Religious Kurds become key vote in Turkey

Despite its secular roots, a major Kurdish political party is fighting to regain conservative Kurdish votes from the ruling party.

By , Correspondent

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    Votes: A veiled woman in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey. Kurdish society is among Turkey's most traditional and conservative.
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In an office on the outskirts of this city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, a group of gray-bearded men – all retired clerics – gather for a nightly meeting.

The conversation quickly turns to politics. Local elections will be held throughout Turkey in March, and religiously conservative Kurds like these men have become an important constituency in the southeast.

In recent years, Kurds have gravitated toward Turkey's Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Though not explicitly pro-Kurdish, the party, founded by veterans of the country's political Islam movement, has worked hard to woo Kurdish voters with its conservative credentials.

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But these men say they are throwing their weight behind the Democratic Society Party (DTP), a pro-Kurdish party with socialist roots. Despite its secular origins, the DTP has been trying to reclaim Kurdish votes lost to the AKP by tailoring its language and symbols to religiously conservative Kurdish voters.

"What we have seen in the last year is that the DTP is trying to eliminate the image of the party as an overtly secularist and nationalist movement and reach out to conservative Kurds," says Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara and an expert on Turkish politics. "The AKP's success has forced the DTP to come to terms with the religiously conservative nature of the Kurdish people."

The DTP – currently facing closure proceedings in Turkey's highest court, where it's accused of separatist activities – certainly has a lot to worry about. Once the leading political force in the southeast, the DTP now finds itself locked in a bitter fight for votes with the AKP. In 2007's parliamentary elections, for example, the AKP managed to collect 56 percent of the southeast's votes. Even in Diyarbakir, considered a DTP stronghold, the AKP took 41 percent of votes, up from only 16 percent in the previous general elections in 2002.

"We are closer to the people in this region, absolutely," says Ahmet Ocal, the AKP's Diyarbakir district chairman, during an interview in his office.

The DTP's strong suit has long been its clear pro-Kurdish stance. On the other hand, the party's secular and Marxist roots have often left it at odds with segments of Kurdish society – among the most traditional and conservative in Turkey – something the AKP has been able to capitalize on.

"We've had some problem with religion in the past because of the DTP's Marxist origins. We were once more ideological, but we are becoming more a people's party, one that is respectful of everyone's views," says Bengi Yildiz, a DTP member of parliament from Batman, a city in the southeast.

The DTP is still far from being a religious party. But from the use of religious invocations at certain party events to its tacit embrace of the retired imams group, it does seem to be moving away from its doctrinaire past.

In Batman, for example, the manager of the DTP's local branch is a headscarved woman named Muslise Akgul. "I feel very comfortable in the party," she says, a stylish white headscarf with a dark, wavy pattern wrapped tightly around her face.

"When I go out and talk to people about our party, I tell them that there's a home for religious people in our party," says Ms. Akgul, adding that most of the women in her city's branch wear the headscarf.

Simsiroddin Ekinci, former general secretary of the Diyarbakir branch of Mazlum-Der, an Islamic human rights group, says he believes the DTP is succeeding in changing its image. "The DTP is now bringing religious views and the Kurdish issue together," he says.

Although the AKP has made inroads in the southeast by promising increased rights for the Kurds while playing up its Islamic credentials, recent missteps made by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have also given the DTP an opening.

In a November speech he made in the southeastern city of Hakkari, Mr. Erdogan told the audience: "We have said, 'One nation, one flag, one motherland, and one state.' Those who oppose this should leave." Erdogan's words, which echoed the rhetoric long used by Turkish nationalists, were met with fierce criticism in the southeast.

"The AKP had been gaining strength here, but now it seems to have lost its way on the democracy issue," Mr. Ekinci says. "If the AKP doesn't change its strategy on the Kurdish issue, which is not very clear right now, the DTP will take the elections here."

Still, in the streets and bazaars of Diyarbakir, skepticism of the DTP's new image remains.

"We don't believe them. It's only for elections," says Abdulhakim Begin, who works in a small shop near Diyarbakir's main mosque selling Korans and prayer rugs. "Their ideas are Marxist and Marxism is against religion. They can't represent religious people."

But Bakir Karadeniz, a member of the retired imams group, says his religious beliefs compel him to vote against the ruling party in the upcoming local elections.

"The AKP are not good Muslims, and they are not good democrats. They are using religion, and they are lying to us," he says. "The question is not if the DTP is socialist. The most important thing is to support our rights."

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