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Pro-Kurdish party campaigns in shadow of Erdogan threats

HDP rally
Under daily attack from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with dozens of its mayors in jail, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party is fighting an uphill battle for this month's local elections.

Defiant in the face of threats, the People's Democratic Party, or HDP, hopes to mobilize its supporters in the March 31 vote to capture municipal mayor posts and local councils.

"When you start a collective struggle, you have to be ready to face threats, but that should not make you give up," said Mehmet Demir, a HDP mayoral candidate for the city of Batman in the Kurdish-majority southeast.

Erdogan accuses the HDP, the second largest opposition party in Turkey's parliament, of close links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the outlawed Kurdish militant group waging an insurgency in Turkey.

After a state of emergency following a 2016 failed coup against Erdogan, the government installed local administrators to replace 95 of the 102 municipalities held by pro-Kurdish mayors since the 2014 local vote.

Erdogan has already suggested local administrators may be appointed again after this month's election. The initial move drew criticism from rights groups who accuse the Turkish leader of undermining the rule of law.

Batman was one of the first cities where an administrator was named in September 2016. A pro-Kurdish party linked to the HDP won around 56 percent of the vote there during the 2014 election.

"Local democracy has been suspended in the southeast for over the past two years," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch.

Sinclair-Webb denounced the "criminalizing" of the HDP with hundreds of its officials and around 40 mayors currently in prison on accusations of terror links.

The HDP dismisses the PKK accusations and says that it is only a target because of the party's strong challenge to Erdogan.

Some analysts say Turkey's double-digit inflation and its first recession in 10 years may erode electoral support for Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

So the Turkish leader has been campaigning hard, turning up nationalist rhetoric at rallies and showing videos purporting to link HDP and other opponents to PKK militants.

- 'Unconstitutional' -
The HDP has been under fire for years. Party leader Selahattin Demirtas has been in detention since 2016 on terrorism charges, even after the European rights court demanded his release.

During a rally with thousands of people waving colorful flags with the HDP logo, party co-chairman Sezai Temelli dismissed threats to again replace its mayors.

"Erdogan threatens people, but he cannot do it," he said. "To apply this law is unconstitutional and this will affect his own legitimacy," he told AFP.

Temelli drew the wrath of Erdogan after the HDP politician spoke of his party's victory in "Kurdistan", a description used by Kurdish activists to describe the southeast.

"Is there a region called 'Kurdistan' in Turkey? Where is there a Kurdistan? In northern Iraq. If you love Kurdistan so much, go there, clear off to Iraq," Erdogan has thundered almost daily in rallies.

- 'Battlefront' election -
Erdogan's threats have so far not discouraged HDP's supporters.

"Today we will vote for the HDP. If they name an administrator, we will vote again the next day," said Ismet Atac at the HDP rally in Batman.

Emre Erdogan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, said Erdogan's rhetoric was unlikely to discourage the HDP faithful.

"The party formulated these elections as a battlefront, they will do everything to mobilize their voters. Especially, in the urban centers, I'm expecting relatively higher levels of participation," said Emre Erdogan, who is no relation to the president.

"These 'threats' will consolidate the party's local support," he said.

In these local elections, the HDP has chosen not to present candidates in western Turkey in a bid to avoid the splitting of opposition votes. Voters in the west usually opt for nationalist and secular parties.

As well as the president's threats, the HDP has denounced pressure on the ground with heavy police presence at their rallies.

"When we set up our campaign stands, they approach with their armored vehicles, as if they are going to war," Demir said.

Six of their candidates for co-mayor positions also had their applications rejected by the authorities.

Sabri Ozdemir, elected in 2014 but replaced by an administrator named by the government, was one of those rejected.

"The people of Batman had already chosen me, the party had chosen me," he said. "For us, names do not mean much, what matters is that the struggle we lead is victorious."