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Turkey’s Kurds anxious before election

The People's Democratic Party (HDP) is the one to watch in Turkey's election on Sunday
People clash with Turkish riot police on June 4, 2015 in Erzurum. The campaign leading up to the June 7 parliamentary vote has been marred with violence (AFP)

DIYABARKI, Turkey - Standing outside the hospital, Vaci Byram huddled with his friends in anguish.  A 35-year old Kurdish man, he joined yesterday’s rally for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the eastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir. Hours after he arrived, his friends were rushed to the emergency after a blast erupted in the center of the gathering.

“We just want peace,” said Byran, while showing MEE photos of those injured on his phone. “But people in this country always make problems for the Kurds.”

Immediately after the blast, Turkish police officers fired water cannons and tear gas at the crowd before fleeing.  According to Turkey’s union of doctors, the blast killed four people and injured over 350 others.

The explosion happened before HDP’s co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, could give his speech to the crowd, and two days before Turkey’s much anticipated parliamentary election—an outcome that is sure to have historic implications.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, intends to change the country's parliamentary system to a presidential one.

This would give him full authority over executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government.  To do so, AKP needs to win at least 330 out of 550 seats in tomorrow’s election.

But the rise of HDP poses the greatest threat to Erdogan’s new vision. Needing at least 10 percent of the national vote—the minimum required for any party to enter parliament—HDP’s success could leave AKP’s ambition of rewriting the constitution in tatters.

And though the cause of yesterday’s tragedy remains unknown, HDP supporters say the explosion is the latest ploy to sabotage their party’s campaign.

Systematic Violence

Nearly 60 attacks have been carried out against HDP in the months leading up to the election.

On April 26, the party’s bureau was attacked by armed gunmen in the western province of Yalova.  A month later, six people were injured from two bomb attacks on HDP offices in the provinces of Adana and Mersin.

On 4 June, a mob attacked a HDP rally in the eastern city of Erzurum killing one person and injuring several others. Police didn’t interfere, except to protect the perpetrators.

“No other political parties are targeted, it’s only us,” said Mustafa Haneef, a Kurdish HDP supporter who was unharmed from yesterday’s explosion. “But we’re not going to be afraid of anyone anymore.”

While the source of the explosion still can’t be confirmed, reports say it was likely caused by a malfunction in the electricity distribution unit. But photos of the blast show the explosion clearly did not come from inside the unit.

Evrum, a 40 year-old women who also attended the rally, says she is almost certain the explosion was not an accident.

“What are the chances that the electricity unit would explode minutes before Dermitash speaks?” Evrim told MEE.

State Propaganda

With AKP disseminating endless propaganda to sway the elections, residents of Diyarbakir say it was only a matter of time before government supporters carried out serious attacks.

On 15 March, Erodgan declared that Turkey does not have a “Kurdish problem” despite participating in ongoing peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while on3 June, the Turkish president accused HDP of being supported by ‘terrorists’ ‘homosexuals’ and ‘atheists’ while lauding AKP’s campaign.

Striving to unite those most disenfranchised, HDP features women in administrative positions and holds a 10 percent membership quota for LGBT activists. Yet with elections fast approaching, Erdogan has resorted to ultra nationalist and religious references to pry away conservative Kurdish voters. 

“People affiliated with government are trying to provoke a violent reaction from us,” said Ali, a 38-year-old Kurdish man who stood just 5 meters from the blast. “Why else would the police shoot tear gas and runaway?”

“They (police) always shoot at us,” Byran told MEE. “It’s normal.”

Keeping Calm

Following the blast, Demirtaş urged his supporters to keep calm and not to react to any provocations.  But with emotions running high, HDP supporters say they are worried about what may unfold once election results are announced.

Byram says that if HDP does not pass the 10 percent threshold, Kurds from all around eastern Turkey will demonstrate for their rights.

“There will be chaos if HDP doesn’t reach the 10 percent threshold,” said Yusef Gun, a 22-year-old HDP supporter who donated blood to those injured from the explosion. 

Despite the rumors of potential violence, Mahmut Shimshae, HDP’s tourism director, says that if the party fails to enter parliament they will urge their supporters to maintain trust in Turkey’s democratic process.

But for now, on the eve of the election, the city remains calm. For how long remains to be seen.

“We just want our rights,” said Ali, as he threw his cigarette stub on the ground. “But Turkey won’t be a democracy if HDP doesn’t pass.”