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Selahattin Demirtaş, the Dimming Star of Turkish Politics

Selahattin Demirtaş
Selahattin Demirtaş. Photo Picasa

“We won’t let you become president,” Selahattin Demirtaş said in March 2015, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in June. It was the shortest speech the co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the leftist party with roots in the Kurdish political movement, had ever given for his parliamentary group, and he got a standing ovation for it.

Many fans of Selahattin Demirtaş (b. 1973) call him Selocan, “my darling Selo,” Selo being short for Selahattin. To many people, he’s a true idol, with his rhetorical skills, his charming young looks, his modernism and feminism, and his principled stance on justice and human rights. And, despite the excitement about his person, especially before the June elections, Demirtaş remains averse to populism and refuses to make changes to the party’s ideals in order to attract more voters.

The subject of his now famous short speech was his vow not to make Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the man he was addressing) a president with executive powers. Two months before the speech, the HDP had announced it would join the parliamentary elections as a party, and not, as in previous elections, making use of independent candidates to get around the ten-per-cent election-threshold. This was a risk, because parties of the Kurdish political movement had previously always won only about seven per cent of the vote. What if the HDP didn’t get ten per cent and the Kurds were no longer represented in Turkey’s parliament?

A rumour soon started to spread that the HDP was willing to make a deal with the Erdoğan’s AKP: in exchange for more political and cultural rights for the Kurds, the HDP would support the AKP’s post-election bid in parliament to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one, with Erdoğan as president. The potential HDP voters, mostly young secularists who were used to voting for the main opposition party CHP and who detest Erdoğan, would never vote for the HDP if they believed such a deal was in the air. So Demirtaş had to make it clear, “We will not let you become president.”

The HDP took a risk in participating in the elections as a party, but it drew a lot of confidence from the presidential elections held in August 2014. Selahattin Demirtaş was one of the three candidates; Erdoğan represented the AKP and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu the CHP and the ultra-nationalist MHP. Demirtaş managed to get 9.5 per cent of the vote.

Demirtaş’s personality did much to get his party that far, but the message itself shouldn’t be underestimated. This was the message of the HDP, founded in 2012 as the successor of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The HDP was founded not as a party mainly advocating Kurdish rights, as the BDP and its predecessors did, but uniting several leftist parties and NGOs. It thus created a political movement that advocated democracy and freedom for everyone in Turkey, especially marginalized groups such as Kurds, Alawites, LGBTs, and environmentalists, based on principles of grassroots democracy, feminism, and egalitarianism.

The choice of Figen Yüksekdağ as the co-chair alongside Demirtaş is in line with the HDP’s goal of uniting the Kurdish and Turkish left: Yüksekdağ, coming from a Sunni Turkish family, was one of the founders and the leader of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), which emerged with the HDP in 2014. She was chosen as HDP co-chair after the local elections of March 2014, when the former HDP co-chair Gültan Kisanak was elected as co-mayor of Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey.

Demirtaş became the personification of this vibrant new future-focused party, and thus Tayyip Erdoğan’s biggest nightmare. If the HDP could manage to pass the ten-per-cent threshold, he would lose his majority in parliament. A coalition government would definitely mean the end of the plan for an executive presidential system, because all opposition parties fiercely resisted the idea.

The inclusive message of the HDP and Demirtaş’ energetic way of spreading it, turned out to be highly successful: the HDP won 13 per cent of the votes in the elections of 7 June, good for 80 seats in parliament. The AKP earned only 258 seats, fewer than the 276 needed for a majority. On the evening of 7 June, Demirtaş, celebrating the victory in Istanbul, declared, “From now on, the HDP is Turkey’s party. HDP is Turkey, Turkey is HDP.”

But, by the end of 2015, the picture had shifted dramatically. Some half-hearted attempts to form a coalition government were undertaken in the summer, but they were doomed to fail: President Erdoğan steered towards new elections. They were held on 1 November, but under completely different circumstances: the ceasefire between the state and the Kurdish armed group PKK, which had held since early 2013, fell apart soon after the elections, provoked, many believe, by Erdoğan in order to win back the nationalist voters who had left the AKP for the MHP.

Selahattin Demirtaş, married with two daughters, couldn’t shine again. First, the violence coming with the end of the ceasefire made it harder to campaign with the same positive agenda as before, especially because the government framed the HDP as a mouthpiece of the PKK. Then, on 10 October, a peace rally of unions, small leftist parties, and the HDP in Ankara was attacked by two suicide bombers, who killed more than one hundred people. The HDP was forced to cancel all its election rallies because of security concerns. Also, campaigning via traditional methods such as TV was made impossible by government pressure: TV channels could not to invite Demirtaş to their talk shows, and hardly any outlet broadcast the small-scale campaign activities the HDP resorted to. Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ managed once again to pass the threshold, but barely: the HDP got 10.7 per cent of the votes. The AKP regained its majority, mainly at the expense of the MHP.

From the co-leader embodying the free, pluralist future of Turkey, Selahattin Demirtaş became the co-leader of a party forced again to focus more on the Kurdish issue, defending the rights of the people in the southeast, who are enduring increasing suppression by the state security forces, with one curfew after another and one anti-terrorism operation after another, in the Kurdish cities where the youth is entrenched in defence against the state.

But whatever happens, Demirtaş sticks to his message, which is rooted in his life and career before he became Turkey’s most important opposition leader. Born in the southeastern province of Elazig as a Zaza Kurd, he once spoke, in an interview, of his own awakening to being a suppressed Kurd when he attended the funeral of Kurdish politician Vedat Aydin, who was murdered in Diyarbakır in 1990.

He decided to study law, and, when he opened his own practice in Diyarbakır, he focused mainly on so-called unsolved murders from the 1990s, when many Kurdish activists were murdered with impunity by the state. In 2004 he became the local chair of the Human Rights Association, moving into politics in 2007, when he was first elected to parliament for the DTP, the predecessor of the BDP, predecessor of the HDP.

The message is still the same: no deals with anyone to compromise on what Turkey needs: a pluralist democracy, with peace and justice for everyone. Earlier, he expressed himself by telling Erdoğan the HDP would never make him an executive president. Now, in violent times, he is the only politician calling relentlessly on the parties at war to return to the negotiating table.