ISTANBUL (AP) — Millions of Kurdish votes will be crucial in determining the fate of Turkey's March 31 local elections, as a pro-Kurdish party has made the strategic decision to send votes to an opposition rival to challenge the ruling party in key races in Istanbul and Ankara.
The Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, is running in municipal races amid a polarized political landscape and a heavy government crackdown on its members for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants. Party mayors and lawmakers, including former chairman Selahattin Demirtas, have been jailed.
The HDP — the second biggest opposition group in Turkey's parliament — draws most of its support from Kurds living in the southeast and in large Turkish cities, as well as other groups for its emphasis on minority rights. Kurds make up about a fifth of Turkey's 80 million people.
The HDP is leading a "Kurdish election alliance" with seven smaller political groups to run in the municipal elections. It has fielded candidates for the March 31 vote in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast but is sitting out critical races in Turkey's major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, the capital.
The strategy aims to deliver HDP votes to Turkey's main secular opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), and its alliance with a small nationalist party so the opposition can better challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Opinion polls suggest Ankara could be won by opposition candidate Mansur Yavas, after being held by AKP and its Islam-oriented predecessor for a quarter of a century.
The race for mayor of Istanbul — Turkey's largest city — may also be tight between former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim from Erdogan's party and opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu.
Pervin Buldan, co-leader of the Kurdish party, told supporters in Istanbul on Sunday that the HDP had become a key party in Turkey.
"We are a party that will determine the fate of the elections in Istanbul," she said.
The Kurdish HDP party got nearly six million votes in last year's general election and Demirtas has twice run against Erdogan for president — the last time from prison.
Tens of thousands of Kurdish supporters attended Sunday's rally, waving flags and chanting slogans for Demirtas and the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Ridvan Tekin, a 35-year-old HDP member, said he'll vote for the secular rival party.
"It's not because I love the CHP, but because this regime (of Erdogan's) needs to change now," he said.
The campaign for municipal seats has been lopsided in favor of Erdogan's party, with the president's daily rallies broadcast live on Turkish television. In every speech, Erdogan has called the elections a fight for "national survival" and branded Kurdish HDP politicians as terrorists and traitors.
HDP's campaign has found no place in mainstream media and the party accuses Erdogan of hostile rhetoric to shore up nationalist sentiments.
In the southeast, the HDP aims to win back control of municipalities that were seized by the government during a state of emergency declared after the 2016 failed coup. Government-appointed trustees replaced elected officials in nearly a 100 municipalities, including in Diyarbakir, the symbolic capital of Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
"My vote is for the HDP because HDP is honor, peace, fraternity. Long live HDP, long live freedom," said Diyarbakir voter Mehmet Birgul, 30.
In October, Erdogan threatened not to accept such an outcome in the southeast.
"If people involved with terror are chosen in the ballot boxes in these elections, we'll immediately do what's necessary and continue on our path by appointing trustees," he said.
The government accuses HDP politicians of links to PKK, and Erdogan regularly brands them terrorists and traitors. The HDP does not deny such links but says it only advocates for Kurdish rights and democracy through legal, political means.
The PKK, considered a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies, has waged an insurgency since 1984 and the conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives. A fragile cease-fire held for more than two years as the Turkish government, HDP politicians and the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, negotiated a peace process.
But the resumption of hostilities in the summer of 2015 brought clashes to southeastern cities where round-the-clock curfews were declared. Since then, at least 4,280 people have been killed, including civilians, according to the International Crisis Group.
A string of bomb attacks claimed by the PKK and its offshoots hit Turkish cities in 2016 and 2017 and the country's jets regularly strike PKK camps in the mountains of northern Iraq.
According to the Kurdish party, 10 lawmakers, 40 mayors and nearly 5,000 activists remain jailed. It says thousands in prisons are on a hunger strike to demand an end to Ocalan's isolation on a prison island in western Turkey.
The rally in Istanbul also marked Newroz, or the Kurdish New Year, where fires symbolizing purification and the arrival of spring burned, following days of celebrations in southeastern Turkey. People jumped over the fires and danced in celebration, despite a heavy police presence.
"Today is Newroz, which for us means peace, freedom, the fellowship of people. We accept everything and that's why we choose the HDP," first-time voter Ozlem Kaya said.
Mehmet Guzel contributed.