On a recent trip to the region, I noticed that there is a growing segment of the Kurdish electorate in the East and Southeast of the country who will be casting their votes against independent candidates endorsed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in reaction to harsh policies adopted by the outlawed armed group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the vanguard of the BDP.
Most likely the votes will be picked up by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the only other serious contender for Kurdish votes in the region. The main reason for the backlash against the BDP and the PKK in the Kurdish electorate is the unprecedented pressure applied on Kurds to sustain tensions, violence and armed attacks throughout Kurdish-populated areas. The BDP hopes that escalating violence and chaos will scare Kurdish people into voting for their own candidates as a single bloc. This wishful thinking may, however, backfire on the BDP as people are apparently getting frustrated with the violence-laden language invoked by BDP candidates.
I was on the road for a day with Burhan Kayatürk, the AK Party's number one candidate in Van province and had a chance to talk to him while we were driving to Bahçesaray, one of the most rural districts of Van. “There is not a single day that passes without an incident of our candidates or their supporters being attacked. Each and every day, on every occasion and platform they attack us,” he said. Kayatürk, a Kurdish with deep-rooted family ties in Van, was struggling to campaign against threats leveled by the PKK.
In some districts where the BDP is strong, he was advised to not show up or risk facing an armed attack. Kayatürk said in one Van district, the AK Party had tasked 85 people as ballot box observers on election day after consulting with them, “But we learned the next day they all had resigned after receiving threats from PKK,” he said. Nevertheless, Kayatürk is determined to take the message of his party to all voters in Van, no matter how difficult that proves to be.
He believes most Kurds in Van are fearful as the BDP gains more influence and power. “People who voted for BDP candidates in parliamentary or local elections in the past have realized that the BDP, backed by the armed terror group, the PKK, would terrorize residents in the region in order to benefit from illegal trade across the border with Iran and Iraq, especially the drug trade. They have a vested interest in keeping the region hostage to PKK violence so that the lucrative enterprise of criminal activity will go on,” he explained.
Some shopkeepers are infuriated with the constant pressure to keep their shutters down because the PKK wants to flex its muscles against the government. A gang of Kurdish youths under the direction of terror leaders has been throwing firebombs at shops, shattering windows and causing lots of damage to small and medium-sized businesses. The people who voted for the BDP in the past drew their share of anger from restless Kurdish youth. They realize the future does not look promising with the BDP gaining much influence over their destiny. They might be tempted to split away from the ranks of the BDP.
Bahçesaray is a fantastic place in Van province. Its former name, Müküs, derived from the Armenian, means a place of magic and in fact, it is. A creek that flows from the high mountains divides the town in two, creating beautiful scenery encircled by high mountains all over. It reminded me of Alpbach in western Austria where I once attended the European Forum Alpbach. You have to cross 3,000-meter-high, glacial mountains to get to Bahçesaray and in the past the road would be closed for the better part of the year because of snow and harsh weather. The AK Party government invested over $100 million in building a 110-kilometer-long asphalt road to connect Bahçesaray to Van so that the road can stay open all year long for the 3,000 people living in Bahçesaray.
The AK Party had a strong presence here in the 2007 elections, with 73 percent of the vote in the town, and expects to hold its winning lead again this year. Gülşen Orhan, a Kurdish deputy from the AK Party, made a convincing case with a speech at a public rally on the main street in her hometown of Bahçesaray, saying the AK Party has delivered most of what it promised to its Kurdish constituency. “How else do you think, we, as Kurds, would be able to continue making the necessary changes to meet decades-long Kurdish expectations,” she vowed, stressing that only the AK Party government could draft a new constitution in line with Kurdish demands after the elections.
Speaking in Kurdish, which was something that was not acceptable until a few years ago, Orhan shared a story with the audience. From atop the campaign bus, she pointed her finger at the minaret at the end of the street, reminding the spectators how the imam of that mosque in 1995 was beaten by security forces simply for making an announcement in Kurdish on the public address system to inform residents of a vaccination program for children. An official investigation was immediately launched against the imam. “Thanks to the AK Party government, which has been in power since 2002, we can now speak in our mother tongue without fear of prosecution and persecution,” she emphasized.
In private, Orhan says she is having a hard time understanding the hatred and anger by BDP sympathizers towards the AK Party, noting that her party had nothing to do with the wrong policies of the state pursued throughout much of the modern history of Turkey under military tutelage. “They are trying to take down the only agent of change that can deliver what Kurds have wanted for years. People can see through that. But unfortunately for some it is difficult to cast their votes freely because of threat and intimidation instigated by terror and violence,” she explained.
I spoke with people on the streets or sitting cafés just to get a feel of the pulse of the community. Even after establishing a level of trust, some would barely whisper the party they intended to vote for because they feared the walls had ears. Yet others were undeterred and outspokenly critical of the BDP and seemed fed up by the wave of terror. Residents of Van city center are frustrated with the lack of development schemes, dusty and dirty streets and damaged roads full of potholes, blaming the current mayor's office, which is held by the BDP.
One baker whom I talked to in confidence, said he had voted for the BDP in the past. “Yet I am fed up with their protests. They force us to pull down our shutters every other day. I cannot pay my bills and meet my obligations nor can I pay my employees. I have had enough. I will vote for the AK Party just for this reason,” he said. His thoughts were reflected by others well, signaling that the PKK and its political cronies are rapidly losing Kurds.