Turkish Ruling Party Loses Kurdish South in Local Elections

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Combined Sources)–Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost votes in an election for the first time in his seven-year rule after the economy dived into recession, weakening his hand with Turkey’s Kurdish minority and secular rivals.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to conquer the Kurdish bastion of Diyarbakir in Sunday’s municipal election because they misjudged decades-old grievances by minority Kurds.

The AKP won 39 percent of the vote in the municipal election with 97 percent of ballots counted, 8 points less than in a general election two years ago, according to unofficial results published by CNN Turk and NTV news channels. The secular Republican People’s Party was second with 23 percent.

Erdogan’s party kept hold of the mayorships in capital city Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. But it lost control of the mayoralty of the Mediterranean tourism hub of Antalya to the Republicans and gave up the southern city of Adana to the nationalist opposition.

The Prime Minister is seeking International Monetary Fund help to ride out a global crisis that’s sent unemployment to a record and ended seven years of economic expansion that underpinned his popularity. He’s also fought a battle with the autonomy seeking Kurdistan Workers Party and the fiercely secular army, which suspects him of mixing religion with state affairs.

The Kurdish Factor

In the largely Kurdish southeast, The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) won the mayoral contest in several cities previously held by Justice, including Batman, Van and Siirt, and retained control of the region’s largest city Diyarbakir, which Erdogan had identified as a target. In the general elections of July 2007, the DTP was overshadowed by the AKP’s phenomenal success in the country’s southeastern region.

"Our people, who were hopeful for progress in the Kurdish issue, have withdrawn their support (to the ruling party)," DTP leader Ahmet Turk, said at a press conference, where he assessed the results of the local elections.

The DTP mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, who was re-elected on Sunday sweeping to victory with 66.5 percent of the vote, had recently termed the city “our castle.” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had vowed to “take that castle.” But his party’s candidate, Kutbettin Arzu, managed to gain only 30.6 percent of the votes.

Turk, whose party faces closure by the Constitutional Court on charges it has links to the PKK, said the results were a success for Kurds.

"The people gave a lesson to the government. We got our votes back. Governmen’s are temporary, people are always there.

Jubilant Kurds took to the streets of Diyarbakir after the election to celebrate the DTP victory.

The southeast has been torn by violence since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) stood up to defend the rights of the country’s oppressed Kurdish minority 25 years ago. The government in return launched an all out war against the PKK. Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict and ending it is seen as key to boosting Turkey’s security.

The result of the election was a big disappointment for Erdogan, who had tried to win the support of Turkey’s 12 million minority Kurds, telling them all Turkish citizens were equal and granting more rights to Kurds under pressure from the European Union.

Launching a Kurdish-language state television channel and handing free washing machines to locals did not convince them that the AK Party was best placed to run their cities. However the government is expected to continue pushing for reform.

DTP officials had accused the government of granting some rights to Kurds only to win votes and had pointed out the many restrictions that still exist on the Kurdish language.

"We are so happy that the DTP won. It is our party and this is our victory," said 21-year old student Pelin Altun.

"Only old, religious people voted for the AK Party. The young voted for the DTP because we are most concerned about our identity and the future and not about religion," he said.

"We are not barbarians here we just want our identity," said Yilmaz 34, a caretaker.

Dogu Ergil, an Ankara-based expert on Kurds, said the results had sent the message to Erdogan that "the road to Europe passes through Diyarbakir." The EU has long pressed Ankara to expand more cultural and political rights to Kurds.

"Kurds don’t want to be given rights by the government. They say it is their own rights and they want to exercise them because they belong to them," Ergil said.

The Turkish state has long feared that easing restrictions for minorities will lead to the carving up of the country founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and its destruction of its indigenous Armenian population through Genocide. In recent months the military has made conciliatory gestures, saying force alone will not defeat the PKK.

A Deepening Recession

Erdogan fought the election against a backdrop of Turkey’s first recession since he came to power in 2002. Unemployment rose to 13.6 percent in the three months through January, the highest since the measure began in 2005. The economy probably shrank about 5 percent in the last quarter of 2008 and 10 percent in the first three months of 2009, UBS AG said in a report last week.

Business groups including the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association have criticized Erdogan for failing to strengthen the economy with International Monetary Fund loans.

The government has delayed signing a new IMF accord since last May, when the previous one expired. Instead it has cut taxes and embarked on a spending spree that’s already exhausted the country’s budget deficit goal for the year.

Erdogan’s party “is now vulnerable to a deepening economic recession and its social consequences,” said Serhan Cevik, an economist at Nomura International Plc in London, in an e-mailed report to investors today. “The government will try to stabilize the economic situation, which would force it to reach an agreement with the IMF as soon as possible.”

Erdogan won the last general election with the biggest share of the vote in four decades. He called the election after the secular army sought to block his presidential candidate Abdullah Gul because of his Islamist past. Parliament elected Gul president a month later.

Political Uncertainty

The official Election Board will release a final count in the next 48 hours. Violence broke out in several provinces between rival political groups during the voting. Seven people were killed and dozens injured, Vatan newspaper reported.

Last year, Erdogan survived a move by prosecutors to ban him from politics and shut down his party for seeking to introduce Islamic law. The case, which cited Justice party legislation to lift the ban on Islamic-style headscarves at universities, failed by a single vote in the Constitutional Court.

Erdogan says Turkey must ease restrictions on religion as it chases membership of the European Union. His government started accession talks with the 27-member bloc in 2005 after passing legislation to protect freedom of thought and expression and reduce the army’s powers.

Erdogan told reporters on March 13 that he plans steps after the election to change the structure of the Constitutional Court and make it harder to ban political parties. He didn’t give further details. Hurriyet Daily News said March 18 that the government’s plan would allow parliament to nominate additional judges to the court and increase judicial scrutiny over the army’s budget.

The generals have toppled four governmen’s since 1960.

The election result “could be very useful as a warning to Erdogan to moderate some of his more extremist policies and to deal more effectively with the economic crisis,” said Ilter Turkmen, who was foreign minister after a military coup in 1980.

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