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ISIS Attack On Kobani Looms Over Turkish Elections

Jun 6, 2015
Originally published on June 6, 2015 12:44 pm
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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Turkey holds parliamentary elections tomorrow, and a pro-Kurdish party might win new votes from Kurds and majority Turks alike. The two groups are often at odds, but they're both upset with President Erdogan. They believe he's too close to Islamists in Syria and has spent too much money on the enormous presidential palace in Ankara. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that Kurds are especially disappointed at Mr. Erdogan's lack of response to an ISIS attack on a Syrian border town last year.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Here's what politics sounds like in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: This is a dengbej singer, a Kurdish tradition stifled by the government during its 30-year war with Kurdish separatists, but undergoing a revival since a cease-fire was declared two years ago. Dengbej songs often relate epic tales from the past, but this one is ripped from the headlines. It's about the attack by the self-proclaimed Islamic State on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani just over the border last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: After years of polling well below Turkey's 10 percent threshold for claiming seats in parliament, this year, a pro-Kurdish party is enjoying a surge in popularity. It's called the HDP, or People's Democratic Party. In the Southeast city of Batman, Nizamettin Toguc, a Kurdish politician who was exiled for years for his nationalist views, says conservative Kurdish tribes who long backed the government now say they're supporting the pro-Kurdish party.

NIZAMETTIN TOGUC: (Through interpreter) Most families already made their decisions, but now they're making it official. So that's very gratifying. The number-one reason is Kobani.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIVES FIRED)

KENYON: Here's why Kobani is driving Kurdish voters away from the ruling party. Last year, I stood on the Turkish side of the border with Syria and recorded this ISIS attack on Kobani. I was surrounded by Kurds who had fled the fighting and were cursing the Turkish tanks that sat there doing nothing while their homes were reduced to rubble. But the party's not just getting a boost from conservative Kurds. Ethnic Turks are also taking a fresh look at the HDP, something that never would have happened in the past. Toguc says disenchantment with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies is giving his party a real shot at reaching beyond the Kurdish population.

TOGUC: (Through interpreter) A lot can happen by election day, of course, but if we can clear the 10 percent hurdle, we'll be on our way to becoming a truly national pro-democracy party.

KENYON: Complaints against Erdogan include charges of recklessly supporting Islamist fighters in Syria and wasteful spending, symbolized by his brand-new, 1,100-room palace in Ankara. Never one to shrink from a fight, Erdogan is suing some of his critics, most recently an editor who published photos of Turkish trucks carrying weapons bound for Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) I filed the lawsuit because all they want to do is cast a shadow on Turkey's image. Those who made this a news exclusive will pay a heavy price. I won't let this go.

KENYON: The president also sued an opposition leader for slander after he claimed Erdogan's palace was outfitted with golden toilet seats. Erdogan is fighting hard because if the ruling party loses seats in parliament, it'll be harder for him to gain new presidential powers that he's been seeking. Political scientist Ersin Kalaycioglu at Istanbul's Sabanci University says Erdogan's immersion in the campaign violates Turkey's constitutional ban on partisan activity by the president, who's supposed to be above the political fray.

ERSIN KALAYCIOGLU: The president has completely sabotaged the campaign process, illegally, violating the constitution - almost two or three articles per day.

KENYON: Sitting on a bench in the southeast city of Diyarbakir, retiree Mehmet Malcok expects the Kurdish HDP to do well in the election. He doesn't, however, expect fair play from a ruling party desperate to hang on to its majority.

MEHMET MALCOK: (Through interpreter) Of course they'll cheat. I used to be a union worker. I know how shady politics can be. Erdogan gets all the media. The other parties get one minute. And I'm sure the counting of the ballots will be suspicious. But I think we'll get in.

KENYON: It's an open question whether enough Turks will back this pro-Kurdish party to make it the newest political player in Turkey, or if old fears and ethnic divisions will play to Erdogan's advantage once again. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Southeastern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.