Disbelief in Diyarbakir as Turkey heads for presidential run-off

Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast voted overwhelmingly for Kilicdaroglu, but it wasn’t enough to beat Erdogan.

A man casts his ballot during Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey,
A man casts his ballot during Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey, May 14, 2023 [Sertac Kayar/Reuters]

Diyarbakir, Turkey – Voters in Turkey’s southeast have been left stunned after their hopes for a decisive first-round victory for opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu evaporated in the early hours of the night.

As Monday dawned, it became clear that the presidential vote was headed into a second round.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Cengiz Çandar, the newly elected Yesil Sol Parti (YSP) delegate for Diyarbakir. “It’s a huge defeat for all those who were for the restoration of democracy in this country. We are plunged into uncertainty and we don’t know what it will mean for us.”

The YSP, or Green Left, was heavily favoured in Diyarbakir’s parliamentary vote. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) ran under the banner of the YSP as it was at risk of closure before the elections.

Overnight, as electoral results drifted in amongst claims the pace of announcements was being manipulated, YSP spokesman Mehmet Rüştü Tiryaki called on supporters to accompany ballot boxes from polling stations to the district electoral board until the votes were verified and announced.

In Diyarbakir city centre, a small group of young opposition voters gathered outside the municipal courthouse, where the district electoral board verifies results, intent on guarding ballots before final results were announced. At the local office of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), party activists sat in stunned silence as results dripped in.

Reality sets in

However, by Monday morning, even the opposition had seemed to accept that, once again, many voters had stuck with Erdogan, and that there was no path for a Kilicdaroglu victory in the first round.

“I find it difficult to express my feelings,” said Suna, a local teacher, “there is a very serious problem of rights, law, justice, freedom and democracy in this country, and the reality of a society that lives on the poverty line. And despite all this, people still vote for [Erdogan’s AK Party].”

“A democratic election, yes,” she added, “but it is not possible to explain these results rationally. I want to keep my hope for two weeks. My wish is that the people of this country use their preferences in favour of democracy and change.” She feared that without change, many young people would choose to migrate.

Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey, has long been a bastion of support for greater Kurdish autonomy. It is also the epicentre of the 40-year conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists, and has borne the brunt of the government’s crackdown, with two elected mayors, and the former party leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, all jailed under AK Party rule.

The separatists, known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have fought a war with the Turkish state since 1984, and are a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the European Union, and the United States.

The YSP had hoped that its decision to encourage supporters to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu for the presidential election, rather than field its own candidate, would be decisive in pushing the opposition candidate above the 50 percent threshold in the first round.

But this strategy appears to have failed. Even with the presidential run-off yet to happen, results from the parliamentary elections give the AK Party and its nationalist allies a comfortable majority in the national assembly, scuppering hopes of a broad opposition alliance that could vote through constitutional reform and broaden political freedoms.

The YSP’s own parliamentary results fell below expectations, achieving fewer seats than the HDP’s tally from the last election, despite early confidence amongst party members of increasing the vote share. In some cases, such as Diyarbakir province itself, the YSP actually lost two seats to the AK Party and the CHP. “We diminished our standing as a party,” said Çandar. “While we were very passionate about being the key to parliament, [these results show] we are not.”

Some hope for the future

However, Ceylan Akça, also newly elected as a YSP delegate for Diyarbakir, struck a more upbeat note, highlighting the political barriers YSP had faced ahead of the vote. “Our party has performed so well despite the closure case, despite thousands of friends in prison and despite introducing a new party a month before the election,” she said. “I wish we scored a higher number in parliament but am confident we’ll put on a great opposition in the Grand National Assembly”.

Asked what the party’s priorities for the coming fortnight would be, Akça said it needed to “analyse the results and see where our shortcomings were. We’ll learn from our success and failure. Once we do that, we’ll see where our role is for the second round. We as the democratic front have done our part to prevent Erdoğan from winning, well at least for the first round.”

Kurds, who are the majority in much of the southeast, are a decisive constituency in such a close race. Over the two decades of Erdoğan’s rule, his relationship with many Kurdish voters has turned almost full circle.

The reforms of the early AK Party years brought hope to Kurdish communities in the southeast, lifting restrictions on the expression of Kurdish identity and starting peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after 30 years of violent conflict.

But in 2015, as the security situation deteriorated and political calculations shifted under the pressures of the Syrian civil war, peace talks broke down and violence resumed, with hundreds killed over the ensuing years. At the same time, many pro-Kurdish opposition politicians have been jailed on political charges, accused of having ties to the PKK.

Source: Al Jazeera