Anger and frustration in Kurdish southeast to shape Turkey's referendum


Reuters

* Kurds could help determine outcome of April 16 referendum
    * Constitutional change would give Erdogan sweeping powers
    * Many Kurds angered by renewed fighting and devastation
    * One fifth of Kurdish voters still undecided

    By Humeyra Pamuk
    DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, March 20 (Reuters) - Thronged with
shoppers and men sipping tea on a warm day in early spring, the
main streets of Turkey's Diyarbakir show few signs of the
devastation wrought by months of fighting last year between
Kurdish militants and security forces.
    But nearby in Sur, the historic district that saw some of
the worst violence, the narrow back alleys simmer with anger.
Many residents blame both the state and Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK) militants.
    How voters in Sur and across the largely Kurdish southeast
view the 33-year-old conflict could shape the outcome of an
April referendum intended to give President Tayyip Erdogan
sweeping new powers. In a close race, pollsters say Kurdish
voters, about a fifth of the electorate, could tip the balance.
    One resident, Serkan, gestures toward bombed-out buildings
and fields of rubble. "Our homes, our memories and our past have
been erased, and both sides are to blame for that," he says.
    A 2-1/2-year ceasefire between the government and the PKK
broke down in July 2015, pitching the southeast into the worst
violence in decades. During the months of security operations
that followed, about 2,000 people were killed and up to a half a
million displaced, the United Nations has estimated.
    Diyarbakir is seen by many of Turkey's 15 million Kurds as
their cultural capital, and Sur is the warren of streets in its
ancient heart, encircled by towering Roman-era basalt walls.

    BOMBS AND TRENCHES
    When tanks bulldozed their way in to root out PKK militants
who had excavated trenches and laid explosives, tens of
thousands of residents had to leave.
    "They should not have dug trenches and set up barricades and
rebelled against the state like that. But then the state
responded excessively and burned and destroyed," said Serkan,
declining to give his surname for fear of retribution.
    The Islamist Kurdish party he supports, Huda Par, backs
"Yes" in the referendum, but Serkan says he's not sure he can.
    Turkey's main Kurdish-rooted party, the Peoples' Democratic
Party (HDP), says a "Yes" vote will increase the grip on power
of an authoritarian leader bent on stifling dissent. Thousands
of HDP members, including its leaders, have been jailed on
terrorism charges, dealing a major blow to its campaigning
abilities.
    Erdogan accuses the HDP itself of supporting terrorism. The
party denies direct links to the PKK, seen as a terrorist
organisation by Europe, the United States and Turkey.
    Pollsters say about a fifth of Kurds, or 4 percent of the
electorate, are undecided about how to vote. Recent national
opinion polls are mixed - some putting either camp as high as 57
percent. Most indicate a high level of undecided voters.
    "Whoever can convince the undecided Kurds will come out on
top," said Faruk Acar, president of the polling firm Andy-Ar.
    Erdogan and his millions of supporters say Turkey needs a
strong presidency to avoid the fragile coalition governments of
the past. His critics cite the arrest, dismissal or suspension
of more than 100,000 teachers, civil servants, soldiers, judges
and journalists in the wake of a failed coup last year as
evidence of his authoritarian instincts.

    'YES' BABY
    While the HDP has strong backing in Kurdish areas - taking
more than 6 million votes, or 13 percent of the nationwide
total, in the June 2015 parliamentary election, and nearly 80
percent of votes in Diyarbakir - Erdogan remains popular among
some right-leaning Kurds.
    "Kurdish voters are not monolithic and their political
loyalties span the ideological spectrum," said Aaron Stein, a
senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.
    In the village of Gecitli, 80 km (50 miles) west of
Diyarbakir, Mustafa Celik, 43, has named his newborn girl "Evet"
("Yes") to show his gratitude to Erdogan for easing or scrapping
long-standing cultural restrictions.
    "We can now speak Kurdish. There are TV stations in
Kurdish," said the 43-year-old, sitting beside a pink cradle
where his daughter lay asleep. "That's all his doing."
    Erdogan later launched peace talks with the PKK, a first for
a Turkish leader. But since the ceasefire collapsed, he has
ruled out a return to the negotiating table, saying security
forces will "annihilate" militants. That has boosted his support
among nationalists, but also some Kurds.
    "As long as we have the Turkish flag above us, we need no
other flag or state," said Mehfahir Ogulcum, a Kurdish volunteer
village guard drinking tea outside a military post in rural
Kulp, 140 km northeast of Diyarbakir.
    After the PKK took up arms against the state in 1984, Turkey
started hiring villagers in the southeast to fight alongside the
army and help it navigate the local terrain, a move that sowed
division among Kurds.

    'CONSCIENCE OF THE PEOPLE'
    The government for its part has promised to put money into
redeveloping the southeast, where the scars of conflict are all
too visible.
    In most parts of Sur, the curfews have now been lifted, but
many homes remain unusable.
    In Cizre, a largely Kurdish town bordering Syria, buildings
are riddled with bullet holes, their windows shattered.
    In the crackdown that followed last year's failed coup,
dozens of Kurdish journalists were detained and numerous Kurdish
media outlets shut.
    HDP lawmaker Osman Baydemir said this was enough reason to
vote "No" in the referendum.
    "We trust the conscience of the people," he said. "The fact
that the TV channels are off-limits to us, that our party
officials are arrested and our leaders are in jail resonates
with our people."
    Some in Diyarbakir accuse the HDP of failing to stand up to
the PKK when fighting escalated. Others say it should take a
harder line against the government. But frustration with the HDP
is unlikely to translate into support for Erdogan.
    "Those who leave the HDP do not automatically come to the AK
Party," said Acar, the pollster.
    For many Kurds, like Huseyin Calis, whose home of 53 years
was destroyed by fighting in Sur, the choice is clear.
    "It is mostly the state's fault," said the 76-year-old,
sitting in the living room of a relative's flat. "We are
heartbroken with the HDP too. But our people still can't bring
themselves to vote 'Yes' ... I say 'No', until the end."

 (Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Editing by
David Dolan and Kevin Liffey)
 ((humeyra.pamuk@thomsonreuters.com; +90 212 3507062; Reuters
Messaging: humeyra.pamuk.reuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: TURKEY REFERENDUM/KURDS (PIX, TV)



This article appears in: Politics , Stocks


More from Reuters

Subscribe






See Reuters News

Follow on: