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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Kurdish grievances boil over at Istanbul polling station

Voters in Tarlabasi neighbourhood voice anger over governance under President Erdogan's AKP party

Huda  Kaya, a HDP member of parliament standing for re-election, speaks to the press after casting her vote in Tarlabasi, a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Istanbul, on June 24, 2018. Pesha Magid for The National
Huda  Kaya, a HDP member of parliament standing for re-election, speaks to the press after casting her vote in Tarlabasi, a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Istanbul, on June 24, 2018. Pesha Magid for The National

It doesn't take long for one of the key issues in Turkish politics to set off an argument outside a polling station in Tarlabasi, a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Istanbul.

Many of the residents moved here to escape violence between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency, particularly in the Kurdish majority south-east.

“We see what is going on in the south-east as oppression,” says Ramazan Turan, a 69-year-old retiree who says he voted for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

“I moved to this neighbourhood 17 years ago because my nephew was taken, and I didn't want to disappear as well.”

A crowd gathers around Mr Turan as he speaks, some filming him on their phones, when an official of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) interjects.

“You got to speak, and now I’m giving my response,” says Toran Topal. “You’re trying to hide the truth. Those things that happened in the south-east — you’re right, they happened, but they happened because of terror groups. I’ve been living in this neighbourhood since the seventies, and in Tarlabasi there was nothing but slums. But today it's developing, there are hotels and tourism and money coming to this neighbourhood.”

Mr Topal praises the advances made under the AKP government, pointing out religious Muslims felt sidelined under previous secular governments. “We couldn’t send our daughters school because of their headscarves,” he says.

The crowd yells at him, calling him a “liar” and cursing him.

“We can't speak as we want. We can't live as we want,” says Mr Turan, walking away. “Go ahead and say what you want, it’s your turn.”

After things calm down, the young men standing around in the courtyard of the polling station continue to discuss what just happened.

“I hope you can tell the difference between the two men who you've just been speaking to,” says Murat Aski, 27, an electrical engineer. “They [AKP] consider us all terrorists. It has got to the point that we can't even express ourselves in our daily lives.”

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Read more:

Turkey elections — live updates as Erdogan aims to retain presidency

In Turkey’s east, many Kurds vote to unseat Erdogan

Suruc: the small border town with a big electoral impact

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Mr Aski says he voted for HDP because of Selahattin Demirtas, its former co-leader who is contesting the presidential election from a prison cell as he faces trial on terrorism charges. “They call us terrorists, but we are more committed to democracy than they are.”

His friend, Mehmet Deniz, 30, an unemployed management graduate, says he and his family supported AKP until the events at Gezi Park in 2013, when the government used force to suppress mass protests against its redevelopment plans for the area. In this election, they voted for HDP.

“I thought that the AKP were better than all of the previous administration because they were starting development,” Mr Deniz says. “When they first took power they did do something, but after that it just became building bridges and roads and that doesn’t help anyone.

“We voted for Demirtas since we figured out that this party does not have any respect for our rights and strangles our freedom, each and every day.”

Mr Deniz says his family hails from Sirnak, a Kurdish area in southern Turkey, so he is used to political violence, but he fears that with this election it will spread to the rest of Turkey.

“Violence will go on and on until Erdogan wins. They already destroyed our city,” he says, referring to the military operation against the PKK in 2015 that left major Kurdish cities badly damaged.

Asked about Mr Erdogan's economic growth, Mr Deniz says: “The whole world has changed in the past 20 years. Sure, Turkey has undergone a huge economic growth, but it's just that the AKP takes credit for it."