From our special correspondent in Turkey – As Turkey prepares to go to the polls on May 14 to choose between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 15 to 20 million Kurdish voters could become king. FRANCE 24 reports.
“I am Kurdish and Alevi; I am discriminated against because of this duality identity”, said Emre, a 23-year-old standi studentin front in a blue plastic tent, his eyes glassy. He was born and raised in Pazarcik, a majority Kurdish and Alevi town in the southeast TurkeyKahramanmaras Province His family lost everything on the night of February 6 when the earthquake shook this part of Turkey.
“I saw that many people died because of the lack of help in the first two or three days,” said Emre. “This is a Kurdish and Alevi road. Houses are destroyed – but we don’t get the same amount of help as other streets that are actually less damaged.
Emre’s voice was scratched with anger. He has no doubt that the Kurds and Alevis, a minority practicing a heterodox form of Islam, was discriminated against: He added, “A century ago, White and Black Americans lived separately; they even have a separate toilet. Today they conquered everything. But here, there is no change.”
Emre used to want to be a carer for the elderly – but he no longer has dreams for the future. The bakery he used to work in to make ends meet was destroyed. Now Emre’s priority is to survive.
But he will definitely vote. “I will vote even if I have to go to another city to do it,” he said. “The whole country will vote because the government must change. We are pierced; our freedom of expression is really restricted. Because I have nothing to lose I’m not afraid to speak up. All I have left is my family. But some people are afraid of being handcuffed and imprisoned.”
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Ayse Varose, a 75-year-old Alevi Kurd, also wants to break the silence, even though a stroke paralyzed her face. “Of course I’ll vote,” he said, laughing. “I will vote for the Kurdish people – for the revolution.” Her grief deepened as she recounted the horrific events she had gone through: “There are cracks all over my house – just look at them! We slept in tents because we were scared. And I didn’t get any financial help,” he added.
Ayse will vote for Turkey’s Kurdish party the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is running in the parliamentary polls as the Green Left Party. “Even if they don’t have an Alevi candidate, I will vote for the HDP because they are one of us. As far as the presidential election is concerned, it is Kilicdaroglu. He is Alevi; he is one of us.”
‘Afraid to speak Kurdish’
There are about 15 to 20 million Kurds in Turkey. This makes them a key asset for an opposition that wants to end Erdogan’s two-decade grip on power. Unlike last time, in 2018, the HDP chose not to put its own candidate, but to rally Kilicdaroglu in the Kemalist CHP, because the six main opposition parties in Turkey presented a united front. . Thus, the HDP is seen as a potential kingmaker.
“The Kurds expect a lot from Erdogan’s presidency, especially from the talks that started in the early 2000s as part of the reforms that Turkey needs to do as part of the EU accession process,” he said. Only Cicek, is an associate researcher at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.
“Erdogan launched a series of reforms regarding the Kurdish language and identity between 2007 and 2012, including the creation of a study program in universities. That created a lot of hope for the Kurds to be respected their rights and culture. Then [Erdogan’s party] the AKP is allied with the nationalists and that means that the Kurdish issue is now seen through the prism of security and terrorism.”
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From the Ottoman Empire to the secular republic, Kurdish history in Turkey has been filled with uprisings and violent repression. When he created the modern Turkish nation-state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk despaired of an autonomous Kurdish state envisioned in the 1920 Treaty of Sevrès after the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. . for they are classified as “mountain Turks”. Assimilation is demanded.
For decades, it was considered a crime to simply speak Kurdish or claim a Kurdish identity. This time is over – but the feeling of distrust remains. And it is far from easy to be openly Kurdish.
“When people ask me where I’m from and I say I’m Kurdish, they look at me differently. They shut themselves up; it’s their problem,” said Dilber, a 37-year-old dental assistant from Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Dilber now lives in Adana, 30 km from the Mediterranean coast, and on a short visit to Istanbul. “Of course it hurts. I don’t feel free. I want to live in a country without discrimination. I want to be a free Kurdish woman.”
Dilber does not like Istanbul. “I chose Adana because I can speak my language there; Me with my own people. The Kurds there are very involved in politics. But it is not the same here, where we are a minority – and people are afraid to speak Kurdish and express their identity.
‘Arrested and tortured many times’
Dilber expects “a lot from these elections”. But it was very different for Halit Cicek, a Kurd from Mardin who settled in Istanbul more than four decades ago. Sitting in a café in Istanbul’s predominantly Kurdish district of Tarlabasi, Halit said he had been “arrested and tortured many times” over the years. He discussed the election without much enthusiasm.
“We have our own party, the HDP, but we have to give our votes to the CHP,” he said. “We are not happy about it. But even if we have a candidate, he must explain his identity as Turkish, because that is the only way to be accepted by the voters,” lamented this man with deep blue eyes, twirling the remote control in his hand. .
“Because we are Kurds, there are no guarantees in our lives,” he said. “We have 40 million but we are still not accepted. In France, do you think we are terrorists? They are doing well in Turkey,” he said in a monotone. “We want to be free. We don’t want to be biased; we want our language to be taught; we don’t want to be seen as a minority. We are an integral part of this country. “
Cicek said that if Kilicdaroglu wins, it will revive the dialogue on Kurdish identity after it has been stalled for years.
“Kilicdaroglu did not say anything important on the Kurdish question – except when he proposed to expand the political space [for Turkish Kurds] and strengthen their rights,” said Cicek. “If the opposition alliance wins, they need the HDP to give them a parliamentary majority so that they can change the legal and political system – and those discussions will create the possibility to change the peace process and ensure that it is protected the fundamental rights. .”
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Ferhat Encu, co-chair of HDP’s Istanbul office, shared this analysis. “After the election, our voters will expect more equality and an end to discrimination,” he said. “We are trying to make Kurdish an official language. We want a more democratic country, with new laws. We want to release our prisoners.”
But there is still a great chance of Erdogan’s victory – and that is a source of fear. “We have survived for centuries, in the face of oppression, assimilation. I can be arrested or killed. But what I fear is if he is [Erdogan] wins we will lose our democratic foundations,” said Encu. “We fear that there is no hope for peace. Turkey’s future is at stake.
This article was translated from the original French.