DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Tired of trenches in the streets and daily gun battles, shopkeeper Berzani Akdogan is hoping the return of single-party rule might bring stability to Turkey’s southeast, even though a heavier military crackdown looks likely in the short term.
Akdogan, whose toy store in the region’s biggest city Diyarbakir has repeatedly been shuttered by violence, turned his back on the pro-Kurdish opposition in Sunday’s general election, voting instead for the ruling AK Party, despite a campaign built on pledges to maintain a hardline against Kurdish militants.
His choice, and those of other conservative Kurds like him - a minority in the mostly left-leaning Kurdish southeast - helped the Islamist-rooted AKP to a stunning comeback, winning back a parliamentary majority that it lost just five months earlier.
The party’s founder, President Tayyip Erdogan, vowed on Wednesday to “liquidate” Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas in a defiant speech that gave no quarter to those hoping for conciliation. The PKK responded on Thursday by calling off a unilateral ceasefire it had declared in the run-up to the election.
The left-leaning pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party controls most of the southeast. But for more conservative Kurds, Erdogan and the AKP represent the best hope of a political solution to an insurgency that has left the restive region as a relative economic backwater compared to much of the country.
“Why did I vote AKP? Because I need peace more than I need water or bread,” said Akdogan, 43.
“I’ve been a shopkeeper here for the past 30 years and this is the first time I’ve seen this place so bad. For a month, our shops were closed almost the whole time. Even when they were open, there were no customers,” he said.
The escalating bloodshed, police curfews and civilian deaths antagonized many Kurds against Erdogan. Although he launched negotiations with the PKK three years ago and gave Kurds more cultural rights, some Kurds saw those moves simply as a bid to curry support among the 20-million Kurdish community, and the crackdown of recent months as revealing his true face.
Erdogan’s aides say that while they have run out of patience with the PKK’s armed struggle, demanding it lay down weapons before any return to the negotiating table, they are still committed to a political solution to an insurgency that has cost 40,000 lives over the past three decades, most of them Kurdish.
Opponents accuse him of deliberately stoking violence in the southeast in the run-up to Sunday’s vote in a bid to win back nationalist support. But the surge in unrest also pushed Islamist Kurds, sympathetic to the AKP’s ideals and its economic policies, back towards the ruling party.
At Turkey’s first parliamentary election this year in June, the HDP took almost 80 percent of the vote in Diyarbakir and the AKP just 14, a drop in support that helped it lose its majority for the first time since it was founded more than a decade ago.
On Sunday, support for the AKP rose to around 22 percent in the city, helping push it comfortably back over the threshold needed to govern alone. Its gains were driven in part by fear of the economic consequences if calm could not be restored.
Seyhmus Cavus, 48, who owns a women’s clothing store, said Sunday’s outcome was the right one despite his being an HDP supporter, with the pro-Kurdish party winning enough seats to be represented in parliament but the AKP in overall control.
“Business has been awful this summer. People are scared. Scared to leave the house, scared to come here. They’re scared to get caught in the middle of an attack, that some bomb will explode,” he said.
“I wanted the HDP in parliament, but I also believe the AKP will give us back the stability we urgently need.”
The HDP, which entered parliament as a party for the first time in June, won 59 of 550 seats on Sunday, putting it in a position to try to hold the government accountable for developments in the southeast, even if Erdogan has said it is no longer a credible mediator.
“Parliament needs to bring the peace process onto its agenda. We want an atmosphere in which all guns are silenced,” HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said on Thursday.
But one of the biggest challenges is the role of a new generation of guerrillas, the “Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement” (YDG-H), a wing of the PKK which has brought the fight from the mountains increasingly to the towns and cities.
A crackdown on YDG-H in September in Cizre, a town near the Syrian border, caused outrage among pro-Kurdish lawmakers who said 21 civilians were killed during a week-long police curfew imposed during a manhunt for the militants, some of whom were teenagers.
The YDG-H claims to fight against state intimidation and oppression but some Diyarbakir residents question its viability.
“After the HDP got strong results in June, the PKK youth wing declared ‘self-rule’ in various districts ... thinking the public would support them,” said Seyhmus Tanrikulu, Diyarbakir head of the Islamist Kurdish Huda-Par party, many of whose supporters are believed to have swung behind the AKP.
“But the people didn’t fall for it. Their trenches, their self-rule didn’t find support.”
Akdogan, the toy shop owner, said two of his fellow store owners were killed by the YDG-H as they tried to impose their grip in parts of Diyarbakir. It was, he said, a wake-up call.
“Who are this YDG-H gang? They come and say ‘shut down your shop, we will unleash hell’. How dare they,” he said.
“Where’s your hospital, your school? You’ve destroyed them all in fighting... No services, no roads, no customers. Is that what you understand by self-rule and freedom?”
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff