A low-key AK Party candidate won the recent local election in Cukurca, a border district in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-populated region.
HAKKARI, Turkey — After passing through several military checkpoints and driving over a steep road that hugs the hills of eastern Turkey's Hakkari province, where the PKK has conducted several terror strikes against Turkish soldiers in the past three decades, the first sight of Cukurca district appears in the form of a toll post, where cars are stopped, passengers subjected to identity checks and then allowed to proceed.
With a nearly 10,000-strong population, the mountainous town of Cukurca stands next to the Iraq border with the gushing Zap River cutting through its serene valley. The area has always been a hotspot of PKK infiltration.
The PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, has waged a three-decade-long terror campaign against the Turkish state, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties.
Many Turks, who have grown up in Turkey’s west in the 1990s, have definitely heard the name of the town along with Semdinli, Beytussebab, Uludere as news channels often reported casualties from there.
“This is the place where most casualties have happened. 680 martyrs except for [Kurdish-dominated paramilitary] village guards,” said Temel Ayca, the district governor, while speaking with TRT World in the presence of other local officials last week.
Indeed, 680 deaths correspond to nearly one-tenth of Turkey’s total army casualties since 1984, when the PKK group launched its first attack in Semdinli, a district of Hakkari, neighbouring Cukurca.
Ayca, who is originally from Trabzon, a Black Sea province, comes across as a committed public servant trying his best to improve living conditions in Cukurca. Ayca is not only the district governor but also a kayyum, a central government-appointed trustee who has replaced the district’s HDP mayor, following the collapse of Turkey’s peace process after PKK terrorists murdered 2 police officers in their home in July 2015.
During his 18 month-long tenure, he has brought new life to the district from creating a new agricultural brand called Zap to establishing a local radio station and rafting team. He also started a project of restoring Cukurca’s old houses, and renovated the district’s main avenue with a fancy touch.
Although kayyums were initially criticised by the HDP leadership for being directly appointed by Ankara and replacing the region’s elected mayors, they have made a significant mark in the region. Locals seem to appreciate their role in building new roads and addressing their day to day grievances.
Much to everyone's surprise, the kayyum model transitioned into AK Party's electoral victory in the local elections on March 31. Ensar Dundar, the AK Party candidate for mayor in Cukurca, won a resounding victory, defeating the HDP candidate by a 56 percent vote share.
The AK Party made similar gains in other far off districts like Semdinli, Beytussebab, Uludere and Sirnak, where PKK attacks have been more common than any other location.
The HDP, which has alleged links to the PKK, has won back-to-back elections in Cukurca since 2009. But the the party’s mayors have been criticised for poor management skills, often failing to address local issues. Critics have blamed them for not making pragmatic decisions and leaning more on the polarising ideological mix of socialism and Kurdish nationalism.
The combination of effective Ankara-appointed kayyums and HDP’s dysfunctional past policies has changed the political equation in recent elections and allowed for the AK Party to emerge as a strong competitor against the HDP, which had secured 80 percent of the vote in the June 2015 general elections in Cukurca.
Cukurca's newly elected mayor from the AK Party, 49-year-old Dundar has made a positive impression in the district, offering a political alternative to the people who have largely voted in favour of the HDP in previous elections. It's Dundar's two-decade-long service in the district municipality and his problem-solving skills that make him politically indispensable.
When the AK Party nominated Dundar, he was seen as an underdog for lacking strong tribal connections, one of the most crucial elements a candidate must possess in predominantly Kurdish-populated provinces.
“People with feudal origins have constantly become candidates. Besides them, others like me, who have been alienated from the political process, have fallen off the map,” Dundar said, at a local restaurant that used to be an old, dilapidated house before the government trustee turned it around.
“But this time the AK Party has done exceptional research [to find the right candidate]. My name came to the forefront during the local AK Party polls,” Dundar told TRT World.
In the end, against all odds, Dundar was able to beat the tribalism factor in the AK Party nomination process with his political finesse and humble attitude.
“Tribal leaders have told the AK Party leadership that if they choose me as the party’s candidate, they would not get enough votes,” Dundar continued.
With the support of local authorities, primarily Ayca, he secured the nomination for mayorship, “changing the dynamics of the local equation.”
He analysed the HDP support and devised a strategy and stayed away from social media as part of it. He didn't want to leave any clues for the opposition and instead focused on making personal visits to his potential voters. From agricultural development to removing landmines from farmlands to creating more jobs, he explained his vision to them.
He steered clear of hardline HDP supporters, thinking they would vote for the party anyway. But he made sure to not target any individual in his campaign.
“My real agenda was not to target candidates but what I would have to do if I became the mayor,” Dundar said.
“We are all one, equal to each other as primary components [of the nation],” he repeatedly told people while campaigning.
Securing 56 percent of the vote, his victory doubled the AK Party vote share compared to previous local elections, while the HDP's share has declined from 54 to 31 percent.
After the unexpected victory, he urged his supporters to not make a big deal out of it.
“We will get results and go home,” he told them.