The Outsider's Edge

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Turkey heads into elections with four prominent politicians barred from running. Two stand convicted of blending religion and politics, a crime under the country's ferociously secular laws. The others, a human rights activist and a Kurdish politician, had been jailed for advocating peace with ethnic separatists. But while the men can't hold office, there is a good chance that when the new parliament convenes, three of them will see the parties they led sworn in.Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Justice and Development party (AK) former Islamists, led by the banned Tayyip Erdogan will head the new government. The latest numbers put their support at over 30%, half again that of their nearest rival. More surprising is the success of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (DEHAP). Polls suggest it will receive 9% of the vote, making it one of the few groups with a chance of nearing the 10% electoral threshold required to enter parliament. Its supporters say the true number could be higher as some respondents may have been afraid to express their endorsement. "During the last elections, there was a lot of pressure," says Pervin Buldan, a candidate in Istanbul whose husband was found murdered in 1994 after being seized by men in police uniform.

Prosecutors have argued that DEHAP's membership is a front for Kurdish rebels, with whom Turkey fought a 15-year war. The party was formed in September when another pro-Kurdish party, the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), fearing it was about to be shut down, merged with two leftist groups. Soon afterwards, the courts banned two of its candidates, chairman Murat Bozlak and the human rights activist Akin Birdal. An attempt to close the party altogether failed three weeks before the elections.

DEHAP, politically far left with opposition to the International Monetary Fund and the war against Iraq high on its platform, argues it is more than simply a Kurdish party. But ask Buldan what her party will do should it enter parliament, and she lists only issues related to Kurds: offer amnesty to political prisoners and Kurdish guerillas, help villagers displaced by the war to return home, lift the controls in the Kurdish southeast. "The normal people who support them don't care about throwing out the IMF or whether or not they join Europe, they only care about the Kurdish issue," says Umit Firat, a writer for the local press.

To be sure, the pressure has lifted since the last elections in 1999 when police closed HADEP's party offices, arrested its candidates and forcibly dispersed a rally in Istanbul, according to Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch. On election day, there were reports of villagers forced to show their ballots to security forces before putting them in the box. Sugden also says he was shown partially burnt ballots cast for HADEP.

Still, as the election approaches and Istanbul's streets flutter with the festive colors of party flags and banners, DEHAP feels it has not been completely welcomed to the party. Buldan says she was prevented from opening a new branch office in her district and ordered not to give a speech. Savas Sarialtin, 23, a student volunteer, says police stopped him as he handed out election materials. "Yes, there's still a problem," he says. "But during the last elections, we wouldn't even have considered doing this."

The party attributes its popularity to the easing of tensions. The Kurdish rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1999, and the Kurdish issue now seems less threatening. In an election where none of the three parties in the ruling coalition seem likely to return, DEHAP is also receiving a portion of the enormous protest vote. The party has a large number of women candidates, and liberal intellectuals have rallied to its cause, arguing that the Kurdish problem is the largest obstacle to Turkish democracy. "Not only the Kurds, but the Turks suffer," says Ragip Zarakolu, 55, a publisher of radical books.

Should DEHAP succeed in breaking through the electoral threshold, its leaders, Bozlak and Birdal, will have to join Tayyip Erdogan in watching from the sidelines as parliament convenes. Not so for the often jailed Mihri Belli, a former militant Marxist and a long-time supporter of Kurdish causes. At 87, the DEHAP candidate would almost certainly be the oldest member of parliament by tradition the one elected to be its speaker.