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Mar 20 2019

Opposition parties vie with each other in Turkey's Tunceli

Across Turkey, opposition parties have sought to put aside their often bitter differences in an attempt to thwart the dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party in March 31 local elections. But in the eastern city of Tunceli, where the ruling party is weak, opposition parties have been unable to find common ground during a tense campaign season.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkish politics since it came to power in 2002. It has run the country’s most important municipalities of the capital, Ankara, and the largest city, Istanbul, since 1994. But in Tunceli and surrounding the mountainous province, the ruling party and its far-right Turkish nationalist allies have always scored badly.

Tunceli, more commonly known to locals by its Kurdish name Dersim, has a history of rebellions against central authority stretching back to Ottoman times. The most notorious revolt began in 1937 and ended in the massacre of thousands of Kurds by security forces a year later. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels have fought an armed campaign against Turkish troops across Turkey’s east and southeast, including in the mountains and forests of Tunceli, since the 1980s.

But while elsewhere in the mainly Kurdish southeast, Erdoğan’s party has scored much support by appealing to conservative Kurds opposed to the leftist PKK, in Tunceli that appeal falls on deaf ears as most of its people are Alevi Muslims alienated by the Sunni Islam promoted by the AKP.

In the last local elections in 2014, a pro-Kurdish party received 42 percent of the vote in Tunceli, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) got 31 percent. The AKP took 9 percent and their Turkish nationalist allies just 1 percent.

But in 2016, police arrested the two co-mayors of Tunceli on terrorism charges and the central government, as elsewhere across the region, appointed administrators to run the municipality. Erdoğan has said that after the elections he will again simply replace any HDP candidates elected mayor with administrators.

This time around the Tunceli races are between the CHP, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP). All three parties oppose the imposition of administrators by the central government, but were unable to shelve their other differences and form an alliance as opposition parties have elsewhere in the country.

One of the HDP’s co-candidates for the post of Tunceli mayor, Hıdır Demir, denied there was a split between the opposition parties. "We don't run against each other. We unite popular forces entirely against appointed administrators," Demir said.

The CHP candidate for mayor of Tunceli, Yusuf Kenan Aydın, said the party had not tried to form an alliance with the HDP. Nationally the CHP has forged an election accord with an opposition nationalist party and an Islamist party, but shied away from the HDP, which the government accuses of being part of the PKK. The HDP has nevertheless not fielded candidates in the race for mayor of Ankara and Istanbul so as to help the CHP candidates.

TKP candidate for Tunceli mayor, Fatih Mehmet Maçoğlu, said he would have entered a pact with the HDP, but talks with the pro-Kurdish party had failed. “An alliance was discussed, but a decision to run separately was taken, we couldn't agree," he said.

A poll released last month had the HDP leading in Tunceli with the TKP coming in second.

The HDP’s other co-candidate, Nurşat Yeşil, said that though efforts to form an alliance in Tunceli had failed, the parties would work together after the polls for the good of the region.