The Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) rally in Van on Monday was seen as a barometer for the upcoming rally in Diyarbakır on Sept. 3. Attendance, whether local shopkeepers would be forced to shut down their stores by the PKK and whether pro-Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) voters would cause tension were expected to be important clues about the Kurdish community’s general outlook on the constitutional reform package to be submitted to a national vote on Sept. 12.
In Van, the biggest city in eastern Anatolia, with a population above 1 million, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have almost no presence. In this city, where the political rivalry is only between the AK Party and the BDP, the BDP won the municipal elections last year, highlighting once again the city’s role as a political barometer.
Most of the issues that had been a cause for curiosity became clear at the rally in Van on Monday. The huge crowd’s joy was reflected in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s speech. The prime minister, who described himself as “someone who likes to talk frankly,” criticized the BDP for appointing itself as the “representative of the Kurds,” arguing that this was discrimination. There was not even a modicum of tension in the city; on the contrary, there was a festive atmosphere in the streets.
People were out on their balconies and in their windows holding banners that read “yes” in support of the referendum, which had an inspiring effect on the prime minister. Even before the prime minister left Ankara on his private jet, reports from Van were indicating that the largest plaza in the city was already beginning to fill. Despite the rally beginning an hour later than scheduled, the Ramadan fast and the August heat, the crowd -- particularly the women and children -- did not lose any of their enthusiasm.
The warm greeting the prime minister was shown by the city’s people along the road from the airport to the main square could not have been earned through threats, blackmail, bribes or even the best PR work. I remember similar sights from the ‘80s when President Turgut Özal traveled across the country.
BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş had said that if the Van rally sent the message that the people wanted a new constitution, his party would rethink their call for a boycott of the referendum. I asked Nuri Yaman, a BDP deputy from Muş, Van’s northern neighbor, about his expectations ahead of the rally. Saying he hoped there would be no tension like there was in Kayseri, where protestors accused the government of negotiating with the PKK, Yaman stressed: “The bloodshed should be stopped.
The prime minister should make use of the [PKK’s unilateral cease-fire]. He would be making make a big mistake if he repeated what he said in Kayseri about the PKK. Because here everyone who is listening to him will certainly have a son, a daughter, a nephew or a relative who has joined the PKK.”
Yaman said by showing harsh reactions to remarks from PKK commanders in northern Iraq, the prime minister was falling into the MHP’s trap.
I also spoke with Hüseyin Çelik, a former education minister and current AK Party deputy from Van, about whether the prime minister would send the BDP the messages it had been expecting to hear before rescinding its boycott. “This is an empty anticipation! We have never conducted politics along regional lines. We have always been against ethnic and regional nationalism with a politics that embraces Turkey. Our messages in Yozgat, Edirne and Van will always be along the same lines.
They are creating an expectation ahead of the prime minister’s Diyarbakır and Van speeches in order to get the government to compromise. They should have no such hopes,” he argued.
In fact, Erdoğan said the same things he has said in other cities, as he had promised, contrary to Yaman and BDP leader Demirtaş’s expectations. He complained to the people about the PKK and the opposition’s support for the PKK’s attempts to blur the atmosphere ahead of the referendum. “Are you with us in our fight against gangs and shadowy organizations?” he asked the crowd, which answered with a resounding “yes.”
He said if the referendum package passes, Turkey would become a more free and democratic country. He declared that terrorism would not solve any problems and that those who were benefiting politically from the bloodshed were trying to influence the referendum results so the Kurdish question would not be solved.