DIYARBAKIR, TIRKEY — Kurdish New Year celebrations drew hundreds of thousands of people to Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, and the center of a power struggle between the pro-Kurdish HDP Party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The HDP organized the Diyarbakir Nowruz celebrations, using it to rally support for its candidates ahead of Sunday’s critical local elections. Among those waving from the party platform was lawyer Kezban Yilmaz, who is running for mayor in Diyarbakir’s Kayar Pinar district.
Yilmaz is running for office with Necati Pirinccioglu. All mayorships contested by the HDP have a joint candidature of a man and a woman. The large turnout for Nowruz celebrations is a welcome morale boost, Yilmaz said, given the mounting pressure the party is facing.
“The security forces often surround our election offices, deliberately creating an atmosphere of worry and fear for our supporters,” she said. “At the same time, police operations against our party have started again, with large numbers of detentions and arrests, especially of our party workers and officials.”
There is a heavy security presence in Diyarbakir, as there is in the rest of Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast. The region is a center of a decades long insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is fighting for greater minority rights.
Following the 2015 collapse in the peace process between the government and the PKK, a major legal crackdown on the HDP was launched. Authorities accused the party of supporting the insurgent group with more than dozen of its parliamentary deputies jailed, including its leaders. Over 80 of its elected mayors have also been imprisoned and replaced with government appointees called “kayuums.”
The HDP is now seeking to take back its lost mayorships, reaffirming its popular support. However, TV stations are refusing to broadcast the party’s campaign advertisements, while mainstream media mostly ignore the party.
Yilmaz, like her fellow HDP candidates across Diyarbakir, relentlessly pounds the street to reach out to supporters.
She appears to receive a warm response. On entering a tea shop, many people clap and whistle in support. With many of its mayors jailed, the HDP’s difficulties appear to be generating sympathy and feelings of injustice.
“Our election rights have been taken away from us. Our votes should be returned to us,” said retiree Seydat, who only gave his first name. “Elections are a democratic right. You can’t seize the seats of people democratically won.”
There is also anger among voters over the HDP’s exclusion from the media.
“You can’t help but feel sad about this situation,” said a first-time voter who did not want to be identified.”You see the discrimination in this attitude against the HDP. They can’t defend or express themselves to people in the media. There are a lot of limitations on our freedoms.”
Many in Diyarbakir watch a European-based satellite Kurdish TV station, which gives news about the HDP. Most apartments in the city have satellite dishes.
Social media is also a crucial part of the HDP’s campaign to get its message out.
“Eighty percent of the population use the social media very actively in Diyarbakir,” said Vedat Dag, the HDP’s Diyarbakir social media chief.
“Rural areas especially use Facebook very actively,” he said, “It is almost 80 percent, 90 percent of the people here use social media.”
A significant part of Diyarbakir’s electorate lives in villages surrounding the city. The HDP claims security forces often prevent their campaigners from entering those regions.
Dag claims the widespread use of smartphones and the net savviness of people also boosts their efforts not only in spreading their message but also in campaigning.
“Normally you would expect the youth to have smartphones,” he said. “But during these times, we see a lot of old people with them. For example, we have volunteers over 50 years old who take pictures and videos for us and share them.”
However, in a Sunday television interview, Erdogan repeated an earlier warning that candidates linked to terrorist organizations faced removal from office. While not explicitly naming the HDP, analysts claim the pro-Kurdish party is the likely target of Erdogan’s threat.
“This is a clear threat by Erdogan to remove the HDP mayor’s from office,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “He has done this in the past, and he will do it again.”
Yilmaz’s predecessor languishes in jail. Despite Erdogan’s warnings, she remains undaunted.
“This threat won’t stop us. It won’t frighten us,” she said. “Our friends (HDP mayors) who are in jail were on the right path and did the right thing. They tried to do the best for the people. Moreover, we intend to carry on where they left off. We will keep the flag flying, and if the state takes us, there will be new people coming after us and continuing our work.”