The vote is also a referendum on the Democratic Society Party`s performance since becoming the first pro-Kurdish group to enter parliament.
Turkey’s only legal Kurdish party hopes a strong performance in local elections this month will help it avoid a legal ban from the country’s top court, the party’s candidate for Istanbul mayor said on Wednesday.
The vote is also a referendum on the Democratic Society Party’s (DTP) performance since becoming the first pro-Kurdish group to enter parliament in more than a decade, Akin Birdal told Reuters in an interview.
The Constitutional Court is hearing charges DTP is linked with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 25-year campaign for autonomy in southeast Turkey. The European Union has criticised the lawsuit, warning EU candidate Turkey that banning DTP would violate Kurdish political rights.
"Our percentage of votes will determine whether the party is shut down, because it will be difficult for the court to ignore a strong political mandate," said Birdal, who is the founder and former chairman of Turkey’s Human Rights Association.
All but one of DTP’s predecessors has been banned. The ruling AK Party escaped closure by the Constitutional Court last year on charges it was anti-secular. That ruling has given the DTP hope the court will opt not to shut it down, Birdal said.
Pro-Kurdish parties have traditionally fared poorly outside of the mainly Kurdish southeast. Birdal cited polls showing DTP receiving about 5 percent of the vote in Istanbul, home to some 1.75 million eligible voters who are Kurdish.
Istanbul is the world’s most populous Kurdish city after decades of migration from Turkey’s war-scarred southeast, where incomes are about a fourth of the more affluent West. Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 71 million people.
More than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have died since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.
In 2004 local elections, DTP’s predecessor saw its share of mayoral seats in the region halved to four, with AK picking up five seats. The DTP hopes to reverse those losses after sending lawmakers to parliament two years ago, Birdal said.
"Southeastern Turkey is the only region where the AK faces real competition for its mayoral seats," he said.
DTP candidates won less than 5 percent of votes in the 2007 general election, and the party has 21 spots in the 550-seat assembly.
The EU has praised Erdogan’s government for expanding Kurdish cultural rights. Reforms include this year’s launch of a Kurdish-language television station on the state broadcaster this year. Kurdish was completely banned until 1991.
Birdal is not an ethnic Kurd, but is the founder and former chairman of Turkey’s Human Rights Association which has worked to promote Kurdish rights since its inception in 1986.
He accused the Islamist-rooted AK of "insincerity" in its reforms, saying the overtures towards Kurds are aimed at securing more votes in the religiously conservative southeast.
Ahmet Turk, DTP’s chairman, last month addressed party members in Kurdish in parliament and has so far avoided disciplinary action. The last time Kurdish was spoken in the assembly, in 1991, four Kurdish deputies were stripped of their immunity and jailed for 10 years.
"We don’t expect (Turk) to face criminal charges, but if he does, his trial will turn into a trial on the right to speak Kurdish, and that is a fight that the establishment already knows it has lost," Birdal said.