Turkey’s Kurds see Erdogan as best hope for peace – By Daniel Dombey in Diyarbakir


Financial Times – 4.7.2014 – Bollinger champagne features on the menu, a young crowd buzzes and looming above is a prison notorious for torture.Welcome to the latest nightspot in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. The $2m 400-seater restaurant that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, today is a symbol of rising hopes of peace.

“I don’t know where they come from,” Sahismail Bedirhanoglu, whose family owns the franchise, says of his pleasure-seeking and relatively well-heeled clientele. But the emergence of Diyarbakir’s smart young things is just part of a broader change with big implications for the future of Turkey and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the 1990s, the jail in the medieval citadel that sits on a cliff above the restaurant was used by Jitem, a secretive military unit that became synonymous with death squads during a conflict between the government and Kurds that claimed some 40,000 lives over three decades.

But those days are gone. Kurdish votes may decide the fate of Mr Erdogan, who this week launched his campaign to become the country’s first directly elected president.

While Mr Erdogan has become renowned internationally for his alleged authoritarian tendencies, many Kurds express either satisfaction with the prime minister or a belief that he is their only hope for peace.

“I have never voted for the [ruling] AK party but I thank Erdogan for taking the peace process to this stage,” says Yilmaz, a driver sitting outside one of Diyarbakir’s hospitals. “We prefer him because he wants a solution and that is why in the second round we will vote for him.”

The Kurds have a presidential candidate of their own – Selahattin Demirtas, a youthful 41-year-old who wants to expand his party’s base of support and force a second round in the August poll – but Yilmaz happily acknowledges that Kurdish votes could put Mr Erdogan over the top.

The Turkish prime minister’s presidential quest will have reverberations for the nation and region

Recent electoral results bear out his view. In March local elections that became a virtual referendum on Mr Erdogan himself, the AK party won about 44 per cent of the vote, with Mr Demirtas’s pro-Kurdish party registering around 6.5 per cent.

In Diyarbakir itself, the pro-Kurdish party swept more than half of the vote and the AK party more than a third. Left far behind, with 3 per cent support between them, were the country’s two main opposition parties, associated by many Kurds with the death squads and repression of the 1990s.

Diyarbakir was different then: a fearful city, its streets were empty at night, its outskirts swollen by people fleeing from villages destroyed by the army in its campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party. The group, known as the PKK, is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey itself.

But for the past 18 months, the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on an island off the coast of Istanbul, has begun a “peace process” with Mr Erdogan that, while opaque and uncertain, has brought most of the bloodshed to an end. In the latest step, parliament is likely soon to approve legislation that could provide the basis for an amnesty for PKK fighters.

“Erdogan and the [ruling] AK party are taking pragmatic steps very quickly,” says Meral Danis Bestas, a leading official in the pro-Kurdish HD party. “It is doing so for its own interests, not for the sake of the Kurds, but it is braver than other parties in breaking taboos.”

Tensions have shifted upwards in recent weeks in what remains a poor and isolated region: two protesters were shot dead at a demonstration in the town of Lice and a soldier killed by an explosive device. Kurdish militants mounted roadblocks in protest at fortress style military stations erected on PKK routes, while discontent rumbles within the PKK itself about the peace talks.

But there is no comparison with 2012, the last full year of fighting, when more than 500 people, mostly PKK fighters, died.

Tahir Elci, head of the local Bar Association, whose smart offices have signs in English, Turkish and Kurdish, adds that events in Iraq and Syria, viewed with horror in much of the world, have also changed the terms of debate.

People on the Diyarbakir streets betray little sign of wanting to combine with their Kurdish brethren in Syria and Iraq, whose leaders they sometimes see as undemocratic and clannish. The PKK itself has officially dropped its goal of a separate state. But Mr Elci says the Kurds’ moves towards greater self-rule in the neighbouring countries have bolstered the sense that the Kurds are on the rise.

“It’s an emotional thing when you go to Iraq, where you can go to the courts or the police and talk in Kurdish,” he says. “This is a historic time, a great opportunity for Kurds.”