Erdogan's Challenger: The Man Who Could Save Turkish Democracy
If the governing party of Turkish President Recep Erdogan wins the June elections, it will likely amend the constitution to solidify his power. Selahattin Demirtas may be the only man who can stop him.
Everybody wants to catch a glimpse of Selahattin Demirtas, the man who will supposedly save Turkey from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Young students and men with grey beards stream into the lecture hall at Bogazici University in Istanbul. All of the seats are occupied; people are sitting on the floor and standing against the walls. Demirtas steps on to the stage, and when he sees people thronging at the entrance, he calls out: "Just come on the stage!"
The spectators cheer, and a few boisterous ones make a dash for Demirtas, who patiently poses for selfies. A young man presses a baby in his arm and takes a photo. The bodyguards watch in frustration, but Demirtas smiles.
The words "Büyük Insanlik," meaning "great humanity," are written on the screen behind him. It is the slogan of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), an alliance between the Democratic Regions Party (BDP) and Turkish left-wing groups that is led by Demirtas. He is Kurdish, 42 years old, a human right's lawyer from Diyarbakir and a challenger to the president. By running for office, he is hoping to end the omnipotence of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
His success or failure could decide whether Turkey will finally become the land of Erdogan -- or whether democracy still has a chance.
Demirtas' platform is liberal and pro-European. He is the alternative to Erdogan -- the rumbling, provocative autocrat -- and to the boring Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). His opponents, however, accuse Demirtas of being a terrorist whose goal is to damage Turkey.
Caught Between Two Worlds
Demirtas exists between these two poles -- two poles he needs to unite if he wants to have a chance when the new parliament is elected on June 7. In the 1980s, Turkey introduced a 10-percent hurdle -- which requires parties to reach 10 percent of the popular vote to enter into the government. The step was taken in order to keep the Kurdish parties out of parliament. Polls put the HDP at between 9 and 11 percent. He already dared to run against Erdogan once before, during the presidential election last summer, where he received 9.8 percent of the vote.
There's a lot at stake for Erdogan: The HDP could erase his dream of using a constitutional amendment to take away governmental power from the prime minister and introduce a presidential system. If he does that, Erdogan would be even more powerful -- and could govern for another decade.
If Demirtas and the other members of his party receive more than 10 percent of the vote, they will be taking at least 50 lawmakers into the parliament. Then the AKP, which has been running the country on its own since 2002, would no longer have a majority. It would be a break with the past -- the Islamic-conservative party has received better results every past election. This time they stand at 40 percent in the polls, markedly below their previous successes.
The people in the lecture hall applaud, and some yell "Prime Minister Demirtas." Most of them proclaim that they would vote HDP. "Nothing is decided yet, friends," Demirtas shouts as a warning.
He is willing to talk after his appearance, but not in the party headquarters -- he prefers to have the conversation in an unremarkable office in the middle of Istanbul. It belongs to a friend of his and allows him to meet people without immediately being surrounded by onlookers and fans. He drops into a leather armchair and breathes deeply. He seems stressed -- his opponents' attacks worry him. "The AKP has selected us as their main opponent," Demirtas says, measuring each of his words.
Newspapers close to the government recently unearthed an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German daily, claiming that he put "three slices of pork bacon on a plate" at a buffet in a Cologne hotel. Now, three-quarters of a year later, that description has been turned into a sign of his "Godlessness." Unidentified people have carried out dozens of attacks on HDP cars and information booths. On May 18, their offices in Adana and Mersin were attacked with explosives. What is most damaging for Demirtas, however, are the claims that he is a henchman for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Kurdish armed nationalist organization.
A Compelling Life Story
During his youth, Demirtas recalls, he saw soldiers arbitrarily beating Kurds. He describes how his brother was sentenced to several years in prison for supposedly being a member of the PKK, even though he had only taken part in a protest. He talks about how his family couldn't afford legal counsel. This led him to study law, and after his studies, he worked for a human rights organization in Diyarbaki, exposing torture conducted by security forces. Each time he did so, he was summoned and interrogated by the police.
It's been only five years since his former party, the Kurdish Democratic Society Party, was banned and since he was, shortly thereafter, sentenced to ten months in jail for supposedly spreading PKK propaganda.
