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

Will Cuba Follow the Southeast Asia Model?

Decision to restore ties between US and Cuba has some debating whether it will lead to enhancement or regression of democracy for Communist island nation More

Kenyan Designer Finds Her Niche in Fashion Industry

‘Made in China’ fabrics underlie her success More

Report: CIA, Israel's Mossad Killed Senior Hezbollah Commander

The Washington Post story says Imad Mughniyah was killed instantly by a bomb "triggered remotely" from Tel Aviv by Mossad agents More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Lateri
X
Deborah Block
January 31, 2015 12:12 AM
Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid