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Turkey ruling party hopes crackdown on Kurds will win back support in heartland

Turkey's President Erdogan attends a Republic Day ceremony at Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey

By Dasha Afanasieva

Like other conservative voters in Turkey’s pious, Anatolian heartland, 55-year-old Yasin deserted the ruling AK Party in June parliamentary elections, fearing it had gone soft on Kurdish militants after years of peace talks.

Now, he says, he has been wooed back by a renewed crackdown on insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and plans to once again vote for the AKP in the Nov 1 election re-run.

“You give them a finger, they take your arm,” he said, referring to the PKK, which has carried out a three-decade insurgency for greater Kurdish autonomy. “But now we are happy with the government’s stance.”

It remains to be seen whether the AKP will be able to win back enough nationalist swing voters to recover the single-party rule it lost in June, its biggest setback since sweeping to power in 2002.

While the crackdown on Kurdish militants may have mollified some, the AKP still faces discontent over a slowing economy, the growing authoritarianism of President Tayyip Erdogan and perceptions of corruption, even in its traditional strongholds like Kayseri.

The right-wing, Islamist-rooted AKP took 40.9 per cent of the vote in June and then failed to find a junior coalition partner, leading to the November snap election.

While media coverage has focused on the performance of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – which beat expectations and handily passed the 10 per cent threshold required to enter parliament for the first time – pollsters say much of the damage to the AKP came from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which took 16 per cent of the vote, its strongest showing in years.

In Kayseri, hometown of former president and AKP co-founder Abdullah Gul, the AKP went from seven parliamentary seats to five. Former energy minister and current AKP candidate Taner Yildiz attributes that setback to a ‘failure to communicate’ on the Kurdish peace process.

“In the June 7 election, the main theme was disarmament. They didn’t disarm so the citizens saw this as if we were making some kind of concession,” Yildiz told Reuters after meeting voters in Kayseri. “Now we’ve moved from proposed disarmament to forced disarmament.”

AIR STRIKES

Turkey began a campaign of air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq on July 24, dubbed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a ‘synchronized fight against terror’, following more than two years of ceasefire.

The crackdown seems to be working at delivering votes. Ozer Sencar, chairman of polling company Metropoll, said the AKP was winning back voters who had drifted to the MHP, and had increased its share to 43 per cent from 40.9 per cent.

Metropoll predicts the HDP will remain above the 10 per cent threshold required to enter parliament, meaning that if the AKP is to get more seats than in June, the votes must come from the MHP.

Still, the ruling party looks like it may again fall short of a sole majority in parliament.

Perhaps nowhere in Turkey has benefited as much during the AKP’s time in power as industrial cities such as Kayseri, called ‘Anatolian tigers’ thanks to years of booming growth spurred by government incentives and cheap credit.

But a falling-out with the Erdogan has worsened the outlook for some Kayseri-based industrial firms.

Last month, police detained four Kayseri businessmen, including the boss of Boydak Holding which employs 14,000 people, as part of a probe into a ‘parallel structure’ that Erdogan says operates in the judiciary and police.

The businessmen are thought to be supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher and ally-turned-foe of Erdogan. Erdogan accuses Gulen’s followers in the judiciary of cooking up a corruption probe against the president’s family and other prominent businessmen and politicians as a way to gain power.

The corruption cases were dismissed and Erdogan fought back by reassigning thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors deemed loyal to Gulen, and enacting laws boosting government influence over the judiciary.

But the fight against Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States and preaches a pro-Western brand of Islam, has upset some pious voters who respect the cleric.

Twenty-one year old Gulnur, who wears a stiff silk head scarf, said the break with the Gulen movement, as well as the peace talks with Kurds, turned off voters in Kayseri. But she said fear of the alternatives would send locals back to the AKP on Sunday.

“Last time in Kayseri voters wanted to give them a wake-up call so they didn’t vote. But now with a lack of coalition, a lack of government, we will vote for them again.”

Historically Turkey has suffered from unstable coalitions. June’s result sent the lira currency to record lows against the dollar.

Voters in Kayseri complained that the ruling party had become too corrupt and had failed on promises. Sitting at a picnic table across from a friend, 50-year-old Nurettin Karaoglu brushed aside the idea that it was mainly the Kurdish peace process that cost the party its majority in June.

“They got too rich. They stole too much!”

Nevertheless, Karaoglu said he saw no alternative in the other parties.

“The best thief is our thief. The best of the worst is the AKP.”

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