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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Erdogan's AKP Eyes Kurds to Reverse Istanbul Electoral

By Dorian Jones June 14, 2019

With Turkey's mayoral rerun election on June 23 looming, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP is eyeing the Kurdish vote, as speculation rises about a resumption in peace talks with Kurdish rebels.

Lawyers met this week for a third time since May with imprisoned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. Prior to May, he had not seen his lawyers in eight years. In a statement released by Ocalan through his lawyers, he stressed coexistence, saying Kurds cannot exist without Turks, and Turks cannot exist without Kurds.

The ending of Ocalan's isolation is stoking speculation of a return to a peace process between the PKK and Ankara. In 2015, talks collapsed amid mutual recrimination, and ensuing heavy fighting saw the leveling of many towns and city centers across Turkey's predominately Kurdish region.

Speaking anonymously, a senior Western diplomat said tentative efforts have been made to find ways of ending the fighting.

The United States sees the resumption of peace talks as a way of defusing tensions with Ankara over Washington's support of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which Turkey considers a PKK proxy.

Party politics could provide a powerful impetus to peace efforts. The AKP's shock loss of Turkey's most affluent and largest city, Istanbul, in March's municipal elections is blamed in part on the loss of the Kurdish vote.

Some analysts attribute CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu's narrow victory to a combination of conservative Kurdish voters not turning out to vote for the AKP candidate, Binali Yildirim, and supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP backing Imamoglu.

With the Istanbul vote being rerun because ineligible officials were involved in administering the poll, Yildirim is now targeting the Kurdish vote.

This month, Yildirim took his campaign to the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, addressing the crowd in broken Kurdish.

"I have come to Diyarbakir to request your support. Diyarbakir has always been on our side. Inshallah, they will be on our side again this time," he said.

Yildirim also used the word Kurdistan in referring to the region he was visiting. Only a few months earlier, Erdogan criticized those using the word, saying they should leave Turkey.

Given the scale, however, of the military and legal crackdown on the Kurdish movement since the collapse of the peace talks, there is skepticism that Kurds can be so easily won over.

"I doubt it will have much of an impact because it's too little, too late," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"The population of Turkey is known to have a fish's memory," he added, "but it's just too narrower a period of time, from March 31 to June 23, for people to actually forget everything being said and done prior to March 31."

Large parts of the Sur neighborhood where Yildirim spoke in Diyarbakir were razed by heavy fighting between the PKK and security forces in 2016.

The main pro-Kurdish HDP is emphatic there can be no deal with Erdogan's AKP in the forthcoming Istanbul poll.

Erdogan is clinging to "a faint hope" in the Istanbul vote, said Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary HDP president. "The Kurdish voters are clear."

"The AKP is the major problem – this is what the Kurds are seeing," he added. "The AKP doesn't have any credibility for any positive change in Turkey. They only offer dictatorship. Our problems can't be solved with dictatorship. They can only be worsened."

Thousands of HDP officials, including parliamentary deputies, are in jail as part of an ongoing crackdown since the collapse in peace talks.

The AKP's parliamentary coalition partner is the hardline nationalist MHP. The MHP opposes any political concessions toward the Kurds and is demanding the continuation of the crackdown on the pro-Kurdish movement.

Divisions within the AKP over Kurdish overtures are also believed to exist. "Certain circles within the state apparatus are deliberately trying to scuttle the steps directed to resolve the Kurdish issue," wrote Nagehan Alci, a pro-Erdogan columnist. Alci went on to accuse the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, of "politically assassinating Binali Yildirim."

The Turkish military is also engaging in what it describes as a major offensive against PKK bases in neighboring northern Iraq. Speaking anonymously, a former senior Turkish diplomat said the operation appears less significant than described and is possibly aimed at silencing critics with the ruling coalition over any overtures to the Kurds.

Analyst Ozel said Kurds most likely realize that their political strength and AKP's weakness are behind any movement toward peace.

"The Kurds, I think they are politically savvy enough to know if they continue to vote the way they did [in the Istanbul election], they will have more bargaining power not only with the government but the opposition, which they are informally a part of," Ozel said.

"We are mobilized [for the Istanbul elections] and will be here until June 23," HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan declared Friday, adding an opposition victory "will pave the way for the freedom of our [imprisoned] friends."

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