June 3, 2015 / 2:09 PM / 2 years ago

Kurdish party could upset political landscape in Turkish vote

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The smallest party in Turkey’s parliament may wind up occupying its most decisive seats after an election on Sunday, potentially ending 12 years of single-party rule and heralding a dramatic transformation of the Kurdish political movement.

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), applauds during an address to his supporters during an election rally for Turkey's June 7 parliamentary elections in Istanbul, Turkey May 30, 2015. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is gaining traction among voters who once viewed its origins in Kurdish nationalism with distrust. It hopes this fresh support will make it the first Kurdish group to win 10 percent of the vote and cross the threshold needed to enter parliament as a party.

Polls show the HDP on the cusp, with a handful forecasting it will seize enough seats to deprive the ruling AK Party of a majority, crushing conservative President Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of a new constitution vesting him with expansive powers.

Led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP promotes a progressive platform of equal rights for women, protection of the environment and respect for the LBGT community.

“We will get as many votes from Kurds as from society’s other segments,” Demirtas said in an interview. “We are the only party that embraces everyone, that reflects Turkey’s pluralism.”

Such inclusive rhetoric marks a sharp shift in Kurdish political identity as the nation emerges from decades of strife.

At rallies, Turkish flags mix with the red, green and yellow of Kurdish banners, unthinkable just a few years ago. Demirtas electrifies the audience with speeches extolling national unity.

He rarely evokes Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who enjoys mythic status among Kurds but whom Turks with a long memory of PKK violence revile.

When a group of Kurdish nationalists first won seats in parliament in 1991, war against the PKK raged. Firebrand deputies spoke Kurdish in the chamber despite a strict ban, and four were subsequently jailed for a decade.

Ensuing years were punctuated by party bans for links with the PKK, which first took up arms in 1984. Some 40,000 people died before rebels called a ceasefire in 2013 amid peace talks crafted by Erdogan to end one of Europe’s longest insurgencies.

NEW SUPPORTERS

Fearing a loss of support from nationalists opposed to the talks, Erdogan has in recent weeks said the HDP is a front for “terrorists,” dismissing members as “atheists and Zoroastrians.”

Demirtas, whose brother Nurettin was imprisoned in the past and is now fighting alongside Kurdish forces against Islamic State in Iraq, blamed such rhetoric for a tense campaign that has seen 70 attacks on HDP offices, including two bombings.

The AKP has reproached Demirtas for his “terrorist brother”. Demirtas has not heard from him in months and fears for his fate.

Demirtas has struck a balance between the movement’s revolutionary roots and a light touch, appearing on a bicycle or with his schoolteacher wife and two daughters. On talk shows, he croons ballads while strumming the saz, a stringed instrument.

“I am not a rock star,” said Demirtas, a former human-rights lawyer who has taken “about a million” selfies with keen voters.

“I want people to support me for my politics, because the values that shaped me are born of struggle and suffering.”

The Islamist-rooted AKP, founded by Erdogan, leads all contenders in polls, expected to take more than 40 percent of the vote. Second and third place are the secular Republican People’s Party and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party.

AKP has traditionally attracted two-thirds of Kurds, who make up a fifth of Turkey’s 76 million citizens.

Demirtas has dented that support and now half of Kurds may cast ballots for him, said Adil Gur, who runs A&G Research and whose surveys show the party clearing the threshold. As many as 90 percent of HDP voters are Kurdish, he said.

If the HDP falls short, almost all of its seats will go to the AKP under Turkey’s system of proportional representation, making it possible for the ruling party to change the constitution and boost Erdogan’s powers unopposed.

“I don’t remember a leader other than Erdogan,” said Melis Ozbakir, 23, who helped found After10, whose volunteers hand out pamphlets to win over voters and push the HDP over 10 percent.

“Our aim is to convince undecided, secular, middle-class Turks they can vote for the HDP,” she said, adding that otherwise Turkey was “heading toward a dictatorship.”

BARRIERS

With so much at stake, Turkey’s election barrier has come under renewed criticism from politicians and ordinary Turks. Requiring a party to win a tenth of the national vote, the world’s highest threshold, to join parliament was introduced by a military junta after a 1980 coup.

To circumvent the rule, Kurds have in the past fielded independents guaranteeing their election from predominantly Kurdish districts in the southeast. Turkey has no threshold for independent candidates. In 2011’s general election, 36 pro-Kurdish independents won with 6.6 percent of the vote.

The HDP says it can win twice as many seats, its morale bolstered after Demirtas took 9.8 percent in a presidential bid in August.

If it fails to reach the threshold, millions will be disenfranchised and the chances of a political solution to the PKK conflict become remote, said Nuray Mert, political scientist at Istanbul University.

“They are betting ...those who would have never contemplated voting for the HDP are ready, even if it’s strategic to stop Erdogan’s presidential system,” said Mert, a former HDP adviser.

Such potential new backers gathered at a picnic held by After10 in a leafy Istanbul park on a recent Sunday.

“It is hard since we were raised on one side or the other of the Kurdish conflict,” said undecided voter Dilek, 37, who did not give her surname because her family backs the Nationalist Movement Party. “If not for Demirtas, I wouldn’t even be here.”

(Story repeats to add dropped word “him” in paragraph 13)

Editing by Nick Tattersall and Anna Willard

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