Kurdish voters look to İmamoğlu to fulfil broken promises of AKP

The media section is packed, hundreds of young people have poured out of the neighbourhood buildings to catch a glimpse of the politician, dozens of Kurdish women shout their support as he passes. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition’s mayoral candidate, has been drawing huge and lively crowds as he campaigns for the June 23 Istanbul rerun, and the rally in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt this week was no exception.

When the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate was declared winner by a slim margin on March 31, it was a shock defeat for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which along with its predecessors had controlled Turkey’s largest city for the past 25 years. But the electoral authority ordered the vote be held again after the AKP alleged irregularities.

The crowd in Esenyurt showed that he has every chance of repeating that feat on June 23 - especially since the district is known for having some of the strongest support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which threw its weight behind İmamoğlu on March 31. The Kurdish vote is widely thought to have clinched the victory for the CHP mayor the first time round.

“I know my friends from the HDP are gathered here in the square”, İmamoğlu said at the rally, where CHP flags waved alongside those of the pro-Kurdish party. The mayor’s greeting to the HDP drew the biggest round of applause at the rally.

“They did him (İmamoğlu) an injustice: they stole his mayor’s mandate from him. They’ve done many injustices to the Kurds, too. So, İmamoğlu will understand the Kurds’ situation”, said Rıfat, a Kurdish voter at the rally.

That feeling of injustice could prove to be a huge factor in the rerun, and almost certainly played a role in İmamoğlu’s initial victory. After years of courting Kurdish voters with promises of minority rights including education in Kurdish, the AKP changed course in 2015 after the HDP broke the 10 percent electoral threshold to win seats in parliament, leaving the ruling party without a majority.

The AKP joined forces with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ahead of snap elections that same year. The breakdown that summer of peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, ushered in a period of repression for the Kurdish political movement.

HDP voters by no means see the CHP as a natural ally – the main opposition party voted in favour of legislation that allowed the lifting of parliamentary immunity in 2016, at the height of the government’s repression of the HDP. The move paved the way for the prosecution and imprisonment of Kurdish deputies, including HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, on terrorism charges.

Nevertheless, the pro-Kurdish party agreed to support CHP candidates, including İmamoğlu, that were seen as sufficiently sensitive to the Kurdish political movement on March 31.

“We think he will be better for our imprisoned deputies and for Selahattin Demirtaş”, said Muhammed, another Kurdish voter who brought his wife and children to the rally.

“If İmamoğlu wins this election, everyone will be reminded once again of the power of the Kurds. They (the AKP) used every insult against us ahead of March 31, this time they’re sucking up to us”, he said.

The AKP and MHP ran a particularly vitriolic campaign ahead of March 31, accusing the CHP of collaborating with terrorists for accepting the support of the HDP. It has changed its tune since then.

Yıldırım spent his Eid holiday in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast. There he risked provoking the wrath of the AKP’s nationalist allies by using the word Kurdistan to talk about the region, and he attempted to woo voters by addressing them in Kurdish. Yet it may not be that easy to win Kurds around this time.

“If Binali had anything to offer Kurds, why haven’t they (the AKP) offered anything in the 20 years they’ve held the municipality?” Muhammed asked. Erdoğan began his rise to power by being elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

“For years the only work for Kurds in Istanbul municipalities was as waste collectors. Which park has Kurdish spoken in it, which theatres show plays in Kurdish? Which municipalities celebrate Ramadan with ceremonies in Kurdish?” he asked.

“Before March 31, just to spite us, the AKP would play the most nationalistic songs at their stands. Now they’re playing Kurdish songs,” said Selma Benli, a young Kurdish woman at the rally.

The young woman said she hoped İmamoğlu would be able to contribute to dialogue between Turks and Kurds and normalise open expressions of Kurdish identity by running cultural projects in Istanbul.

A young Kurdish man named Salih chimed in to condemn the lack of Kurdish language courses and other cultural activities under AKP municipalities, noting that they were happy to run activities in foreign languages, but not in the language spoken by millions of the city’s inhabitants.

Leman, a Kurdish mother, described some of the difficulties she has faced in her daily life as a non-Turkish speaker.

“I went to the hospital, but I couldn’t get an appointment, because I don’t speak Turkish. When I phoned, I had the same problem. I could only make an appointment when my daughter came with me,” she said.

“If we saw someone speaking Kurdish when we went to the municipality, we’d be able to comfortably tell them what’s troubling us. There are millions of Kurds in Istanbul,” she said.

Salih also raised Turkey’s troubled economy, an issue that is affecting millions of Kurds and Turks alike.

Turkey’s economy went through a recession in the final quarter of 2018, after a year of heavy losses for the lira, high inflation and struggling businesses. The economy has continued to suffer this year, leading to unemployment at nearly 15 percent, the highest rate since 2009.

“Unemployment is Kurdish people’s second biggest problem”, Salih said. “(İmamoğlu) can find a solution for that with the right projects.”

Leman, too, said it was imperative for İmamoğlu to address the effects of the economic crisis by lowering transport, power and water prices and tackling the city’s sky-high rental prices.

If he wins, İmamoğlu will face a huge task if he wants to satisfy the expectations of Kurdish voters, whose wish for recognition of their own language, more than a matter for the municipality, has been a big issue in Turkish politics for generations.

Another of the Kurds at the rally, Yılmaz, was sceptical about the credentials of the CHP, a party with deep roots in Turkish nationalism.

“The AKP are playing Kurdish songs back there, but the CHP folk avoid getting that close to Kurds. Would it kill them to play some Kurdish songs?” he asked.

Nevertheless, the general feeling among the Kurds at the rally was that the ruling party had shown its true colours, and there would be no going back.

“Binali Yıldırım says Kurdistan in Diyarbakır, but the president tells us to get lost,” said Hasan. “Nobody can fool the Kurds from here on out.”

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.