Guns, Votes and Clans: How One Corner of Turkey Elevated Erdogan
Just after 10 a.m. on the morning of Turkey’s constitutional referendum, Suat Oztekin arrived with three colleagues to monitor the vote in a remote Kurdish village.
He left, he says, after being refused entry by the village headman, threatened at gunpoint with arrest and punched in the face by a soldier.
Oztekin’s account, disputed by a group of locals, may come as little surprise to opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his effort to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, with few checks or balances on his power. Yet it also shows that the story of the referendum — particularly in war-raked eastern Turkey where Erdogan benefited from a notable swing in his favor from mostly Kurdish voters — isn’t straightforward.
The narrowness of the 51 percent victory and irregularities surrounding it led to a damning preliminary report from international monitors and a rare challenge to the result.
In the Kurdish east, though, there’s another set of concerns: physical and economic security and even the nature of democracy in patriarchal villages. That makes it hard to discern how much of the winning margin was secured by what opponents are calling manipulation and what was down to calculated self-interest.
Oztekin and other Kurdish leaders from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, in the eastern district of Kozluk said their observers were blocked from monitoring 17 of the region’s approximately 120 polling stations. In the village of Oyuktas and elsewhere, he said, officials from the governing Justice and Development Party and security forces brought intense pressure on voters to vote “yes.”
Some stations reported a remarkable 100 percent vote for the pro-Erdogan “yes” side, or as few as one or two “no” ballots to 200 or 300 in favor. Others showed more votes cast than the polling stations had voters registered.
In his victory speech on Sunday, Erdogan thanked voters in the southeast for what he said was a 10 to 20 percent boost in his support there, compared with levels in the last general election in 2015. Since that time the area has been torn by renewed warfare between state security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK, a listed terrorist organization. It isn’t immediately clear why that history should endear the government to ordinary Kurds.
“They put so much pressure on people and used all of the power of the state, but I still don’t think this 51 percent is correct,” said Cuneyt Yildiz, 53, a film maker.
Yildiz’s two houses and livelihood were destroyed during the government’s battle to drive PKK forces out of Sur, a district of about 10,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of the regional capital, Diyarbakir. Residents are now dependent on handouts and the promise of compensation for their lost homes, with officials strongly hinting a “yes” vote would produce better treatment, said Yildiz.
The region is still under emergency rule and curfews are widespread. As many as half a million people have been displaced in total. Access to towns such as Lice and Kulp, which also recorded zero “no” votes in some polling stations, remains blocked due to continued fighting in the area.
In Silvan, a town of 40,000 on one of Turkey’s main east-west highways, a convoy of three armored cars was on patrol Wednesday evening, their gun turrets spinning watchfully.
“This region feels as though it is under occupation,” said Nevzat Oezgen, an HDP board member in Diyarbakir. “There was no political campaigning or democracy going on here.”
And yet, while evidence of apparent ballot fraud during the referendum mounts, there are other factors that may have boosted the “yes” vote here.
In Oyuktas, local elders denied any violence was used against Oztekin, a fellow Kurd whose brother fought and died with the PKK in the nearby mountains. But he was an outsider who they said had failed to ask the headman’s permission to enter the polling station and wanted to canvass for the HDP.
That could have upset their own way of deciding how their village should vote.
Mustafa Altas, the deputy headman, or muhtar, said electoral decisions are taken collectively, with elders meeting each other over glasses of tea to discuss how various parts of the village’s large extended family should vote.
In 2015, that choice was overwhelmingly for the HDP, because its charismatic new leader, Selahattin Demirtas, was promising a democratic path to peace and economic stability for Kurds, Altas said. Then war broke out between the government and the PKK. Demirtas is now in jail along with dozens of other HDP activists from Kozluk and hundreds nationwide, accused of supporting the PKK.
The elders opted to hedge their bets. “We decided to vote 220 for ‘yes’ and 135 for ‘no,’” said Altas. He voted “yes,” and as “no” voters joined the discussion they insisted there had been no pressure from the muhtars to change their minds. “The HDP can do nothing for us now, and we will give our votes to whomever can help us,” said Altas. The actual result was 219 to 134.
Such collective voting in highly patriarchal Kurdish villages also appears to have worked the other way, with some polling stations around Kozluk opposed to handing Erdogan greater powers by as much as 249 to four.
Many of those displaced by fighting in Kurdish nationalist strongholds such as Sur simply couldn’t return to their registered homes to vote, while a smaller Kurdish party switched allegiance to the “yes” campaign. Even some of the villages that were unanimous in support of Erdogan proved less mysterious on inspection. One was the hometown of an AKP lawmaker and staunchly loyal to him.
An hourlong drive into mountains on a vertiginous road that required removing rock falls to pass found voters in hamlets around Akcali only too proud to say that none had opted for “no.” They were Arabs, originally from Iraq, thankful to Erdogan for building their winding road and providing them with electricity and water.
With so much violence in and around Turkey, Kurds switched to vote “yes” because they increasingly see one man rule as the best way to retrieve stability and build the economy, said Turkan Gurler, an AKP board member for Diyarbakir and wife of a wealthy local businessman.
“They love Tayyip Baba,” she said.
The narrow and contested nature of Erdogan’s victory, which has left the geopolitically critical nation more bitterly divided than ever, makes that seem at best optimistic, however.
“All politics are lies,” said Altas. “Now the referendum is over, things can get back to normal.”
—with assistance from Benjamin Harvey and Sam Dodge