‘We are taking back what is ours’ - Turkey’s Kurds

Residents of the Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Batman hope to propel their favoured party back to power this Sunday, when Turkey heads to the polls for local elections.

In 2016, every one of the province’s elected municipal leaders from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was dismissed and replaced by state appointees.

The HDP, Turkey's second-largest opposition party, is seen by Ankara as the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has waged an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. 

As part of the Turkish government’s crackdown on opponents following a failed coup in July 2016, 95 of 102 HDP mayors across Turkey’s southeast were dismissed and replaced by administrators appointed by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Islamic and Kurdish identity go hand-in-hand in Batman, an industrial city of some 600,000.  The province has been hit hard by an economic crisis that has seen the lira slide and inflation soar as Turkey has fallen into recession.

Asiye Yılmaz
Asiye Yılmaz

At an open market in central Batman, Asiye Yılmaz is buying only the outer green leaves of a cauliflower.

“If I could afford the cauliflower itself, I’d be buying that,” she explained. “We are living day-to-day. My husband works in construction but hasn’t had a job in six months. I’m going to vote HDP as I always do. We are not terrorists, as the government seems to think. We are just normal people who are trying survive and lead a good life.

In the 2014 local elections, the HDP received 55.9 percent of the vote in Batman, followed by the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) at 31 percent and two other Islamist parties. 

Last June, the HDP secured four lawmakers in parliament for Batman province, receiving more than 63 percent of the parliamentary vote. In the presidential race, HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş received just under 63 percent in Batman, even though he ran his campaign from jail, while Erdoğan received about half that, 31 percent.

On Sunday, HDP mayoral candidate Mehmet Demir faces AKP candidate Murat Güneştekin, CHP candidate Enver Erdem and Saadet Party candidate İlhami Işık. Demir’s slogan is “Batman is ours”, an apparent response to government-appointed officials taking over the province’s municipalities.

Save for a few HDP and AKP posters, there is little pre-election buzz in the town, which has chosen Kurdish politicians in every election since 1999.

Repeated accusations by Erdoğan that HDP lawmakers support terror have brought back memories of the 1990s, when state-supported paramilitaries killed hundreds of Kurds. The AKP has built its campaign on construction projects and urban planning, while the HDP has been vocal about tackling AKP corruption and ousting the state-appointed officials.

Hamdullah Gül
Hamdullah Gül

Farmer Hamdullah Gül sees Turkey suffering under the financial policies of the AKP. 

“Batman has oil, but it doesn’t belong to us somehow,” he said. “There is no way we can accept the will of a people being seized by the government. I think the silence of the people shouldn’t deceive anyone. We are taking back what is ours come March 31.

Pensioner Abdulhakim İçer said people were facing severe financial strain and said no previous government had used such divisive language. He said he would support Saadet, an opposition Islamist party. “I believe they can solve this country’s problems,’’ he said.

A creek running through Batman has been a problem for decades, with heavy rainfall leading to flooding that causes damage and even death. Promises are made during every election campaign to deal with the problem, but it never happens, locals said. 

Fırat Atar, who sells fruit and vegetables at the weekly street markets, said he would not be voting this year because he was tired of all the empty promises. “Just look at this creek, a problem running through our town that everyone is turning a blind eye to,’’ he said.

Orhan Atalay
Orhan Atalay

Nineteen-year-old Orhan Atalay is a local exception. He said the government-appointed officials had done more for Batman than anyone else. 

“Nobody used to pick up our garbage,” he said. “I mean there are financial crises and unemployment in every country. I think Turkey will overcome these and I am voting for the AKP. I am sure that other parties will make more of a mess of Turkey.”

Batman has lost its energy due to government pressure, according to CHP candidate Adnan Yaşar. He said locals complain most about unemployment and the lack of democratic rights.

“We still believe we’re going to witness a serious vote increase here. We are doing our best to make our platform known. The rest is up to our people,’’ Yaşar said.

The vast majority of Batman residents though expressed support for the HDP, which appears likely to retake the province’s municipalities. But what will happen then? 

Erdoğan has vowed to remove any elected official who is found to be linked to what he says is terror, just like the dozens removed from office before.