Demirtas: in jail, but on the campaign trail

HUNDREDS of new apartment blocks are rising from the rubble of Nusaybin, a city in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east. The government is doing its best to concrete over the devastation. But traces of the horrific clashes between the Turkish army and insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which claimed thousands of lives nationwide in 2015 and 2016, are easy to find. A third of the city, including some 6,000 buildings, was destroyed by helicopters and tanks during the siege. Debris still lines some of the streets. Bullet holes pepper outlying houses and the minaret of a mosque. Only last October, workers unearthed another dead body. Few locals speak openly of any of this. The fighting, accompanied by a series of PKK terror attacks, has ended. But the fear persists.

On June 24th Turkey will hold snap elections, and towns like Nusaybin may determine the fate of the entire country. Whether the opposition can wrest control of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, and the presidency from the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, depends largely on Kurdish votes.

The Kurds in Turkey number some 15m. Those in the south-east, as well as secular Kurds elsewhere, tend to vote for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a group also backed by some leftists and liberals. Those elsewhere, the children and grandchildren of villagers displaced by war in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them assimilated into Turkish culture, have frequently voted AK, as have some religious Kurds.

The HDP is locked out of an alliance formed by the rest of the opposition, so under Turkey’s electoral rules it needs at least 10% of the vote to enter parliament. Unless it does so, Mr Erdogan’s AK will almost certainly retain its long-held majority. If the HDP gets past the magic number, though, parliament may be up for grabs. And that could prompt a political showdown with a re-elected President Erdogan.

The Kurdish vote may even prove decisive in the presidential election, too. In the first round, the vast majority of Kurds are sure to vote for the HDP’s candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who has spent the past 19 months in prison, facing dozens of flimsy “terror propaganda” charges and up to 142 years behind bars. Assuming the contest goes to a run-off, as the polls suggest, they and the rest of Turkey will probably end up choosing between Mr Erdogan and the opposition front-runner, Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Mr Erdogan remains the favourite by a large but narrowing margin.

For the Kurds, the choice is not as straightforward as it might seem. Some continue to see Mr Erdogan as a symbol of reform: the leader who made it easier for them to use their own language and follow their own customs without being harassed by the police. Others hope Mr Erdogan might revive negotiations with the PKK, which he launched a decade ago but disowned in 2015. (That was when he unleashed the army against the insurgents who had holed up in towns like Nusaybin.) Most Kurdish voters, however, no longer give him the benefit of the doubt, says Vahap Coskun of Dicle University in Diyarbakir, the south-east’s largest city. Mr Erdogan himself has ruled out new peace talks. Earlier this year, he launched an offensive against Kurdish insurgents in Syria’s Afrin. Officials now suggest that a new operation against PKK bases in northern Iraq is only a matter of time.

The government insists it is fighting terror. But its crackdown has respected few boundaries. Some 95 Kurdish mayors have been sacked and replaced by state appointees. Nearly 5,000 HDP officials and nine MPs, including Mr Demirtas, as well as dozens of Kurdish journalists, have been arrested. Earlier this year, police detained over 800 people for protesting against the Afrin incursion. A Kurdish artist, Zehra Dogan, was sentenced in March 2017 to nearly three years in prison for a painting of Nusaybin’s smouldering ruins in which she depicted army vehicles as scorpions.

Just because they have tired of Mr Erdogan does not mean Kurdish voters are sure to back Mr Ince. Since the early 1990s, when the CHP formed an alliance with one of the HDP’s predecessors, the secular opposition has done little to endear itself to the Kurds, says Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute, a think-tank. Nationalists within the party have long had the upper hand over progressives, she adds.

But if any secular politician can make inroads in the Kurdish south-east, it is the affable Mr Ince. Unlike most of his colleagues, he opposed stripping Mr Demirtas and other HDP parliamentarians of their immunity. He also made a point of visiting the Kurdish leader in prison and called for his release before the election. His party’s manifesto now promises more autonomy for local governments, a key Kurdish demand. “Between him and Erdogan, people here feel closer to Ince,” says Ferhat Kut, an HDP official in Nusaybin.

For Mr Ince to have a chance in a run-off against Mr Erdogan, he would probably need a clear endorsement from Mr Demirtas. The Kurdish candidate will not endorse anyone before the first round, but he would plainly like to see the back of Mr Erdogan. Turkey is facing a choice between “a democracy and a dictatorship”, he told The Economist through his lawyers. For the Kurds in particular, the past few years have been a preview of the kind of regime Mr Erdogan has in mind, he adds. Mr Demirtas refers to himself as a political hostage. He might be a kingmaker soon.