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

India PM Modi's Party Distances Itself From Religious Conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid