Religious Kurds become key vote in Turkey

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jan 5 22:00:39 UTC 2009

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 Yigal Schleifer | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the January 5, 2009 edition

DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY - 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. 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

"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

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

"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


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