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03-04-2017 14:56 | Read 1189 times

Kurds may shape referendum result

Thronged with shoppers and men sipping tea on a warm day in early spring, the main streets of Turkey's Diyarbakır show few signs of the devastation wrought by months of fighting last year between Kurdish militants and security forces.

Kurds may shape referendum result

But nearby in Sur, the historic district that saw some of the worst violence, the narrow back alleys simmer with anger. Many residents blame both the state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

How voters in Sur and across the largely Kurdish south-east view the 33-year-old conflict could shape the outcome of an April referendum intended to give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers. In a close race, pollsters say Kurdish voters, about a fifth of the electorate, could tip the balance.

One resident, Serkan, gestures toward bombed-out buildings and fields of rubble.

"Our homes, our memories and our past have been erased, and both sides are to blame for that," he says, declining to give his surname for fear of retribution.

The Islamist Kurdish party he supports, Hüda Par, backs "Yes" in the referendum, but Serkan says he's not sure he can.

Turkey's main Kurdish-rooted party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), says a "Yes" vote will increase the grip on power of an authoritarian leader bent on stifling dissent.

Pollsters say about a fifth of Kurds, or 4 per cent of the electorate, are undecided about how to vote. Recent national opinion polls are mixed, some putting either camp as high as 57 per cent. Most indicate a high level of undecided voters.

"Whoever can convince the undecided Kurds will come out on top," said Faruk Acar, president of the polling firm Andy-Ar.

While the HDP has strong backing in Kurdish areas, taking more than six million votes, or 13 per cent of the nationwide total, in the June 2015 parliamentary election, and nearly 80 per cent of votes in Diyarbakır, Mr Erdoğan remains popular among some right-leaning Kurds.

"Kurdish voters are not monolithic and their political loyalties span the ideological spectrum," said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

In the village of Geçitli, 80 kilometres west of Diyarbakır, Mustafa Çelik, 43, has named his newborn girl "Evet" ("Yes") to show his gratitude to Mr Erdoğan for easing or scrapping long-standing cultural restrictions.

"We can now speak Kurdish. There are TV stations in Kurdish," said the 43-year-old, sitting beside a pink cradle where his daughter lay asleep. "That's all his doing."

In the crackdown that followed last year's failed coup, dozens of Kurdish journalists were detained and numerous Kurdish media outlets shut. HDP lawmaker Osman Baydemir said this was enough reason to vote "No" in the referendum.

"We trust the conscience of the people," he said.

Some in Diyarbakır accuse the HDP of failing to stand up to the PKK when fighting escalated. Others say it should take a harder line against the government. But frustration with the HDP is unlikely to translate into support for Mr Erdoğan.

"Those who leave the HDP do not automatically come to the AK Party," said Mr Acar, the pollster.

For many Kurds, like HUseyin Calis, whose home of 53 years was destroyed by fighting in Sur, the choice is clear.

"It is mostly the state's fault," said the 76-year-old, sitting in the living room of a relative's flat. "We are heartbroken with the HDP too. But our people still can't bring themselves to vote 'Yes'. I say 'No', until the end."

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