With Turkey’s referendum on whether to extend the country’s presidential powers less than two weeks away, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned his campaign toward the Kurdish minority.

The move is widely seen as involving a difficult political balancing act for the president, but if successful could bring victory in the hard-fought campaign.

Saturday, Erdogan took his referendum campaign to Diyarbakir, the center of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Last year, fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish PKK that wants greater minority rights destroyed much of the city’s historical quarter.

Erdogan has presided over an unprecedented military crackdown since the collapse of PKK peace talks in 2015, along with mass arrests of members of the country’s main legal pro-Kurdish HDP party.

But Erdogan’s message to the people of Diyarbakir was one of peace.

“These PKK supporters are saying peace all the time. Can peace be established with weapons? We are the guardians of peace and democracy. We openly loved you, not in a hidden way,” he said.

During Erdogan’s early years in power, he introduced groundbreaking Kurdish reforms and initiated a peace process to end decades of fighting. He was rewarded with around half the Kurdish vote, which makes up about 20 percent of the electorate.

Approach changes

But the Turkish president, in a bid to secure Turkish nationalists’ support, has increasingly taken a hardline stance toward the Kurdish rights campaign, in what he calls his war on terrorism.

That stance has hardened further during the referendum campaign, with the message, “One nation, One flag, One State.”

While Erdogan and his ruling AK Party are believed to retain considerable support among pious Kurds, observers question how receptive many nationalist Kurds will be to Erdogan’s conciliatory language.

“There is a problem of credibility that Erdogan would need to overcome, given that his present alliance with the nationalists with MHP will in itself preclude any opening regarding the Kurdish question,” said Carnegie Institute visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen. “So it will be interesting to see how Erdogan will be able to maneuver.”

In a sign of the scale of Erdogan’s problem, the turnout in Diyarbakir appeared much smaller than the usual crowds he draws. 

In contrast, Kurdish New Year, Nowruz Celebrations in Diyarbakir — organized last month by the HDP party — drew more than 100,000 people and turned into a “No” vote rally.

But Erdogan’s Diyarbakir speech suggested a possible return to the peace process.

“We’re ready to talk to anyone if they have no gun in their hands,” Erdogan said, hinting at a new peace process if he wins the referendum.

Critics point out the language was typically ambiguous. After the president repeatedly ruled out any such move, it will be difficult to square even with his some of his own supporters.

“It will be very, very difficult,” predicted Soli Ozel, International Relations expert of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, “but Mr. Erdogan has pulled a lot of rabbits out of his hat before.”

Too close to call

With less than two weeks to go to the referendum, no one is expecting any dramatic shift in policy toward the Kurdish issue.

But a day before Erdogan’s Diyarbakir visit, Sirri Sureyya Onder, a leading member of the pro-Kurdish HDP, was granted rare access to mainstream media, with a long one-on-one interview. Until now, the party described by the president and his government as a terrorist party has been frozen out of the media.

The jailed leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, also called off his hunger strike Saturday after he claimed demands about the treatment of imprisoned party members had been granted. Thirteen parliamentary deputies of the party, along with thousands of officials, languish in jail on anti-terrorism charges in an ongoing crackdown.

Observers suggest the moves are no coincidence, coinciding with Erdogan’s Diyarbakir visit.

The Turkish president’s bid to broaden his Kurdish vote is being viewed as a sign that his strategy of securing Turkish nationalist votes could be in trouble.

While nationalist MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli is backing Erdogan, polls indicate the nationalist vote remains divided.

“It [the referendum] is head to head, 50 percent, 50 percent,” said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source partners, who warns that Erdogan faces an almost impossible balancing act. But “one thing is fairly certain, Kurds will not vote for anything supported by MHP, and visa versa. And MHP is split into different groups, so AKP is left alone.”

With opinion polls indicating the referendum too close to call, observers say Erdogan’s success in reaching the Kurdish vote, while not alienating Turkish nationalist voters, could ultimately determine the outcome of the April 16 referendum.

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