Erdogan’s Lead May Shrink as Kurds Say Overtures Disappoint

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The owner of Ensarioglu Insaat Taahut Ticaret AS, a construction company, and former head of the Diyarbakir chamber of commerce, Ensarioglu is one of the prominent locals tapped by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to win Kurdish support as he seeks a third term. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Galip Ensarioglu, leader of the Kurdish tribe sharing his surname, slips his pistol beneath his desk as he sits down at his election headquarters in Diyarbakir.

The main city of Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast has been scarred by violence for decades, as armed militants fight for autonomy. The owner of Ensarioglu Insaat Taahut Ticaret AS, a construction company, and former head of the Diyarbakir chamber of commerce, Ensarioglu is one of the prominent locals tapped by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to win Kurdish support as he seeks a third term.

Ensarioglu, 44, joins a team that includes the ethnically Kurdish ministers of finance and agriculture, Mehmet Simsek and Mehdi Eker. On the campaign trail, though, they’re confronted by voters who have largely rejected attempts to reach out to Kurds. That limits Erdogan’s chances of the landslide win in the June 12 vote that he needs to rewrite Turkey’s constitution. And it raises the risk of violence in a conflict that has already killed 40,000 and cost $300 billion by government estimates.

Erdogan “had big hopes to win far more seats in the southeast, that’s not going to happen,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk. “It’s going to affect the ruling party’s ability to get a big majority.”

‘Take Flags, Go’

The resurgence of pro-Kurdish parties in the southeast underscores their disappointment in Erdogan. As a politician who saw courts ban a series of Islamic-inspired parties he joined in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan said he understood the political oppression of Kurds. Kurds gave him a chance at elections in 2007, when he swept to victory in eight of 14 southeastern provinces. Now, many say he hasn’t carried through.

Erdogan’s main rival for Kurdish votes is the Peace and Democracy Party. It argues that Kurds should be allowed to govern their region, without seceding from Turkey.

“Let them take their Turkish flags and go, that’s the attitude of people here,” said Servet Oner, a party director for women’s issues.

Like Ensarioglu, Oner, 31, is no stranger to guns. Before joining politics, she spent more than six years in prison after being caught training as a guerrilla with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in the mountains outside Diyarbakir.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union. The Peace and Democracy Party, which has links with the fighters, swept Diyarbakir and other southeastern cities in March 2009 local elections, the last nationwide vote. Its candidates may win as many as 30 seats in parliament, up from 20 now, Piccoli said. That may shrink Erdogan’s majority even if his party repeats the 47 percent vote it won four years ago, as predicted in a Pollmark survey last week.

Two-Thirds Majority

Governments can send constitutional changes to a referendum with 330 votes in the 550-seat parliament, or put them straight on the statute books with 367 votes. Erdogan, who says a new charter is his priority after re-election, now has 331 seats.

In most Turkish regions, Erdogan campaigns on his economic record. Since his Justice and Development Party won power in 2002, per capita output almost tripled, exceeding $10,000 last year according to the Treasury. The benchmark ISE-100 stock index has jumped more than sixfold in dollar terms -- almost twice the gain on the MSCI Emerging Market Index -- and yields on benchmark lira bonds have dropped to about 9 percent, from above 50 percent.

The southeast has also gained: Erdogan is spending $15 billion on an irrigation project there. Still, two of every three unemployed people in Diyarbakir have stopped looking for work, according to a 2009 Turkish Statistical Institute report. Per capita output was $2,904, less than half the national average of $6,684 in 2006, the latest figures given.

‘Erdogan Cheated You’

In Zilek, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of the city of Batman, the Peace and Democracy Party’s candidate, Leyla Zana, tells villagers that Kurdish political demands come first.

“We need roads, electricity, and work, but before all this we need peace,” said Zana, who spent 9 1/2 years in prison for supporting the PKK. “You want a better life, but Erdogan has cheated you,” she tells them in Kurdish, a language banned until 1991, to applause and yodeling. “There’s no justice, and with no justice there will be no peace.”

Zana’s convoy entered Zilek led by a bus painted yellow, green and red, the colors of Kurdish nationalism, blasting a song about the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who’s serving a life sentence in a Marmara Sea island prison.

Speaking in Diyarbakir June 1, Erdogan said the Peace and Democracy Party “gets its strength from the PKK and wants to divide us.” He vowed roads, hospitals and schools, and said his government has done more for Kurds than any in Turkey’s history, such as his acknowledgment of a “Kurdish problem,” and the end of a state of emergency and language restrictions.

‘We’re Brothers, Man!’

“Diyarbakir, we’re brothers, man!” Erdogan shouted to the crowd.

Much of the goodwill the measures earned Erdogan evaporated after he backed off an initiative to expand rights and pardon militants, in part because of opposition in other parts of Turkey. Attacks on the PKK and police raids on Kurdish politicians haven’t stopped.

There were riots in southeastern cities last month when the army crossed the Iraqi border to kill 12 PKK fighters. Ocalan vowed to “turn Turkey into hell” if the government didn’t negotiate with him, and the PKK claimed responsibility for a May 4 attack on Erdogan’s convoy in the Black Sea town of Kastamonu that killed a policeman.

“Ocalan and the PKK are thinking this is their opportunity, because of what’s happening in the Middle East,” said Yilmaz Akinci, a board member of the Southeastern Journalists’ Association. “Young people are more radical, they don’t see much hope for living together with Turks.”

Asked whether his Kurdish initiative had been abandoned in an interview with Kanal D television, Erdogan replied, “No, no, never,” according to a transcript published by the state news agency today. He blamed Kurdish politicians from the Peace and Democracy Party for being “insincere” and said they had no interest in working with the government toward a solution.

Out of Jail

Ensarioglu, at the party office where he holds court most nights until around 1 a.m., says he agrees with Erdogan that Kurds need economic measures and cultural rights. Hundreds of Kurdish men sit outside drinking tea and smoking. Some have come to wish the candidate well, some to complain about electricity or title deeds and municipal services. Many ask for help getting relatives out of jail.

The government has been “shy” about Kurdish reforms, for fear of losing votes in other parts of the country, and that will change after another election win, said Ensarioglu. “It will be full speed ahead. We’ll change the constitution and we’ll bring our people’s demands to the top.”

Oner, the former guerrilla and prisoner turned politician, says she’s not convinced that strategy will work.

“There’s no one left to talk with,” Oner said. “Everyone who could talk is in jail. Kurds are going to solve this problem themselves -- sometimes with violence, sometimes with politics.”

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