News / Europe

Turkey Local Election Holds Key to Kurdish Peace Talks

FILE - Pedestrians pass by a billboard with a picture of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Diyarbakir, Feb. 11, 2014.
FILE - Pedestrians pass by a billboard with a picture of imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Diyarbakir, Feb. 11, 2014.
Reuters
The face of jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan briefly beamed down from billboards in southeast Turkey until police tore down the posters, a mark of official unease over his enduring influence among Kurds as local elections loom.
 
Ocalan's supporters see the vote as a make-or-break moment for stalled peace talks aimed at ending 30 years of conflict between Ocalan's separatist fighters and the Turkish state.
 
“There is a feeling that if... we achieve a stronger [election] result, the peace process will advance,” said Gultan Kisanak, mayoral candidate in Diyarbakir for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which governs the city.
 
“But if we relax and our votes decline, we Kurds fear that the peace process could collapse,” she said as campaigning got under way in the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
 
The BDP has the same grassroots supporters and shares a similar goal of political autonomy for the largely Kurdish southeast region as Ocalan's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group.
 
Turkey's top intelligence officials launched peace talks with Ocalan in 2012 that led to a cease-fire a year ago; but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has put the peace process on the backburner in order to deal with a corruption scandal, one of the biggest crises of his 11-year rule.
 
Against this background, photos of Ocalan emerged this year, taken recently in his island jail of Imrali near Istanbul, in another step in the gradual “legitimization” of a figure long reviled in Turkey as the “terrorist chief” behind a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
 
The benign image of a gray-haired and mustachioed Ocalan smiling, arms folded and wearing a gray cardigan was a huge departure from past pictures of the man at large in combate fatigues, holding assault rifle. But was clearly still too much for Turkish state authorities in Diyarbakir.
 
Ocalan was seized by Turkish special forces in Kenya in 1999 and flown back to Turkey where he was tried and sentenced to hang. The sentence was reduced to life in prison after Ankara abolished capital punishment, but emotions in Turkey over the conflict remain raw.
 
Courts ordered the immediate removal of the posters and also outlawed a campaign for his release among Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of Turkey's 77 million population and who suffered decades of discrimination.
 
“The state's mind is still confused,” laughed Kisanak, recalling how state officials had taken the photo but then had become uneasy when people started parading it on the streets.
 
“This is a paradox that must be resolved. Ocalan has a great potential to bring peace, he is a strong leader... The state must create the opportunity for him to serve peace.”
 
Cease-fire benefits
 
The March 30 polls will test how the peace process has affected the standing of the BDP and its main rival, Erdogan's AK Party, which believes absence of bloodshed in the last year and its democratization reforms will work against the BDP.
 
“Serious reforms have been implemented, bans on [Kurdish] language and identity lifted. There is a peace process, people are not dying,” AKP mayor candidate Galip Ensarioglu told Reuters, arguing that the BDP's past electoral successes had been fuelled by injustice towards Kurds.
 
“In a normalizing Turkey they will no longer be able to use those injustices,” he said at his party's campaign center.
 
Erdogan showed considerable political courage in pressing reforms, albeit too limited for some Kurds, and taking up talks with the PKK, an act that in the not too distant past could have been denounced as treason. But conflict in the southeast, abutting Iraq, Iran and Syria, has exerted a drag on Turkey's economy.
 
Diyarbakir has enjoyed an economic revival as growing prosperity across Turkey filters down into the region in the shape of new shopping centers, housing projects and highways.
 
An improving economy, coupled with hopes of progress towards a peace deal, has been welcomed by many in the region.
 
“We are happy with Erdogan. He has done a lot for us. He came here and gave the order for the renovation here,” said Mikail Isler, 29, pointing to the 11th century Diyarbakir Great Mosque where he sells worry beads.
 
Opinion polls put the BDP ahead of the AKP in Diyarbakir and much of the southeast despite the positive economic picture. But there is no sign of voters in the region turning away from the AKP because of the graft scandal dogging Erdogan's government.
 
That scandal has turned into a power struggle between Erdogan, who denies claims of corruption in his inner circle, and U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who counts many followers in Turkey, especially in the police and judiciary.
 
Erdogan has said the corruption scandal is partly a bid by Gulen to undermine the peace process in the southeast. Gulen's movement denies being against the peace process.
 
The PKK cease-fire has largely held since Ocalan declared it last March at Newroz, the Kurdish new year. The government has begun implementing reforms aimed at boosting Kurdish rights.
 
But PKK commanders in the mountains of northern Iraq have warned of renewed violence unless the process moves faster.
 
Such fears preyed on the minds of locals at a cafe near Diyarbakir's Byzantine city walls, above the Tigris river.
 
“The PKK will do what Apo [Ocalan] wants, but if there is no progress after the elections, violence could erupt again,” said fruit-and-vegetable trader Akif, 43, huddled with friends around a small table overlooking a valley of lush green fields.
 
The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union and Erdogan has invested serious political capital in the peace talks in the face of fierce nationalist opposition in Turkey.
 
Islamist newcomer

 
Diyarbakir today is more vibrant and relaxed than the tense, impoverished city at the height of the conflict in the 1990s. But tensions have recently resurfaced between the pro-Ocalan camp and Islamist rivals whom they fought back then.
 
A Kurdish Islamist party, Huda-Par, which counts supporters of the Hizbullah militant group among its members, is hoping to draw support away from the main parties in the local elections by appealing both to voters' Islamic and Kurdish identities.
 
“People have only voted for the BDP now because there was no alternative. The AKP is the system party, the BDP successfully used the Kurdish identity. But the BDP is not at peace with Islam,” said Huda-Par's candidate for Diyarbakir's key Baglar district, Vedat Turgut.
 
The PKK, which launched its armed insurgency in 1984, has Marxist roots but has tried to win over more religiously conservative Kurds. It remains deeply at odds with Huda-Par.
 
Huda-Par and BDP supporters have fought street battles in towns across the southeast, blaming each other for violence.
 
“They [the BDP] have been deliberately pulling us into an atmosphere of conflict. But people are tired of conflict, they are tired of death and blood. They want peace,” Turgut said.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs