Emerging through the clouds at 15,000 feet, the wheat-colored landscape below looked bone-dry, although the previous week’s snow had made roads in the southeastern Turkish towns of Batman and Siirt impassable. Fortunately for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), an early taste of spring had warmed the air and mostly melted the snow, yielding favorable weather for the by-elections of March 9, 2003. That day’s results sent AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Turkish parliament, and from there to the prime minister’s seat, ending more than four months of uncertainty over who really ran the government. As March 9 approached, foreign and Turkish journalists poured into the area. Delegations of MPs from the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) flew in from Ankara for the day to pay their respects to local dignitaries. Ten days prior to the election, Erdoğan himself dropped in for the day, before wrapping up his barely noticeable campaign with two quick speeches in Batman and Siirt.

On this particular flight, four days before the election, a contingent of AKP members, including the minister of the environment, occupied the entirety of the first-class cabin. As soon as the plane landed they were whisked off in a convoy of black limos to the VIP lounge in the terminal. Two armed soldiers herded the rest of the passengers across the tarmac and through a barbed-wire fence onto a waiting bus. The soldiers boarded the bus escorting it to the terminal. As the bus rattled down the rutted dirt road, a quick scan of the flat horizon revealed Batman’s three Patriot missiles standing ready in the distance.

The populace of the southeast is not accustomed to receiving this kind of attention, after being embroiled for 15 years in a brutal civil war with the Turkish state and rendered a low government priority since war’s end in 1999. The feeling of being neglected, ignored, cast to one side so permeates expectations that it is impossible not to see the clouds of cynicism that cross people’s faces in conversation. Southeastern Turkey is home primarily to Kurds, but also to ethnic Arabs and Turks. Mosques and a smaller number of Syriac Orthodox Christian churches pepper the region, the latter concentrated around Mardin and Midyat. The rapid, albeit short-lived, deployment of Turkish military units across the Turkish border inside northern Iraq, soon after the American forces entered Iraq from the south, cast a shadow over residents’ shallow hopes for an end to violence in the southeast.

No to War

Both the Turkish and foreign media depicted opposition among the Turkish public to the US-led war in Iraq as uncomplicated and unified. The polls show, they reported, that 90 percent of the Turkish population opposed the war. Moreover, the magnitude of anti-war opposition was a key factor in convincing Parliament on March 1, in a 264 to 250 closed-session vote (with 19 abstentions), not to endorse a government-negotiated agreement to permit the deployment of 62,000 US troops for a northern-front assault on Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Banners and signs at anti-war demonstrations preceding the invasion, attended by tens of thousands in the major Turkish cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir and such smaller cities as Iskenderun, Konya and Edirne, coupled with exhaustive media coverage, articulated two discourses about the war. Most people in Turkey were comfortable with both.

The first expressed solidarity and compassion for the innocent Iraqi civilians, especially women and children, who would suffer loss of life and further diminution of livelihood in the war. Those who have been staunch supporters of democracy and human rights in Turkey mostly spoke in this language, although their motivations were not so clear-cut. For some, defense of democratic rights includes cultural rights for the Kurds; for others, it means “no to war not sanctioned by the United Nations”; and for yet others, it means respect for the democratic process whereby the popular will is reflected in government policy, not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world. Defenders of democracy and human rights by no means share a harmonized view as to what democratic-human rights are.

A second kind of anti-war sentiment was based on historical memory and the painful present of the economic crisis that has gripped Turkey since 2001. No one has forgotten the severe economic impact of the 1991 Gulf war, when Turkey lost an estimated $30 billion in revenues from trade and pipeline fees, and no one has forgotten the unfulfilled promise made by the first Bush administration to help Turkey pay the costs of war. After two years of adherence to the US-backed International Monetary Fund stabilization program, few have experienced improvement in their living standards. This discourse of economic privation argued that war would bring no economic gains to Turkey and that the US would not live up to any agreement Turkey signed.

Unified in opposition to the US-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding authorizing US troop deployment, the two discourses came together visually on March 1 when over 100,000 people rallied outside Parliament in Ankara as the deputies met to debate passage of the agreement. “The people will halt this war,” placards declaimed. “To hell with US imperialism.” “America get out, this is our country.” “The budget is for the people, not war.” The results of the parliamentary vote came as a complete surprise. Not a single journalist or public figure in Turkey had predicted that the memo of understanding would not be passed. Turkish television cameras showed a visibly shaken Prime Minister Abdullah Gül leaving Parliament following the vote. Newspapers the following day reported that Gül and Erdoğan were in “shock.” But when the results were announced publicly, both anti-war trends sighed in relief, jubilant that Turkey had asserted itself against US might and achieved a tremendous democratic victory.

Voices Not Listened To

But what of the people of the southeast who share a border with northern Iraq? Except for demonstrations, broken up forcibly by the Turkish military, at the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun, where weapons and heavy equipment were being offloaded from US Navy ships queued up off the coast, there was no visible popular reaction for the press to cover save the March 9 elections. While not a referendum on the war, the low 62 percent turnout for the election was a powerful indication of the degree of frustration and anger of many Kurds with the Turkish state, from whose radar screen the Kurds disappeared after 1999. At the urging of the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), founded to represent the voice of Kurds and excluded from the ballot by a court ruling, 38 percent of eligible voters boycotted the election — an indication that for Kurdish voters in general, but especially for southeastern Kurds, representative channels of participation in Turkish politics are closed. As if to drive this point home, on March 14 the Constitutional Court converted into a permanent ban its earlier closure of the pro-Kurd People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) for its alleged assistance to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Simultaneously, the court initiated proceedings for the closure of HADEP’s shadow successor DEHAP, formed as a backup party should the court have ruled the closure of HADEP before the general elections of November 3, 2002.

In a sense, the Kurdish voice is locked out of the present parliament. Although there are a number of AKP deputies who are Kurdish, the party’s Islamist leanings make it hostile to particularistic identities. Kurdish deputies are not encouraged to assert their Kurdishness. The only other political party which crossed the 10 percent threshold in the November 3 elections is the vehemently Kemalist CHP, self-identified as the guardian of Turkish ethnic nationalism. Neither the single-party majority government nor the opposition in Parliament can or will give voice to the aspirations of Turkish Kurds.

However, it is not only the Kurds who feel marginalized and excluded. Non-Kurds in the southeast, too, are without adequate representation. Although the AKP won all three seats in the Siirt elections, it has no constituency whatsoever in the region. Shortly after the November 3 general elections, Fadil Akgündüz, a wealthy businessman who fled to Germany to avoid criminal prosecution in Turkey, and who had run for office in order to acquire parliamentary immunity, had his victory in Siirt overturned on charges of ballot-box tampering. This cleared the way for Erdoğan’s candidacy. However, ballot-box tampering was old hat in Siirt, and in fact Akgündüz had garnered votes and local support by promising to open a local factory.

With a population of 270,000, one third of whom are under the age of 18, and 30,000 people officially unemployed, residents of Siirt viewed the promise of jobs as reason enough to cast their ballot for Akgündüz. After Akgündüz’s subsequent arrest for election violations, he canceled plans for the factory. As the Radikal newspaper quoted one heavily indebted construction worker on March 8: “He was going to give us jobs, food. If there were such a candidate now, he would get twice as many votes.” People reasoned that if they elected Erdoğan, there was at least the possibility that he might use his influence as prime minister to support development in the region.

The singular concern of the inhabitants of the southeast is with the prospects for a lasting peace in the region. While there are surface similarities, there are in fact quite different discourses heard in the southeast than in the rest of the country. More importantly, these discourses are not listened to in Ankara. In the collective memory of residents of the southeast, the social, political and economic costs of the 1991 Gulf war were devastating. The flood of half a million Iraqi Kurd refugees who crossed the border into Turkey triggered a resurgence of internal fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK, fortified by the guerillas who entered the country among the refugees. Since the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998 and the effective end of the war in 1999, ethnic Kurds, ethnic Arabs and ethnic Turks have been struggling to reconstruct their lives and look to the future. Their overwhelming fear is that should the Turkish military decide to step into the fluid post-war situation in Iraq by sending its troops across the border, then this will lead to a return of state repression and emergency rule, rupturing their lives once again.

Southeastern Sensibilities

Among southeastern Kurds, there are those who believe that Turkish Kurds are making progress, albeit it slowly, in establishing their cultural rights. For them a democratic Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, whether part of a federal state or as an independent state, will be an inspiration in the continuing struggle for democratic rights inside Turkey. These Kurds strongly support the commitment of the AKP government to meeting the Copenhagen criteria for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. These criteria include the rule of law, minority rights, human rights and guaranteeing the stability of institutions to sustain these democratic principles.

Although the small businessmen in this group may shy away from opposing the regime to protect their modest economic gains, these Kurds are quite assertive in their Kurdish identity. They support policies to promote the cultural dimensions of that identity, even though they have endured the uncompromising push of the regime to homogenize identities in Turkey all of their lives. They wish to be integrated into the Turkish polity while retaining their Kurdish cultural identity. If given their cultural rights, this group is on the side of the territorial integrity of Turkey.

If the Turkish army clashes with Kurds in northern Iraq, this group fears, the military, not known as strong supporters of the Copenhagen criteria, might use the renewed hostilities as an excuse to delay if not to sabotage Turkey’s EU candidacy. By the same token, regime change in a democratic direction in Iraq could help keep up the international pressure on Ankara to allow cultural rights of the Kurds. This outlook tends toward optimism.

