Turkey's Election Offers a Last Chance to Integrate the Kurds

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Murad Sezer / Reuters

Independent candidate Sirri Sureyya Onder at a June 5, 2011 election rally for independent candidates for the Turkish elections.

Sirri Sureyya Onder is neither a Kurd nor a politician. Yet, when the popular filmmaker and writer was approached by Turkey's Kurdish party to run for an Istanbul parliamentary seat in Sunday's elections, he felt he could not refuse. "This parliament has an opportunity to make history," he said, between campaign stops at coffeehouses in Zeytinburnu, a working-class district near Istanbul's airport populated by Kurds who migrated here over the past three decades years to flee fighting in the southeast. "It will be tasked with drafting a new constitution which could finally secure democratic rights and freedoms for everyone. For the first time, I feel as if I can make a difference."

With the Arab Spring having reached its doorstep in neighbouring Syria, Turkey may finally have run out of time to defer addressing the grievances of its restive Kurdish population, estimated at around 14 million. For years Ankara denied the Kurds existed — they were called mountain Turks — and banned the Kurdish language from being spoken. In 1984, the PKK took up arms in a fight for Kurdish independence, and some 45,000 people have been killed in the ensuing conflict. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took power in 2002, vowed to seek a political solution to the conflict, declaring in a historic speech that "the Kurdish problem is my problem". Erdogan acknowledged that the government had mismanaged relations with the Kurdish population, and promised greater democracy.

But Erdogan's initiative to allow the PKK to disarm and reintegrate were abandoned under nationalist pressure; Kurdish language reforms were stalled; and clashes between Kurdish youth and the authorities continued in the southeast. So, the Kurdish issue has returned to the top of the political agenda as Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday. "A new constitution and resolving the Kurdish problem ... are the most important jobs awaiting the new Turkish parliament," says Cengiz Candar, an influential columnist for Radikal newspaper.

The good news is that conditions for addressing Kurdish grievances have never looked so promising. Despite numerous obstacles, the country's pro-Kurdish party BDP is poised to take more seats than ever before, energised by a clever move to integrate pro-peace Turks like Onder, other minorities and more mainstream Kurds. Meanwhile, the main opposition CHP party, standard-bearer of the hawkish nationalism against which the Kurds butted heads for decades, has abandoned its longstanding pro-military line and is fielding a well-known Kurdish human rights lawyer as its deputy leader. In the current election season, politicians have been allowed to campaign using the Kurdish language for the first time ever, part of a series of reforms introduced by Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is all but guaranteed to win on Sunday.

"We are no longer afraid," says Gulcin Erdemci, 50, part of an enthusiastic crew of Kurdish women dressed in bright pink sweaters canvassing door-to-door in Zeytinburnu on behalf of Onder. "Before I could never say who I was voting for, or even wear this in public," she says, pointing to her loose white headscarf embroidered in typically Kurdish tradition. "We just want full equality."

Regardless of who wins on Sunday, the Kurds — both the BDP and the armed rebel group PKK (whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is serving a life sentence for treason) — have given the new government until June 15 to meet their demands for more autonomy, the right to be educated in Kurdish and an end to military operations. Already, waves of popular unrest have swept the mainly Kurdish southeast in recent months.

"These elections are like a referendum for the Kurds," says Mustafa Gundogdu, Turkey and Iraq officer at the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. "They are looking to see how many MPs they can post and what happens next. There is the question of whether this might be a last chance."

What happens next depends on the slimmest of calculuations. Prime Minister Erdogan is set to secure a third term in power, but it remains to be seen whether his party will gain the legislative supermajority that would allow it to draft a constitution without needing to compromise to win the votes of opposition parties — an alarming prospect to many given his self-professed desire to set up a presidential system like France or Russia, with greater executive powers. "For the new constitution to stick, it must be the product of a genuine consensus, including the Kurdish national movement, not a top-down imposition," says Hugh Pope, of the International Crisis Group.

Tarhan Erdem, a pollster renowned for the accuracy of his forecasts, sees the AKP falling just short of its goal of 330 out of 550 seats. Less than 330 seats would mean that while the AKP would still form a single party government, it would also be forced to compromise with the CHP and the BDP to legislate. "This would be very good," says Candar."It looks like the elections will deliver good results."

Onder is similarly optimistic. "If we can replace the war-mongering with lasting peace, then we'll all feel alot lighter," says the affable filmmaker, dragging on a cigarette at the end of twelve hours on the campaign trail. He gazes briefly out of the car window at Istanbul's bumper-to-bumper evening traffic. Then he smiles. "And you never know, if that happens I might even be able to shoot again next summer."