Erdogan Risking Losses in Polls as Kurdish War Spurs Nationalist Backlash

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed for cultural rights and investment, not guns and censorship, to end Turkey’s 26-year war against Kurdish separatism. Opponents say the mounting death toll shows he got it wrong.

Militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have killed at least 35 soldiers in the largely Kurdish southeast since May 31. The violence has Erdogan, who must run for re- election in the next year, fending off criticism from both Kurdish sympathizers and their strongest critics.

Kurds say measures such as opening a state television station in Kurdish don’t go far enough. More dangerous for the government are signs of a backlash elsewhere, as nationalist parties seek to portray Erdogan as soft on terrorism. Defusing that charge is key for a premier who says his main aim is to end the bloodshed. He said at a military service last month to honor victims that the PKK “will drown in the blood they spilled.”

“Erdogan was the first person to recognize that there was a real problem,” said Amanda Akcakoca, a policy analyst and program executive at the European Policy Centre in Brussels who has published papers on Turkey’s application to join the European Union. “But he didn’t really have a proper road map of steps to be taken or consensus support from all levels of society. He’s losing his popularity. It’s not a foregone conclusion he’ll be re-elected.”

Poll Lead Narrows

The war has left about 40,000 people dead, mostly Kurds, and cost $300 billion, according to government estimates. It’s intensifying as Erdogan grapples with economic challenges such as an unemployment rate of 13.7 percent as of April -- more than 3 percentage points above the level in 2007, when the last parliamentary vote was held -- and faces his third election campaign, with a narrowing lead.

The premier’s Justice and Development Party is backed by 39 percent of Turks, compared with 26 percent for its main challenger, the Republican People’s Party, and 13 percent for the Nationalist Action Party, according to the average of three polls by research companies Sonar, Genar and MetroPoll in May and June. The Justice party won the 2007 election with 47 percent, to 21 percent for the Republicans.

Increased PKK violence may result in Erdogan losing votes to the Nationalists, said Adil Gur, head of the Istanbul-based A&G Arastirma polling company. Oktay Vural, the Nationalists’ deputy leader, accuses Erdogan of encouraging the PKK and undermining national unity through his willingness to recognize a Kurdish ethnic identity. His party called last month for martial law in the southeast.

Terrorism ‘Awakened’

“By saying that we can find a political solution to terrorism, terrorism has been awakened and it’s come to a point where the government can’t control it,” Vural said in a June 30 interview at the parliament in Ankara. “We’ve come to a point where Turkey’s national identity is being debated.”

The Republicans fire similar criticisms at Erdogan, 56. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who took over as party chief in May, said in a July 6 speech in parliament that the government is “bringing the country to the brink of division.”

Such rhetoric may resonate with voters as PKK attacks spread from the southeast. Five people were killed in a June 22 bomb blast in Istanbul and the PKK, which claimed responsibility, warned of a wider campaign of attacks. Military funerals have become platforms for anti-government protests: In the southern city of Mersin on June 21, a group of mourners surrounded and tried to attack Justice party lawmaker Ali Er; one was detained.

Eroded Popularity

“The Kurdish strategy has not succeeded and has begun to erode Erdogan’s popularity because of the rise in attacks,” said David Lubin, chief economist for emerging markets at Citigroup Inc. in London. Should the government step up public spending to restore its standing, that coupled with benchmark interest rates at a record low of 7 percent could swell the current account deficit, he said in an interview.

Additional challenges facing the premier include fallout from Turkey’s dispute with Israel over the killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship on May 31.

Political opponents, including Vural, criticized Erdogan for putting the interests of other Islamic countries ahead of Turkey’s. Yet public opinion was pressing in the opposite direction, with almost two-thirds of Turks saying the government’s response to Israel after the killings was too weak, a June 3 study by MetroPoll found. The survey of 1,000 people cited a margin of error of 3 percent.

The government also must win backing in a Sept. 12 referendum for constitutional amendments to curb the powers of judges and prosecutors. The country’s top court on July 7 canceled some of the proposed changes, saying they would undermine judicial independence.

Cultural Inclusion

Erdogan told lawmakers in parliament on June 22 that he won’t back down from the Kurdish opening, arguing that the key to ending the PKK war lies in economic development and cultural inclusion.

Along with loosening curbs on Kurdish broadcasters, Erdogan has pledged to invest $15 billion over four years to complete an irrigation and power-generation project, and encouraged companies to invest.

Istanbul-based Koc Holding AS, Turkey’s biggest company, is building an $80-million tomato-paste plant in the region that it says will be the world’s fifth largest. Mobile phone operator Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, also in Istanbul, opened a call center in Diyarbakir, the southeast’s biggest city, in 2008.

Few other businesses have followed suit. The Kurdish southeast was largely excluded from a Turkish boom that saw output per capita more than double to about $8,500 since Erdogan’s party won power in November 2002, while the benchmark ISE-100 stock index surged fivefold.

Few Jobs

Of the nine Turkish provinces where less than one-third of the potential workforce had jobs last year, eight were in the southeast, according to government figures. Average incomes in the region’s 13 provinces ranged between one-third and two- thirds of the national figure, according to a 2008 report by the United Nations Development Program.

Erdogan’s Kurdish initiative has fallen short, said Emma Sinclair-Webb, an Istanbul-based Turkey specialist at Human Rights Watch. She highlighted the premier’s failure to prevent a judicial and police crackdown on the main Kurdish party, which was shut down by courts last year amid widespread arrests.

“Hundreds of Kurdish politicians have been prosecuted for making propaganda for the PKK and praising crime and criminals, making statements which we think would fall within the realm of free speech,” Sinclair-Webb said.

The military continues its hunt in the southeast. A running tally on the army’s website counts 71 PKK members killed since the beginning of June, as Erdogan’s goal of shifting the conflict from the battlefield into the political arena recedes.

To do that, “they need the support of other parties,” Sinclair-Webb said. With elections approaching, “it’s hard to see how that’s going to happen.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Ankara bharvey11@bloomberg.net

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