A second outlook is heard from those Kurds who feel that since the skirmishes and clashes with the PKK ceased, the Turkish state deep-sixed the Kurdish question. In this view, nothing has changed except that repression against Kurds is more legalized. Kurds in Turkey have been given rights on paper — the right to broadcast in Kurdish, the right to offer private language courses in Kurdish — that are disallowed in practice. Mindful that Turkey opposes the establishment of anything resembling an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, these pessimists are convinced that the post-war power vacuum in Iraq can easily generate the circumstances that would prompt the Turkish army to enter northern Iraq. Fighting between Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish army will most certainly resuscitate the Kurdish guerilla movement within Turkey. In turn, this will lead to a revival of clashes and repression against Kurds in the southeast. An oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, if established, could easily finance Kurdish militants inside Turkey. Many who hold this view believe that human rights conditions for Kurds are already so miserable that there would be nothing to lose in joining the PKK under arms.

Ethnic Arabs and Turks in the region look at their circumstances differently. Both of these groups believe that the biggest problem facing the southeast is unemployment. Over the past decade, those ethnic Arabs who were not already living in urban areas have migrated from their villages to towns like Siirt and cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin. Relations between local Arabs and Turks are neither amicable nor openly antagonistic. Ethnic Turks in Siirt talk disparagingly about the recent migrants who are predominantly Arabs, but the issue underlying their attitude is competition for jobs.

When Prime Minister Gül made an impromptu campaign speech in Siirt’s main square the day before the March 9 by-elections, he addressed the crowd in carefully worded sound bites emphasizing the AKP’s support for the unity of all Turkish citizens. Gül declared, “In this country, whether Turk, Kurd or Arab, we are all brothers. Northern Iraqis and Iraqis — Arab, Kurd and Turkmen — are our relatives, brothers.” Because DEHAP had urged its supporters to boycott the election, there were only two voting blocs to woo in the crowd — ethnic Arabs and Turks. Gül was playing to the ethnic Arabs.

Gül further instructed his audience that, “because of the speech Erdoğan made here [drawing attention to religious allegories in a nationalist poem], he was sentenced. Fate is like this. Now the opportunity is in your hands. It is an honor and a great glory for you to bring your representative to the Turkish National Assembly.” Turkish media coverage pointed out that Gül’s message to the crowd on March 9 reminded the people of Siirt of their power to consolidate the authority of the AKP government under one leader, thereby leaving no doubt as to Erdoğan’s command over foreign policy and the economy. Afterward, however, bystanders spoke of their votes in more mundane terms. Erdoğan was not just any MP. He would be the country’s prime minister, and thus he could be counted on to reward his constituents. The day after the election, the sentiment in Siirt was that, having done their duty, they expected payback. Said the owner of a local restaurant to Radikal on March 10, “First we want the road [fixed] and then we want jobs to combat unemployment in the region.”

The basis for the southeastern economy is agriculture and animal husbandry. In the calm of the past four years, the governor of the province of Siirt has initiated several micro-projects, including one to revive and restore cultivation of Siirt’s famed pistachio nuts, and another to train local women to produce small handicrafts and kilims. Some expressed the hope that if peace returned, investors would be attracted to the tremendous tourist potential of the southeast, most notably to the magnificent stone-carved ornamentation of houses and public buildings of Mardin, the Armenian and Orthodox churches and black basalt city walls of Diyarbakir, the Syriac Christian monasteries east and west of Mardin and the extensive ruins of the twelfth-century Artukid capital at Hasankeyf, one of the grandest landscapes in all of Turkey, perched overlooking the Tigris River, and where some 50 families still live in caves pock-marking the canyon walls.

The non-Kurdish pleas for peace articulated anger with the Turkish state and with the politicians in Ankara for the past 12 years of neglect, as well as the fear that if intervention in northern Iraq could not be averted, then establishing a stable, safe environment for economic development would not be possible because intrusion of the Turkish army into Iraq would only serve to stir up the Kurdish problem and deter investment in the region.

What Hero?

Driving into the muddy town of Siirt in the pouring rain before the by-elections, swerving and thumping through the obstacle course of potholes that dot the semi-paved main thoroughfare, a sodden banner swished overhead. “Yiğit düstüğü yerden kalkar,” it read. “The hero will rise from where he has fallen.” The banner was signed by the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Could this exhortation refer to Erdoğan, whom the voters would soon lift into office, the same Erdoğan who rose up like a phoenix once the ban on his participation in political life was rescinded? A vote for this “hero” could be an endorsement of the AKP’s campaign pledges to improve the economy and to put into practice democratic reforms. Or was the Chamber applauding the resilience of the downtrodden people of Siirt, in the face of years of neglect by the central government? Or could the Kurds of the area read the slogan as a call to action, a reminder that their identity and claims upon the Turkish state cannot be suppressed? Perhaps unwittingly, the local merchants’ banner seemed to allow the multiple sensibilities of the southeast to speak with a single voice.

How to cite this article:

Marcie J Patton "Voices from Turkey’s Southeast," Middle East Report 227 (Summer 2003).

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