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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.