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Turkey's ruling party angling for Kurdish votes to win Istanbul repeat election

Binali Yildirim takes mayoral election campaign to Diyarbakir as AKP courts Kurdish voters in bid to avoid repeat defeat
In an unprecedented move, Yildirim, pictured, and Imamoglu are expected to participate in a televised election debate next week (AFP)
By in
Istanbul

Three months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed opposition politicians for using “Kurdistan” to describe parts of Turkey, his Istanbul mayoral candidate has done exactly the same thing.

Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister from Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was in the Kurdish-majority eastern town Diyarbakir on Thursday in a bid to woo Kurdish votes.

After saluting the locals in Kurdish, he started to mention the Kurdish role in Turkey’s history.

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Yildirim said: “Kemal Ataturk [the founder of modern Turkey] invited Kurdistan representatives as well as representatives from Lazistan and other parts of Anatolia to the national assembly he convened in Ankara.”

The mayoral candidate didn’t stop there. In a TV appearance the same day, he declared support for the grievances of Kurdish and Alevi locals by reminding them that the ruling party had apologised for the brutal suppression of a rebellion in Dersim in the 1930s.

The statement was particularly newsworthy because recently a mayor tried to put banners on municipal buildings in the city to call it Dersim, instead of the government-given name Tunceli.

His decision sparked a strongly worded statement by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, who jointly with Erdogan nominated Yildirim for the post.

What’s going on?

Sources close to the ruling party told Middle East Eye that there is a new strategy to win Kurdish votes which are believed to have helped facilitate opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu’s victory in Istanbul on 31 March.

The Supreme Election Board (YSK) eventually annulled the results, allegedly due to the unlawful staffing of polling stations, and set a new date for elections on 23 June.

AKP Deputy Chairman Azmi Ekinci, in an interview with the Star newspaper, which was later removed from its website, said last month that the ruling party had lost Istanbul due to the rhetoric used by officials.

“Among the reasons we lost Istanbul was our tough discourse on the survival of the nation and President [Erdogan’s] statement which called on HDP politicians, who are tied to terrorists, to leave the country and go to Kurdistan in Iraq,” he said.

Ekinci said calls by Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, to vote for Imamoglu also provided large numbers of Kurdish votes in Istanbul.

The HDP received 12 percent of Istanbul votes in parliamentary elections last year.

Now, it seems, Yildirim has a chance to turn the tables.

'Welcoming language'

Deniz Zeyrek, a veteran journalist from the opposition Sozcu newspaper, has pointed out that a lot has changed regarding the Kurds since the YSK cancelled the elections on 6 May. In an article published on Thursday, he said:

“What has happened since that day?

  • Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was permitted to see his lawyers [first time in eight years].
  • Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said the ban on visiting Ocalan was removed.
  • MHP Leader Devlet Bahceli supported this move.
  • Local officials from the ruling party’s eastern provinces arrived in Istanbul to lure votes.”

Pundits close to the ruling party say the AKP has also run a special campaign aimed at conservative Kurds to allay their grievances caused by nationalistic statements.

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Abdulkadir Selvi, a prominent columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper, said the AKP deployed influential local leaders in Istanbul during the holy month of Ramadan to convince them to vote for Yildirim.

“They changed their rhetoric on the Kurds. They are using a more welcoming language. Yet it isn’t clear how many of the conservative Kurds will go and vote,” he wrote.

Several polls conducted in recent weeks put Imamoglu ahead by two to four percentage points.

Sources told MEE that the ruling party’s own polls show the same results.

In an unprecedented move, Yildirim and Imamoglu are expected to participate in a televised election debate next week, in a bid to lure more voters to support them.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.