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Clashes and curfews cast doubt on free election in southeast Turkey

Reuters , Wednesday 9 Sep 2015
File Photo: Residents look at a damaged building a day after a security operation in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, September 7, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
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Daily clashes between Kurdish militants and security forces in southeast Turkey have cast doubt on whether a credible election can be held in two months' time, with the fear of violence likely to haunt campaign rallies and voting day itself.

Kurds seemed to hold the keys to Turkey's political future three months ago when the pro-Kurdish opposition won enough votes to enter parliament as a party for the first time. That election ended more than a decade of single-party rule by President Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party.

Since then, the failure of coalition negotiations means the country will have to vote all over again on Nov. 1.

Now there are questions over whether many living in the largely Kurdish southeast will be able to attend rallies and vote. More than 100 temporary military zones have been declared in the region as fighting rages between militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the armed forces.

PKK militants killed 16 soldiers near the Iraqi border on Sunday, their deadliest attack since a two-year ceasefire ended in July. More than 40 Turkish jets hit PKK bases in northern Iraq less than a day later, escalating weeks of air strikes.

"It is impossible to set up ballot boxes under these circumstances," Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) said last week. "There are no (suitable) conditions for an election."

The HDP said on Tuesday that 126 of its buildings around Turkey had been attacked overnight, adding that a crowd had broken windows at its Ankara headquarters late in the day.

The government declared a curfew in one district of the mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir on Sunday after two police officers were killed in a rocket raid. This was lifted a day later but on Tuesday, authorities declared another elsewhere in the province.

While both sides blame each other for the unrest, some AK party officials are also concerned. "We'll be deploying monitors to each ballot box. But in neighbourhoods where the organisation (PKK) is dominant, our colleagues face serious threats and intimidation," Ihsan Aytekin, an AKP deputy provincial head in Diyarbakir, told Reuters.

"Such threats make us question how much the people can reflect their will in the ballot box, how freely they can vote."

At a peace march last week through the city of Diyarbakir, the provincial capital, police armed with automatic rifles signalled the sort of security likely to feature during campaigning.

Memories remain fresh of how two bombs ripped through an HDP rally in Diyarbakir's main square on the eve of the last election in June, killing four people.

"It feels very odd and in a way very frightening to stand right here," said Dilan, 24, as she followed the crowd from a distance, declining to give her family name.

"Since the bombings, wherever I go, I keep thinking 'this place may explode' or 'a bomb may go off'. I really needed to force myself today to come here," she said.


That bombing was blamed on Islamic State, which is fighting a Kurdish militia in Syria as well as the Damascus government, highlighting the complex security concerns in southeast Turkey.

Ankara launched air strikes on the PKK in July, opened its air bases to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, and rounded up hundreds of suspected Kurdish, far-leftist and Islamist militants.

Dozens of security force members have been killed since July by the PKK, which the United States and European Union have designated a terrorist group. This has revived memories of the 1990s, when thousands of militants and soldiers died in the southeast each year.

The main opposition CHP has already tabled a parliamentary question on how security can be guaranteed during the campaign.

But Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade and now wants a parliamentary mandate to extend his executive powers, has said the election will go ahead.

People in Diyarbakir are bemused.

"For the past three years, not a single stone was thrown at the police in Diyarbakir. They used to come here and have tea with us. What happened?," said Emrah Karaca, 20, as he sipped tea in the pro-Kurdish Baglar district.

"Erdogan could not become (executive) president, that's what happened. We said we will not allow you. He's punishing us," Karaca, a hairdresser, said under the deafening roar of Turkish warplanes taking off from a nearby base.


Erdogan initiated a peace process in 2012 with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader. But government officials say PKK promises have since gone unfulfilled, notably the withdrawal of fighters to northern Iraq and the laying down of weapons.

Erdogan's hopes of creating an executive presidency akin to the United States or France now hinge on the AKP regaining control of parliament.

Two polls in late August suggested this is unlikely. Both showed the HDP would again win more than 10 percent of the vote, the threshold for entering parliament.

The HDP has accused Erdogan of stoking the unrest to drum up nationalist support elsewhere in the country, a charge he dismisses.

"Erdogan thinks if there are deaths, funerals, like in the past, then the people in western Turkey will think the HDP wants war and will withdraw their support," said Adnan Coban, 35, a tea shop owner in Baglar.

His customers were defiant. "On Nov. 1, every Kurd including the elderly, women, those outside the city - we'll all be there at the ballot box," said Sadullah Oncel, 29, drawing on a cigarette.

Local residents describe regular patrols by police vehicles in the neighbourhood, home to known PKK sympathisers, as intimidation. "The police drive around and throw gas bombs, sometimes even on empty streets, just to scare people and keep them indoors, to create an atmosphere of fear," Coban said. "Slowly, they are achieving their goal."

The Diyarbakir governor's office declined requests for an interview, but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and senior officials have made clear their fight against the PKK will not stop until the group disarms. 

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