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Middle East

Erdogan stumps for ‘yes’ vote to controversial referendum in Kurdish city

© Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24 | President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears on stage as bodyguards watch the crowd

Text by Leela JACINTO , DIYARBAKIR, Turkey

Latest update : 2017-04-02

Weeks ahead of a critical constitutional referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a campaign rally over the weekend for a “Yes” vote in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. But the Kurdish-dominated city is a predominantly “No” zone.

Snipers on the rooftop of the governor’s offices in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir stared down at a sea of red Turkish flags enthusiastically waved by a crowd awaiting the arrival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. High above the bobbing balloons and bristling snipers, helicopters hovered as security was tightened Saturday in the Kurdish-dominated city.

Just weeks before a critical April 16 constitutional referendum that could increase his powers, Erdogan was in Diyarbakir to campaign for a “Yes” vote. Across the country, his AK Party has mounted a massive campaign for “Evet” – or yes in Turkish.

But Diyarbakir is a “Hayir” – or “No” – stronghold. The city is often referred to as the bastion of the HDP, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party that opposes the proposed constitutional reform.

The HDP’s ability to campaign ahead of the April 16 vote has been severely hampered by a crackdown that has seen its two top leaders and several senior officials jailed. The state has also taken over many HDP municipalities in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Erdogan’s government maintains the pro-Kurdish party has links to the banned PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an allegation the HDP denies.

'Diyarbakir is our heart'

Despite the unequal resources between the “Yes” and “No” campaigns, polls show a tight race between the two camps. Kurdish voters, who represent around a fifth of the Turkish electorate, could play a decisive role on April 16, a fact that appeared to underscore Erdogan’s speech in this city that is sometimes called the political and cultural heart of Turkey’s oppressed Kurds.

“Diyarbakir is our heart,” thundered Erdogan. “If somebody tries to take this geography from us, it means they are trying to pull out our heart.”

On the campaign trail, Erdogan has proved effective at raising the stakes, pitting his political agenda as a nationalist fight against the state’s enemies inside and outside Turkey.

On Saturday, the target of his ire was the PKK. "These supporters of the PKK keep saying 'peace, peace, peace'. Does empty talk bring peace? Could there be peace with those who walk around with weapons in their hands?" he said as the crowd roared. "We are the guardians of peace, we are the guardians of freedom."


‘Kurds and Turks are brothers’

Erdogan’s many opponents inside and outside Turkey would scoff at the idea that the Islamist president is a guardian of freedom, particularly after a severe crackdown on civil liberties following a July 2016 coup attempt.

Kurdish rights, which Erdogan once endorsed, have also been severely restricted following the 2015 collapse of peace talks between the government and the PKK.

Diyarbakir, an ancient city in the Tigris River Valley, has paid a particularly heavy price since the peace process collapsed. Fighting in the city’s Sur district, which is home to several heritage sites, has levelled parts of the Old City and several Kurds believe Erdogan is trying to wipe out their cultural identity.

But at the Saturday rally outside the Diyarbakir governor’s office, there was no opposition to be seen among the 5,000-strong crowd, which included residents of surrounding areas.

Omut Kocon, an 18-year-old sporting a Turkish flag draped on his shoulders like Superman, told FRANCE 24 that he attended the rally “to support our leader. The whole world is against us and we should be behind him. I particularly liked when he [Erdogan] said we were a single nation. It means Kurds and Turks are brothers,” explained the student from Diyarbakir, whose family is of Arab origin.

His friend, 17-year-old Suleiman Gonenc, a Kurd, agreed. “We are like brothers,” Gonenc told FRANCE 24 with a shy smile.

The two teens were also unanimous about their assessment of Erdogan’s speech. “It was typical Erdogan, actually. It attracts you, as usual. He was very powerful, as usual,” said Kocon.

‘I want peace in this area’

Halime Aktert however had little to say about the president’s speech. “It was so crowded, I was at the back and I could not focus,” she told FRANCE 24. But she had no doubts about her reasons for attending the rally. “I’ve been involved in the [ruling] AK Party’s women’s wing since 2012. But after my brother-in-law was killed by terrorists in October 2016, I became even more committed.”

Aktert’s brother-in-law, Deryan Aktert, the head of the AK Party in Diyarbakir’s Dijle district, was killed on October 16, 2016, in an attack officially claimed by the PKK.

“I want peace in this area,” said Aktert, explaining that like many Kurdish families, hers too is divided over their political loyalties. “Some are for the AK Party, some are for the HDP,” she said. “When we come together, we always fight. This war has affected us very heavily. I just want peace and I believe he can bring us peace.”

Date created : 2017-04-02


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