Bullet marks reveal the spot where a rights lawyer was shot in the head at the height of clashes in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır between Kurdish militants and security forces in 2015.
Much of the Kurdish-majority city of over 1 million had to be rebuilt after the street battles, in which Tahir Elçi, president of the local bar association, died near a famous mosque.
But the wounds still fester as Turkey heads into an election due by June from which the main pro-Kurdish party could be excluded.
Last year, prosecutors called for the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) — parliament’s third-largest — to be banned over alleged “terrorism” ties.
And just last week, a top prosecutor asked judges to strip the HDP of government funding, leaving the party’s election campaign in limbo.
“We have 6 million voters [in a nation of 85 million] and want a courageous candidate to support the Kurds,” said Orhan Ayaz, who was elected Diyarbakır mayor in 2019 but was never allowed to assume office despite winning 72 percent of the vote.
More than 60 other elected HDP officials have suffered the same fate, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government accusing them of “terrorism” and appointing ruling party members to run towns and cities in their place.
‘Criminalise the HDP’
Thousands of HDP officials and supporters are behind bars, including the party’s former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, an engaging speaker who ran against Erdoğan in a 2016 election from jail.
Since the 1990s, nearly a dozen Kurdish parties have either been banned or have dissolved themselves in the face of prosecution.
The HDP won 12 percent of the vote in a 2018 election — a share that could become disenfranchised should the party be banned by June.
The government accuses the party of “organic” ties to the PKK, a militia whose decades-long insurgency has seen it designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community.
The Turkish army has launched airstrikes against the PKK and its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq and Syria in response to a November bombing that killed six in the heart of İstanbul.”These terrorism charges serve to criminalize the HDP,” Ayaz said.
“The PKK is a popular movement born of the pressure suffered by the Kurds. It did not fall from the sky,” he added.
“We want a political solution. The military way is not a solution; you need a democratic system to silence the guns.”
‘Don’t be afraid’
The vote of Kurds, often described as the world’s largest people without a state, has been decisive in past close Turkish elections.
But Ayaz warned that Kurds “will not support a party that does not support us.”
Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, won 30 percent of the vote in Diyarbakır in 2018.
“The Kurds will not vote for their enemy,” warned one local businessman on condition of anonymity.
“But they can remain neutral, and that will be enough for Erdoğan to prevail.”
Analyst Mesut Azizoğlu said both the government and opposition parties fear being associated too closely with the Kurds heading into the vote.
“The government — all governments, from the beginning of the republic until today — are afraid of the Kurds, and all their policies are based on this fear,” the Tigris Social Research Centre (Ditam) think tank president said.
“Our message is: Don’t be afraid, we don’t want to separate from Turkey,” said Azizoğlu, who is Kurdish.
“But opposition leaders don’t want to be seen with Kurds, either, and their silence helps Erdoğan,” he said.
‘No Kurdish problem’
Abdullah Zeytun, 34, a lawyer with the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakır, fears rising tensions during the election campaign.
“This government does not tolerate the slightest criticism,” said Zeytun, who finds himself embroiled in more than a dozen court cases linked to politics.
Hüseyin Beyoğlu, Diyarbakır’s government-appointed acting mayor, or kayyum, disagrees.
“There has never been a Kurdish problem in Turkey, and certainly not in Diyarbakır,” he said, welcoming “competition between parties.”
But Naci Sapan, a veteran columnist for the Tigris daily, is pessimistic.
“If we compare today to the 1980s, it’s worse on all fronts: economic, social, political,” he said.
“Today, journalist or citizen, we have no chance of defending our rights,” he said, pinning his hopes on younger Kurds who will be voting for the first time next year.
“They are the most affected by government policy, it should mobilize them. They are the drivers of change,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse