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Europe

Left-wing candidate Demirtas counts on Kurds in Turkey’s presidential election … but second round may surprise

media A banner backing Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Diyarbakir Tony Cross

Selhettin Demirtas is standing for minority rights and a left-wing agenda in Turkey’s presidential election. He expects to get most of his votes from the country’s Kurdish minority, who say they want full democratic rights. But if there’s a second round many may not keep to his socialist line.

Cengiz Aculca is going to vote for Selhettin Demirtas in Turkey’s presidential election.

But, like many Kurds, he will transfer his vote from the left-wing candidate to outgoing prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pro-business conservative, if there is a second round and Demirtas is eliminated.

Click here for our coverage of Turkey presidential election 2014

Aculca, a Kurdish building worker who has lived in Istanbul for 30 years, cannot stand the secularist parties that are supporting Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the candidate likely to come second in the three-horse race for the presidency.

Those parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are fiercely nationalist and, when in government, waged a dirty war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement, which meant widespread human rights abuses in the Kurdish-majority south-east of the country.

“They dealt us a great blow during the 80s and the 90s, especially in the south-eastern part of Turkey,” he says. “Lots of things happened there, so I don’t support them.”

That was when the Diyarbakir Human Rights Assocation was set up.

“The worst time was in the early 1990s,” recalls Abdusselam Incebren, who is its assistant secretary today. “Why? Because many people were killed, many people were tortured, many people they left home and just didn’t come back. So we are still investigating what happened to these people.”

Erdogan’s Justice and Developent Party (AKP) proved more open to compromise with Kurdish aspirations when they were elected in 2002.

Anxious to take Turkey into the European Union, they listened to EU criticisms of human rights abuses, reined back the repression, scrapped laws banning the use of the Kurdish language in the street and even allowed Kurdish-language media to broadcast.

Although PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and made a humiliating public confession on television, the AKP later started secret peace talks with him, leading the PKK to declare a truce.

Although Diyarbakir, the main city in the south-east, still looks a bit like a city under military occupation, especially at night, the dirty war is over.

“If you compare today to the past you cannot say that we have those problems,” comments Incebren. “It’s not like it was in 95-96 or up to 2000, people are not lost, tortured. But one thing we do see is on the streets and in meetings the police abuse their power and that’s a kind of torture.”

The peace process has meant an improvement in human rights, he says. “But, if they don’t kill, they don’t torture, they’re still putting people in jail today. The methods have changed.”

Dermitas’s campaign is going strong in Diyarbakir and, by rallying Kurdish votes along with those of left-wingers who mobilised for last year’s anti-Erdogan protests, he hopes to pass the 10 per cent bar - a performance that, if repeated in a general election, would mean his People’s Democracy Party could have a group in parliament.

But that won’t put him in the second round, if there is one, and many Kurdish voters are likely to vote Erdogan, if faced with a choice between him and Ihsanoglu.

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