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Turkey's Kurds could sway Istanbul vote in Sunday's local polls

2 min

Many of Turkey's Kurds are set to put aside party loyalty and back Tayyip Erdogan's major rival in Istanbul on Sunday, knocking the president's hopes of winning back the city he once ran, according to pollsters.

Supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) take part in a rally to celebrate Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, in Istanbul, Turkey, March 17, 2024. Reuters/Dilara Senkaya

Many of Turkey's Kurds are set to put aside party loyalty and back Tayyip Erdogan's major rival in Istanbul on Sunday, knocking the president's hopes of winning back the city he once ran, according to pollsters.

Pro-Kurdish DEM party voters were pivotal to Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu's win in 2019 municipal elections, which shocked Erdogan and ended 25 years of rule by his AK Party (AKP) and its Islamist predecessors in Istanbul. It also gave the opposition a critical foothold on power over the last five years.

But the opposition's devastating defeat to Erdogan in last May's presidential vote has changed the political landscape, leaving DEM voters split on how best to advance the cause of minority Kurdish rights.

In Istanbul, polls show Imamoglu of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and his AKP challenger are neck-and-neck, with the DEM candidate trailing. This has left Kurdish party supporters with a dilemma; should they vote with their heart or their head?

"They are confused and undecided," according to Yuksel Genc at pollster SAMER, who said 40% of DEM supporters had indicated they would vote for Imamoglu. "They are considering voting for their party candidate but don't want the AK Party to win."

Erdogan's government has cracked down on Kurdish parties since the 2015 collapse of a peace process to end a decades-old insurgency by the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).

DEM, parliament's third largest party with around 10% of seats, is the successor of the HDP which faces potential closure in a trial over alleged militant ties that it denies.

It has been ravaged by thousands of arrests and the ousting of its mayors after previous elections, feeding voters' desire to hit the AKP nationwide while retaining DEM's dominance in the mainly Kurdish southeast and its largest city, Diyarbakir.

"I think that in an environment like Diyarbakir, it is necessary to vote for DEM, but in Istanbul I would vote Ekrem Imamoglu," said retiree Mehmet Fatih Sutcu at Diyarbakir celebrations for the Kurdish spring festival.

Roj Girasun, director of Rawest Research, said DEM and the main opposition CHP had reached a deal over some areas of Istanbul, making it easier for DEM voters to support Imamoglu and with around half of them inclined to do so.

Erdogan, Istanbul mayor between 1994-1998, has slammed this as a "dirty bargain", seeking to stoke tensions between the parties.

TACTICAL VOTING

DEM's Istanbul mayoral candidate Meral Danis Bestas has dismissed the idea of tactical voting.

"Our call is for people to vote for us," she said in an interview. "I believe every party has a fundamental duty to conduct its own politics."

Bestas' stance is backed by DEM voters who want a show of strength after the crackdown in which state-appointed "trustees" replaced elected Kurdish mayors in the southeast.

"We have been fighting against trustees for more than 10 years, and in every election, the Kurds go to the polls with their enthusiasm, will and dignity and vote for the party they support," said private sector employee Busra Yenturk.

In recent weeks, key Kurdish political figures have made calls for a fresh peace process to address their demands for greater cultural and language rights for Kurds, who make up some 15-20% of Turkey's 85 million population.

But researcher Girasun said this was just an expression of Kurds' hopes rather than signalling plans by the AKP, which is allied with a nationalist party. The government has instead announced plans to step up operations against Kurdish militants in Iraq this summer.

Ankara accuses the pro-Kurdish party of ties to the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union over a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people. The HDP denies such links.

Istanbul candidate Bestas said there was currently no sign of a return to a peace process but that democratisation required resolution of the Kurdish issue.

"A Turkey where a quarter of the population is marginalised and discriminated against, and whose demands are not met cannot be democratic," she said.

By Daren Butler and Umit Ozdal

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