Iraq colors Kurdish campaign in Turkey's national election

A Kurdish party could win representation for the first time Sunday, analysts say.

On the eve of Turkish elections, thousands of Kurds throng a working class neighborhood of this city to cheer on their favorite political party. Circles of young people join hands in a Kurdish dance or halay, and women wear ethnic dresses in the Kurdish national colors of yellow, red, and green.

The scene is one of many signs that tensions between the Kurds and the Turkish government are slowly cooling. After spending most of the last decade battling militant Kurdish separatists in the southeast, hopes of joining the European Union have compelled the government to let Kurdish voices be heard in a way they never have before.

Yet just as this more relaxed political environment was making itself felt, the government is finding new cause – the likelihood of US military intervention in Iraq – to be deeply wary of resurgent Kurdish nationalism.

"It seems ironic that at a time when the Kurdish people in Turkey feel more at ease, the Turkish establishment feels more of a threat," says Professor Kemal Kirisci, an expert on Kurdish affairs at IRISCI, Bosphorus University in Istanbul.

At Sunday's rally – one week ahead of national elections – the predominantly Kurdish DEHAP (Democratic People's Party) drew more than 200,000 people, according to Turkish media reports. DEHAP leaders say this is the first election season they or any other pro-Kurdish party have been able to campaign without much harassment from the government. Analysts say the primarily Kurdish party might even squeeze into office by picking up enough votes – at least 10 percent – to gain seats in parliament. It would mark the first time Kurds have group representation in Turkey.

"This is the first time we've ever been this free," says Pinar Yilmaz, a teenage textile-factory worker in a glittery robe and headscarf. "Before, because of the pressure by police, people were too afraid to attend."

A Kurdish turnaround

The new atmosphere stems from several important trends in Turkey.

The defeat of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, and the life imprisonment of its leader Abdullah Ocalan ended an era of violence. Bloodshed and disillusionment have also led many Turkish Kurds away from secessionism and toward demands for more cultural autonomy instead.

"There has been a Kurdish turnaround: they want to be a part of a multicultural Turkish state," says Mr. Kirisci.

With tensions winding down in the largely Kurdish southeast has come an increased push to join the European Union, whose guidelines have obliged reluctant Turks to loosen restrictions on the Kurds. Just this summer, parliament voted to lift the ban on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language.

Though he doesn't think that DEHAP will make it into parliament, Kirisci says "[DEHAP's campaign] will reinforce Turkey's democratic credentials."

Others say they wouldn't count out a DEHAP success on Sunday. Public opinion surveys show DEHAP winning about 7 percent of the vote. But election analysts say many Kurds are still hesitant to admit they support a Kurdish party, fearful the government will link them with the outlawed PKK or another militant group.

"DEHAP is an unknown, and they might surprise us," says Tarhan Erdem, a polling expert in Istanbul. "If DEHAP is able to make their supporters believe they can pass the threshold, they will get more supporters." Some non-Kurdish Turks, he says, particularly liberals who sympathize with the party's vaguely socialist outlook, may vote DEHAP as a way of protesting Turkey's establishment.

Take Ahmet Demir, who is DEHAP's secretary-general – and not a Kurd. He thinks that the party's success in attracting more voters comes from merging with smaller left-wing Turkish parties to show that the party's ultimate goal is getting Kurds and Turks to work together.

"The ideology that brings me to this party is that I'm a human being, I live in this country, and I want there to be more democratic space for people."

Jitters over war with Iraq

Part of DEHAP's agenda is to implement policies that have gone ignored: such as the lifting of the ban on Kurdish language education. Its goal is not, Mr. Demir says, to break off Kurdish areas from Turkey or any other countries with Kurds, which include Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 PKK guerrillas are stationed in Northern Iraq. Turkey is afraid that if a war against Iraq begins, they will try to blend in with the expected flood of refugees into Turkey.

Demir blames Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit – whose support rating is so low that his Democratic Left Party is expected to disappear after Sunday's ballot – for using war jitters over Iraq as a campaign tactic.

"The Turkish prime minister is saying meaningless things, because no one is talking about a full independent state in Northern Iraq."

But Mehmet Metiner, a former politician in previous Kurdish and Islamic parties, argues that most Kurds would be delighted if a US war in Iraq led to the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

"The [DEHAP] party will say they're socialist and against the war, but they're hoping that a war will let the militants come down from the mountains and let Kurds live freely in Turkey."

Mr. Metiner says he's not voting for DEHAP – many Kurds won't, otherwise it would be assured of a bloc in parliament.

Kirisci says that about 14 million of Turkey's nearly 70 million citizens identified themselves as of Kurdish origin in a May poll, up from 12 million last December – another indicator of an increased comfort level.

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