Yigal Schleifer 1/14/09
With a stylish headscarf wrapped tightly around her face, Muslise Akgul may not fit the typical profile of a leader in the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). With its Marxist roots, the DTP has long been viewed as a deeply secular party.
But Akgul, who heads the DTP’s office in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, says she feels very comfortable in the party. "When I go out and talk to people . . . I tell them that there’s a home for religious people in our party," says Akgul, who adds that most of the women in her city’s party branch wear a headscarf.
Indeed, the presence of leaders like Akgul in the DTP seems increasingly common. Despite its origins, the DTP has been tailoring its language and symbols in order to appeal to religiously conservative Kurdish voters and diminish the growing regional popularity of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Founded by veterans of the country’s political Islam movement, the AKP has been working hard -- and successfully -- to woo Kurdish voters.
"What we have seen in the last year is that the DTP is trying to eliminate the image of the party as an overtly secularist and nationalist movement and reach out to conservative Kurds," says Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara and an expert on Turkish politics.
"The AKP’s success has forced the DTP to come to terms with the religiously conservative nature of the Kurdish people."
The DTP -- currently facing closure proceedings in Turkey’s highest court, accused of separatist activities -- certainly has a lot to worry about. With local elections coming up in March, the party -- once the leading political force in the southeast -- now finds itself locked in a bitter fight for votes with the AKP. In 2007’s parliamentary elections, the AKP managed to collect 56 percent of the predominantly-Kurdish southeast’s votes. Even in Diyarbakir, considered a DTP stronghold, the AKP took 41 percent of the vote, up from only 16 percent in the previous general elections, in 2002.
"We are closer to the people in this region, absolutely," Ahmet Ocal, the AKP’s Diyarbakir district chairman, said during an interview in his office.
The DTP’s strong suit has long been its clear pro-Kurdish stance. On the other hand, the party’s secular and Marxist roots have often left it at odds with segments of Kurdish society -- among the most traditional and conservative in Turkey -- something the AKP has been able to capitalize on.
"We’ve had some problem with religion in the past because of the DTP’s Marxist origins. We were once more ideological, but we are becoming more a people’s party, one that is respectful of everyone’s views," says Bengi Yildiz, a DTP member of parliament from Batman, a city in the southeast.
Even so, the DTP is still far from being a religious party. But from the use of religious invocations at certain party events to its embrace of party activists like Batman’s Akgul, it does seem to be moving away from its doctrinaire past.
In a dimly lit office on the outskirts of this city in Turkey’s predominantly-Kurdish southeast, a group of grey-bearded men, their heads covered in knitted skullcaps, gathered for a meeting one recent night. The office belongs to an organization that supports retired imams and religious officials, and the men -- all former clerics -- were participating in a nightly chat. The conversation quickly turned to politics and the upcoming local elections. Despite the DTP’s socialist roots, the group members said they will be throwing their weight behind the party.
"As religious people, we say all the people have the same rights. The DTP says the same thing, so we can work together," said Zahit Ciftkuran, head of the group, known as the Religious Men’s Help and Support Association (or, as some are calling it, "The DTP’s imams") and which has branches in several cities.
Simsiroddin Ekinci, former general secretary of the Diyarbakir branch of Mazlum-Der, an Islamic human rights organization, says he believes the DTP is succeeding in changing its image. "The DTP is now bringing religious views and the Kurdish issue together," he said.
Although the AKP has made inroads in the southeast by promising increased rights for the Kurds, recent missteps by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have provided the DTP with an opening. During a November speech in the southeastern city of Hakkari, Erdogan told the audience: "We have said, ’One nation, one flag, one motherland and one state.’ Those who oppose this should leave." Erdogan’s words, which echoed the rhetoric long used by Turkish nationalists, were met with fierce criticism in the southeast.
"The AKP had been gaining strength here, but now it seems to have lost its way on the democracy issue," Mr. Ekinci says. "If the AKP doesn’t change its strategy on the Kurdish issue, which is not very clear right now, the DTP will take the elections here."
Still, in the streets and bazaars of Diyarbakir, skepticism of the DTP’s new image remains. "We don’t believe them. It’s only for elections," says Abdulhakim Begin, who works in a small shop near Diyarbakir’s main mosque selling Korans and prayer rugs. "Their ideas are Marxist and Marxism is against religion. They can’t represent religious people."
Bakir Karadeniz, a member of the retired imams group, says his religious beliefs compel him to vote against the governing party in the upcoming local elections. "The AKP are not good Muslims, and they are not good democrats. They are using religion and they are lying to us," he said. "The question is not if the DTP is socialist. The most important thing is to support our rights."
Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.