Turkey’s Kurds could sway tight referendum vote

Sunday 26/03/2017
Kurds’ veto. Supporters of pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) hold “No” placards in different languages during a rally in Diyarbakir. (Reuters)

Istanbul - With pollsters predict­ing a very close out­come to Turkey’s April 16th referen­dum, the country’s large Kurdish minority could hold the key to whether charismatic but divisive President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan succeeds in his bid to change the constitution and endow his of­fice with sweeping executive pow­ers.
A survey of five polling organisa­tions all showed Erdogan’s “yes” campaign and opposition “no” sup­port lying neck and neck, Bloomb­erg News reported. But, the pollsters said, the number of respondents un­decided or unwilling to state their preference still made up between 14% and 18% of the electorate, eas­ily enough to swing the referendum either way.
The same could be said for Turkey Kurds, who make up about 18% of the electorate.
While a majority of Kurdish vot­ers have historically backed secular Kurdish nationalist parties, Erdog­an’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has consistently come a strong second in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east, where the par­ty’s message of brotherhood in Is­lam appeals to conservative Kurds.
“Regarding the Kurds, we can bet the house that they will not support these amendments, but the pres­sure and intimidation factors are so unbearable, we are not sure whether they would report to the ballot box, or sullenly remain home,” wrote Murat Ucer and Atilla Yesilada, ana­lysts for consultancy firm Global Source Partners.
Since the breakdown of a ceasefire in July 2015, at least 2,623 people have been killed in clashes between Turkish security forces and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to an International Crisis Group (ICG) tally from open-source material last updated on March 20th.
That number includes 391 civil­ians, 893 members of the security forces and 1,120 PKK militants. The ICG said it could not determine whether 219 people killed were civil­ians or militants.
The figures conform to those col­lated by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Hu­man Rights (OHCHR), which said some 2,000 people had been killed in clashes between July 2015 and December 2016.
The OHCHR said in a report pub­lished this month that between 355,000 and 500,000 people, main­ly Kurds, had also become internally displaced.
The most serious bout of fighting flared up in December 2015 when the PKK’s urban youth wing dug trenches, erected barricades and declared autonomy in a number of towns in south-east Turkey, nota­bly Cizre, near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, and the historic Sur neigh­bourhood of Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the region.
Turkish security forces besieged the areas with thousands of troops. The OHCHR said “satellite images indicate that the damage caused by security operations in densely populated urban centres is com­mensurate with the use of heavy weapons and possibly air-dropped munitions”.
The UN agency said it had “docu­mented numerous cases of exces­sive use of force; killings; enforced disappearances; torture; destruc­tion of housing and cultural herit­age; incitement to hatred; preven­tion of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation”.
Up to 189 men, women and chil­dren were trapped in basements in Cizre by the fighting and shelling by security forces in January and Feb­ruary 2016, the OHCHR said. The bodies of an unknown number of them were destroyed by fire started by the shelling and the demolition of the location after the incident, the agency said.
“On February 25th, my family was summoned by the public pros­ecutor. We were given three small charred pieces of what he claimed was my beloved sister’s body,” the OHCHR report quoted one man as saying.
“I am particularly concerned by reports that no credible investiga­tion has been conducted into hun­dreds of alleged unlawful killings, including women and children,” OHCHR head Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
“It appears that not a single sus­pect was apprehended and not a single individual was prosecuted,” he said.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the report was unacceptable and based on biased information.
Thirteen pro-Kurdish members of parliament from the Peoples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP) have meanwhile been jailed on terrorism charges.
“It’s deeply damaging to Turkey’s democracy that the government is locking up the leaders and MPs of an opposition party that received 5 mil­lion votes in the last election,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Cen­tral Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the curbs come during a vital national debate about the country’s future is doubly disturbing.”
Nevertheless, tens of thousands turned out for Kurdish new year — or Newroz — festivities in Diyarbakir on March 21st. It was at a huge Ne­wroz celebration in the city in 2013 where a message from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was read out announcing the ceasefire. Deaths in the conflict were cut to just over 100 in the two years it lasted.
This year, thousands waved red, green and yellow flags emblazoned with one word – Na – Kurdish for “no”.