwide local elections on Sunday. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, made significant gains throughout most of the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, at the expense of the AK Party.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center says the BDP’s success could have far-reaching consequences.

"This is extremely important. They have extended their power base ... They have overwhelmed even the ruling party. They have the vast majority of the mayorships [in southeastern Turkey]. They are extending their autonomy, their de facto autonomy, through the local elections," said Aktar.

The BDP is demanding decentralization of power, and its leaders have warned that it will start introducing what it calls “democratic autonomy” if the government does not meet its demands. The AK Party has ruled out autonomy, but has indicated it may be open to giving the regions greater powers.

Soli Ozel, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Haberturk, says what happens in the predominantly Kurdish southeast is important for the whole of the country.

"It’s a critical development because we are in dire need of more decentralization of administration in this country. I hope they do this without charging too hard on the sensitivities of the people in the western part of country," said Ozel.

Analysts point out many Turks remain deeply suspicious of - if not hostile to - granting greater powers to the Kurdish region, fearing it might ultimately lead to the breakup of the country. The Kurdish rebel group PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for greater minority rights and for many years called for an independent state; however, it has now dropped the demand for independence, calling instead for autonomy.

Two years ago, the government launched talks to end the conflict with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, but those efforts have stalled for months amid mutual recriminations. Observers say Prime Minster Erdogan, who is expected to run in this August's presidential elections, might offer concessions to the pro-Kurdish BDP in exchange for its support.

But political scientist Nuray Mert of Istanbul University says it will be a difficult deal to make.

"First of all, it’s a contradiction in terms, giving rights and freedoms for Kurds and curbing rights and freedoms for the rest of the society. And it will be problematic among Kurds themselves in the near future," said Mert.

Syria is also a potential stumbling block between the BDP and the ruling AK Party. The BDP strongly supports Syrian Kurds, who have established an autonomous region in Syria - a move strongly condemned by Ankara, which has imposed a blockade on the region. During the last few days, tensions over a disputed AK Party victory in the mayoral election in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar have erupted into violence.

Analyst Aktar says how the dispute is handled will be an important test of BDP-government relations.

"One should watch very carefully what’s happening in the Syrian border town of Ceylanpinar just next to the Kurdish town [of] Sere Kaniye in the Kurdish inhabited areas of Syria. But Kurds are adamant to keep the control of Ceylanpinar, this is very important for them," he said.

The PKK has threatened reprisals against the AK Party for the security crackdown in Ceylanpinar.

Observers say there were really two victors in Turkey’s local elections, and that both parties will feel empowered by their success. Whether they choose to cooperate or challenge each other’s political mandates is likely to have important consequences for the country in the coming months.