Turkey’s Kurds try to be heard

The country’s ethnic minority hopes elections will bring more freedom.

Many DTP candidates such as Gulten Kershanak are running as independents

As part of Al Jazeera’s focus on Turkey ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections on July 22, Barnaby Phillips travelled to Diyarbakir, a town in the country’s southeast with a large Kurdish population.

Gulten Kershanak is out canvassing in Diyarbakir market. A former journalist and women’s activist, people seem to know and like her.

She is trying to bring hope to a troubled region. Diyarbakir has a large Kurdish majority, yet like many of Turkey’s Kurds, numbering between 12 and 15 million, a lot of people here feel they are victims of political, economic and cultural discrimination.

In video

Watch Barnaby Phillips report from Diyarbakir

“The most pressing need in this country is to stop the bloodshed,” she says. “To end this state of war and find a solution to the Kurdish problem through dialogue, democratically, peacefully. There are funerals of young people every day.”

Ending that bloodshed may be easier said than done. Tensions have increased in south-eastern Turkey in recent weeks with the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) separatists clashing several times.

On Wednesday, two Turkish soldiers were killed by a mine near the border in Iraq and the army has increased its presence there, with some politicians calling for an incursion into Iraq to track down PKK rebels hiding there.

Electoral barriers

Kershanak and her colleagues still hope that parliamentary elections on July 22 can herald the return of Kurdish politicians into parliament for the first time since 1994, and encourage more freedom for Turkey’s Kurdish communities, which comprise about 20 per cent of the national population.

They face several obstacles, however.

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Despite being a member of the country’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), Kershanak and her colleagues are all running as independents in order to circumvent the need for a political party to reach the threshold of 10 per cent of the national vote in order to enter parliament.

The DTP won just over six per cent of the national vote in the 2002 elections.

The elected candidates would then reunite under the DTP banner after the election. The party hopes to gain at least 20 seats using this strategy.

However, as soon as the DTP announced its new election strategy in May, the outgoing parliament approved a legal amendment that raised a new barrier.

The names of independents now figure on the same ballot paper as all the parties running, resulting in a long and complicated ballot paper that would confuse illiterate voters. Earlier, independent candidates had separate voting slips, which voters simply put into envelopes.

Forty-five per cent of women and 19 per cent of men in the mainly Kurdish southeast are illiterate – well above the national average of 20 and four per cent, respectively.

As a result, many Kurdish people feel that the current electoral system is designed to exclude them, despite all the campaigning that is going on in Diyabakir.

Getting the message out

Another candidate out campaigning, but with a different vision, is Abdullah Arzakci. He is also a Kurd, but belongs to a right-wing Turkish nationalist party.

Special report

A series of reports ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections

His views are not typical here, but they are passionately held.
“We laugh at remarks that try to divide Turkey into Kurds and Turks,” he says. “When my grandfather fought and died in Gallipoli, no one asked if he was a Kurd or a Turk. We have only one identity – and that is the Turkish Republic.”
At a local private TV station in town it is time for the news – in Turkish – the government does not allow it to be read in Kurdish.
Kershanak is here for a pre-election discussion; it also has to be in Turkish as it is the only official language of the election campaign.
The station can broadcast in Kurdish, but for less than an hour each day and with no mention of politics. The government recently relaxed rights to educate and broadcast in Kurdish in the hope it would increase its chances of joining the EU. But Kurds say the new laws do not go far enough.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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