The leader of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish rebels has redoubled his call for an end to armed conflict, as the political party that draws inspiration from him seeks a breakthrough in coming general elections.
The latest appeal from Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), for the PKK to abandon its armed struggle comes as the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party attempts to transform itself from an ethnic political grouping into a broader leftwing anti-establishment force.
The party is putting itself forward as the best prospect to prevent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and paramount leader, from gaining more powers by increasing his long-ruling AK party’s grip on parliament.
In a message read out on his behalf at Kurdish New Year celebrations in the southern city of Diyarbakir on Saturday, Mr Ocalan said it was no longer sustainable to continue fighting the Turkish state and that the Kurdish movement had to seek its goals by political means. The conflict has claimed around 40,000 lives over three decades.
As Turkey’s political forces prepare for the June 7 poll there is seeming disarray in the peace process two years after Mr Ocalan declared a ceasefire. Mr Erdogan has appeared to distance himself from the peace initiative, which he previously identified as one of the most important goals of his tenure.
Yet the renewed call to lay down arms coincides with efforts by the People’s Democratic Party to reach out to potential voters alienated by the PKK’s violent history.
Soli Ozel at Kadir Has university said that Mr Erdogan and the AK party could be caught between growing support for the pro-Kurdish party and a nationalist backlash at the polls.
“On the one hand, Erdogan’s recent stance can be explained because he feels Turkish nationalists are gaining ground,” Mr Ozel said. “On the other, the People’s Democratic party attempt to broaden its support — and the Kurdish movement’s renunciation of violence — could give them enough MPs to foil his plans.”
The party is seeking to break the 10 per cent threshold to enter Turkey’s 550-member parliament, a feat some but not all polls suggest may be within its grasp should it succeed in broadening its support base to leftwing voters beyond the country’s Kurdish minority. Previously, pro-Kurdish parties have managed to vault the requirement by running as independents, a manoeuvre that delivered seats but significantly less than their share of the vote.
If the People’s Democratic party wins one-tenth of seats it would likely deny the AK party a big enough majority to change the constitution to give the president formal executive powers, a reform pursued by Mr Erdogan, whom critics accuse of increasingly authoritarian tendencies. But if the party fails in its gambit and falls short of the mark it would lose all representation in parliament.
The two parties are the main contestants for votes in the largely Kurdish southeast, where the AK party has maintained significant support following the introduction of reforms allowing greater use of Kurdish languages.
However, Mr Erdogan has recently infuriated many Kurds by declaring that Turkey does not have a Kurdish problem. He has also opposed one of the Kurds’ key demands — an outside group to monitor the progress of peace negotiations — drawing unusual criticism from a senior government minister.
In an another move that appeared intended to reassure opposition voters, Selahattin Demirtas, the party’s joint leader, declared last week that Mr Erdogan would not achieve a presidential system “as long as the People’s Democratic Party exists”.
Some opposition voters have expressed suspicion that there might be a secret deal between Mr Erdogan and Mr Ocalan, who in leaked comments in 2013 said he could support a presidential system. But Mr Demirtas denied there was any such “dirty bargaining with the AK party”.
There are signs on the ground that the party’s push may be making headway. “Only the Kurdish party can stop Erdogan,” said Filiz, a 72-year old retiree in Ankara who previously voted for Turkey’s secularist main opposition party. “If they cross the threshold, they will only have 10 to 15 more MPs than now, so they would not be so strong — just strong enough to stop Erdogan’s presidential dreams.”
Others however are less trusting of Mr Ocalan’s intentions and doubtful of a hasty end to the fighting that has scarred Turkey’s recent past. “I would never vote for this [pro-Kurdish] party,” said Ahmet, a carpenter. “As long as they obey Ocalan, they can’t save themselves from terrorism.”
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