Turkey’s Diyarbakir hopes for ‘a new era’

Once at the forefront of the war against Kurdish separatists, Diyarbakir residents say they want to put the past behind.

Reaction on Turkish general elections in Diyarbakir
Nationalist sentiments trumped economic concerns of voters in Diyarbakir [EPA]

Diyarbakir, Turkey Like many residents of this predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey, 65-year-old Navim Abdul Vahap has been scarred by nearly three-decades of war between the government and separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Some of his family members were killed in the fighting, others continue to languish in jail, accused of having links to the militants.

“For years, the choices for Kurds were facing death, prison or life in the mountains,” said Abdul Vahap, using a common euphemism for joining the PKK. “We were not free to use our language or be open with our identity. For years, we dreamed of a peaceful country where our people could live as equal citizens. Now, that time has come.”

Situated along the Tigris River, this city of nearly a million people has long been the bastion of Kurdish nationalism. For three decades, Diyarbakir had been at the heart of the war between the state and PKK fighters. As a result, Kurds have been shut out of Turkish politics, unable to win enough seats to enter the parliament as a political party. But on Sunday, the city became the centre of Kurdish celebration.

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The parliamentary election results  marked the start of a new era for Abdul Vahap and other members of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) securing 13.12 percent of the vote, more than the set threshold of 10 percent, to enter parliament for the first time.

The biggest victory was in Diyarbakir province, where, of the 11 seats in the province, 10 seats went to

Words can't express the joy in my heart. This is a victory for peace and freedom in Turkey. With this result, the bloodshed and oppression we suffered will be a thing of the past.

by Nasir Yorgun, 27, construction worker

HDP while only one went to the ruling AK party.

The outcome, according to analysts, also thwarted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes of introducing constitutional changes that would concentrate more powers in an executive presidency.

AK party needed to secure 330 seats out of the 550-seat parliament. The party, that has ruled with a single-majority government for the last 13 years, got only 259 seats but remains the largest.

“Those who support freedom, democracy, and peace won this election,” said HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, speaking in Istanbul. “Those who consider themselves the sole owners of Turkey lost.”

Even before the final tally was announced, Diyarbakir erupted in euphoric celebrations. Thousands of jubilant Kurdish residents flooded the streets, waving Kurdish flags, honking their car horns and setting off fireworks. Many chanted slogans in support of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader.

“Words can’t express the joy in my heart,” said Nasir Yorgun, a 27-year-old construction worker. “This is a victory for peace and freedom in Turkey. With this result, the bloodshed and oppression we suffered will be a thing of the past.”

The election outcome is likely to breathe new energy into stalled peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK, aimed at ending a 30-year rebellion that has claimed at least 40,000 lives. Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of roughly 80 million people.

Although the HDP remains at core a Kurdish party, the group won new support beyond its traditional base by recasting itself as a liberal force that advocates for gay rights, equality for women, and more freedoms for ethnic and religious minorities.

Its electoral success was also attributed to attracting voters angry with Erdogan’s attempts to consolidate his power. “This election was our chance to tell him [Erdogan] that this is not the future we wish for Turkey,” said Sadettin Yonuz, a 25-year-old student in Diyarbakir.

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Erdogan, and his AK party-led government, have been credited with significant economic and infrastructure reforms that broadened Turkey’s middle class over the past decade.

But a slumping economy and rising unemployment, set at 11 percent, has hurt the party’s standing.

While voters expressed concerns about the economy – the rate of unemployment in Diyarbakir province is nearly 20 percent – many, however, said that nationalist sentiment trumped economic concerns.  

“The honour of the Kurds is more important than the economy,” said Tuba Degirmenci, 24, who was voting at a local polling centre along with her husband and infant daughter.

As prime minister, Erdogan initially won the support of some Kurdish voters when he admitted that the Turkish state had “made mistakes” in its treatment of the Kurds.

But Erdogan, according to analysts, alienated many Kurds by declaring in March that the country had “no

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Kurdish problem”, while describing the HDP as a party “beholden to terrorists” on the campaign trail.

Tensions soared over last year following Ankara’s decision not to intervene during the siege imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters on the Syrian border town of Kobane and its description of the Kurdish fighters as terrorists.

“The inaction on the peace process combined with Kobane resulted in the Kurds really losing whatever vestige of trust they had in Erdogan,” said Aliza Marcus, a US-based Kurdish expert and author of the book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

The run-up to the election was marred by violence. Three people were killed and at least 200 wounded on Friday, after two blasts tore through a crowded HDP rally in the centre of Diyarbakir.

Ali Turkman, 65, lost both legs in the attack and remained in critical condition on Sunday in the intensive care unit of Dicle University Hospital. His nephew, Galip Unlu, had just returned from casting his ballot.

“Those responsible for the attack wanted to provoke the Kurdish people, but we will show them our peaceful face and fight back at the ballot box,” he told Al Jazeera.