Demirtas' story is a powerful one: It shows the difficulties he faced on his path from the depths of eastern Anatolia into the heart of modern Turkey. But it's a biography that Demirtas -- who is so witty, charismatic and quick on the campaign stage -- rattles off monosyllabically and without emotion. Demirtas doesn't want his origins to stand at the forefront of things: the Kurdish conflict, after all, remains a polarizing topic.
Erdogan describes him as someone "who stands behind the terror organization" -- as someone who is the puppet of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in jail since 1999. In other words, that he is someone who is unelectable for Turks -- Turks whose votes Demirtas needs in order to move into the parliament.
Demirtas knows mobilizing Kurdish voters won't be enough to win and he suspects that, when all is said and done, some Turks will change their minds and vote against him when they enter the voting booth. For months, he has been trying to rid himself of his image as a Kurdish politician and position himself as anti-Erdogan.
As it turns out, he has visited the PKK leader, who is jailed on the prison island of Imrali. He mentions the latter's views in his speeches and shares them on Twitter. "Of course I speak with him," Demirtas admits. "But Erdogan wanted the peace process too. He himself drove it forward." He argues that the HDP has long been seen as a valuable mediator, and that this in no way means that it is anything close to being a mouthpiece for Ocälan.
'Our Country Has Changed'
"Since Erdogan entered the political stage, our country has changed," Demirtas says, appreciatively, before then immediately softening his statement. At the same time, he says, Erdogan has become ever more authoritarian. Demirtas is split: Nobody has done as much for the Kurds as Erdogan, but the president is his main opponent.
Since 2002, the state of emergency in the east has been lifted, and Kurdish-language television and school classes have been allowed. People are no longer put into prison simply for listening to Kurdish songs. Demirtas describes it as "the beginning of the end of the war." In 2012, for the first time in the three-decade long conflict, with its at least 30,000 dead, the government officially began talks with the PKK. In return, PKK gave up its demands for an autonomous Kurdistan.
But now there's an electoral campaign going on, and Erdogan is using the Kurdish question to stoke the fears of many Turks. Even though as a president he is required to be neutral, he has been campaigning for several weeks now and is pushing for "ideally 400 seats" for the AKP. Three-hundred sixty-seven of the 550 mandates are required to amend the constitution. The HDP has registered several complaints with the electoral commission about Erdogan's appearances, and has been rejected each time on the grounds that it is not up to the commission to control Turkey's head of state.
But Demirtas is also going for broke in this election: Unlike previous elections, the HDP hasn't entered any independent candidates into the race. If his party doesn't reach the 10 percent mark, it won't be represented in the parliament at all. This would give the AKP a secure majority -- in every electoral district in which the HDP wins, the second-place candidate would move forward. In most cases that would be an AKP candidate.
There's nothing Demirtas says more often than this: "Whoever wants to prevent Erdogan from getting more power needs to vote HDP." He is going after the votes of people who feel unrepresented by the AKP or are sick of it: Alevi and secular people, women, workers, young Turks. His party has nominated a gay candidate and members of religious minorities. Women's rights and sexual self-determination have become election topics.
Some Doubts on the Left
"Erdogan is not interested in democracy. He wants a Turkey for the Sunnis, and he is using the piety of the people to enrich himself and grow more powerful," Demirtas says. He says he wants to oppose him by using a "new style of politics" -- with the principles of laicism and "equality for all religions and views in Turkey."
In this country, which is so divided between left and right, liberal and religious, those are strange words. Demirtas is hoping that he can convince more liberal Turks in the process than he will scare away conservative Kurds. The latter still favor the AKP, whose religious agenda is closer to them.
But some people on the left also have their doubts. They worry that the HDP could enter coalition negotiations with the AKP and, in exchange for limited Kurdish autonomy, clear the path for Erdogan's presidential constitution. They believe this because, in order not to imperil the Kurds' peace negotiations with the government, Demirtas has barely said anything about the 2013 Gezi protests.
For this reason, Demirtas emphasizes at his campaign appearances that "we will not be those who help Erdogan get his presidential constitution."
If the HDP does end up making it into the parliament in Ankara, Demirtas says the party will seek to stop the further growth of Erdogan's power. If it doesn't succeed, Erdogan could become an almost omnipotent president, and that could mean the end of the peace process. One way or the other, these elections will change Turkey.
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