DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurds who have long felt sidelined in Turkish politics could have a decisive role in a closely fought May election that will determine whether President Tayyip Erdogan extends his rule after more than two decades in power.
With polls showing support finely balanced between Erdogan's ruling alliance and the opposition, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is a potential kingmaker, although a court bid to ban it may mean it has to reform under a new party umbrella.
Among Kurds who gathered on Tuesday for the Newroz spring festival in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, those opposed to Erdogan were upbeat about their chances of securing his defeat at the presidential and parliamentary polls on May 14.
"We expect the regime to go and we will fight for it. We have high hopes for the election. Our peoples are standing together in all their colours," Zeynep Diyar, 36, a political activist, said as Kurdish music blared from loud speakers.
Soaring inflation and public criticism over the way the government handled the response to a devastating earthquake in February that killed at least 48,000 people in Turkey has left Erdogan and his AK Party facing the toughest electoral challenge since he first rose to power.
For many years Erdogan courted the Kurds, who make up about 20% of Turkey's population, winning support in the mainly Kurdish southeast with moves to boost Kurdish rights, economic progress and a bid to end a conflict with Kurdish militants.
But Kurdish support has steadily eroded as Erdogan's government has taken a stronger nationalist line, while his opponents have reached out to the pro-Kurdish HDP to support Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the CHP who opposition parties are backing as their candidate to defeat the president.
'FREEDOM AND EQUALITY'
"Our demand is freedom and equality," said Diyar, at the spring celebrations, adding that she would vote for Kilicdaroglu if the HDP chose to rally behind him.
With opinion polls showing support for the HDP running at more than 10%, it could play a key role in a vote that will decide who leads Turkey and whether to extend Erdogan's brand of economics that once delivered growth and a construction boom, but which has now left Turks battling inflation of 55%.
The HDP, parliament's third-biggest party, wants the opposition to back demands for Kurdish rights and other issues. The Kurdish party held talks with Kilicdaroglu on Monday and is expected to announce this week whether it will back him.
HDP lawmaker Imam Tascier said Kilicdaroglu had acknowledged the "Kurdish problem", terms reminiscent of language used by Erdogan in earlier years when he was seeking Kurdish support.
Now, he said, Erdogan "pushed freedoms, democracy, human rights and the Kurdish problem away with the back of his hand".
Tascier said he was reprimanded by parliament's speaker three months ago for making a speech in Kurdish not Turkish.
Thousands of HDP members, lawmakers and mayors have been jailed or stripped of their positions in recent years.
In 2019, the HDP cooperated with the opposition to defeat the ruling AK Party's mayoral candidates in major cities.
"I don't think HDP voters will have difficulty in voting for Kilicdaroglu, given his recent efforts to build bridges with both Kurdish and conservative voters," said Vahap Coskun, a law academic at Diyarbakir's Dicle University.
While the opposition have been building bridges, Erdogan's AK Party has allied with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) since 2015, when a peace process aimed at ending an insurgency in southeast Turkey collapsed. MHP is a firm opponent of the Kurdish movement and its demands for cultural rights.
'HEAL THESE WOUNDS'
A survey by polling company SAMER in late 2022 showed AK Party support in the southeast had fallen since 2018, while support for the pro-Kurdish HDP had held firm.
Serif Aydin, the provincial head of the AK Party in Diyarbakir, told Reuters the polls were misleading and rejected criticism of the government's crisis response.
"We have tried our best and our people trust only Recep Tayyip Erdogan among politicians in this country to heal these wounds," he said.
But some residents in Diyarbakir, which was hit by the quake even if less severely than some cities, still say the government fell short. "If they had taken measures, not so many people would have died," said 55-year-old Mehmet Bektas.
Yet, legal challenges could derail the role of HDP, which also won almost 12% of the national vote in 2018.
In a case now in court, the party could be banned from the May vote over charges it has links to Kurdish militants. The HDP, which denies any such ties, has requested a postponement of its April 11 court hearing on grounds it would disrupt its vote preparations.
HDP officials declined to say what the party would do if the court hearing was not delayed but media reports said it would direct supporters to vote for the small Green and Left Future Party, which has adopted a party emblem similar to the HDP's.
The HDP has faced a crackdown since the collapse of Ankara's peace process with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the insurgency launched in 1984.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Edmund Blair)