From Turkish prison, Demirtas slams 'authoritarian' Erdogan rule, urges Kurdish unity

Selahattin Demirtas

ANKARA (Kurdistan 24) – Selahattin Demirtas, Turkey’s most influential Kurdish politician and a candidate for president, talked to Kurdistan 24 one month ahead of presidential and general elections from a prison where authorities have kept him since late 2016.

In a written Q&A interview via his lawyers, Demirtas shared his views on various issues revolving around his candidacy and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that he formerly led.

He also explained HDP’s staunch criticism of his rival and incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions and administration, the Islamist and nationalist right-wing course mainstream Turkish politics has taken, his own party’s Turkish leftist allies, attempts by Kurdish parties to create a unified front, and likely outcomes of the June 24 elections.

Prosecutors ask for up to 142 years of imprisonment for Demirtas over charges of “terrorism and separatism” regarding his previous activities and speeches.

Below is an English translation of the interview conducted in Turkish.

Kurdistan 24: How will your campaign be this election time? Do you intend on taking a harsher stance on President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)?

Demirtas: Actually, we have never organized our election campaigns on harsh discourse. Alongside government criticism, we campaigned by telling people about our party’s policies, policies that are based on a just, honorable discourse of peace. It will not be different this time. We pursue a policy that is as inclusive and peaceful as possible.

Kurdistan 24: The slogan “we will not let you become president” against Erdogan’s ambitions to bring an executive presidency in the run-up to the June 7, 2015, elections was assessed as proof that HDP is the fiercest opposition bloc countering the AKP. In fact, circles close to the AKP claimed your opposition to a more powerful Erdogan brought the end of Ankara’s peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What is your take on such criticism?

Demirtas: Developments that took place since then have proven us right. At the time, we made it clear that we were ready to discuss a presidential system that could be balanced with [parliamentary] control mechanisms and empowered local administrations. In other words, we did not simply have a shallow anti-Erdogan position. What we were against was an authoritarian one-man regime. This is why we opposed the model Erdogan proposed.

An authoritarian regime will never bring democracy and peace to anyone, including the Kurds. History has demonstrated this time and again in the near and distant past. We did not do what we did only to oppose a presidential system or Erdogan. Now, it has become clear that we opted for the right thing.

Kurdistan 24: You recently said you are the only leftist candidate running in these elections. What we have, on the one hand, is AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); on the other hand, one sees the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in an alternative alliance with the ultra-nationalist IYI Party, and Islamist Felicity Party. Both alliances have come to represent the center-right. What kind of position will you take in the face of these two right-wing factions?

Demirtas: We are not here to oppose the opposition. We enter the elections since we criticize the ruling bloc and because we have a claim that we can do better. Of course, we do not support the opposition’s alliance. However, our criticism targets the AKP-MHP alliance, the so-called People’s Alliance.

Kurdistan 24: Following CHP candidate Muharrem Ince’s visit to you in prison, your other rivals, Felicity Party’s Temel Karamollaoglu and IYI Party’s Meral Aksener, called for your release. How do you evaluate these candidates’ statements and their approach to your party, the HDP?

Demirtas: I view their statements about my situation as a positive development. But it seems that there are still deficiencies, unnecessary and unfounded concerns in their approach to the HDP.

Kurdistan 24: Several Kurdish parties came together these past days and formed a “Kurdish Alliance.” This alliance also conducted some meetings with HDP officials. How do you view Kurdish attempts to form an alliance? Will your party take part in such initiatives?

Demirtas: Unfortunately, the alliance we were hoping between the HDP and other Kurdish parties did not materialize. I wish we could have achieved it. Indeed, there is a need for a historic cooperation and a national consensus among the Kurds. Our people were eagerly looking forward to it. All sides should have been able to do this by some sacrifice of [their own interests]. Of course, speaking of sacrifice, the biggest share falls on the shoulders of HDP.

I believe it is crucial to meet on the ground of [Kurdish] national principles with all the parties including the [Islamist] Huda-Par. While the Kurds look for peace and dialogue with powers they fight against, they seriously fail in doing so among themselves. It is a vulnerability and contradiction. We have to achieve Kurdish unity not just because there are now elections, but for the freedom of our people. Although an alliance has not been reached at present, dialogue channels must be kept open. I believe all factions, Freedom and Socialism Party (OSP), Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR), Kurdistan Democratic Party-Turkey (KDP-T), Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), Freedom Movement (AZADI), The Kurdistani Party (PAKURD), should continue the dialogue on the basis of national unity.

Kurdistan 24: It is widely said that AKP’s cozy relations with the MHP have created resentment among the Kurds who used to vote for Erdogan’s party and that those Kurds dubbed as religiously conservative will either prefer to vote for HDP or Felicity Party. What can you tell us about the conservative Kurdish voter’s tendency?

Demirtas: The party receiving the highest amounts of votes and support from the Kurdish conservatives has been, and is, the HDP. Kurds are a people valuing both their [ethic] identity and their faith. Without ignoring this fact for a moment, HDP has to create policies that will respond to the demands, expectations, and problems of the people. The agreements [HDP made] with leftists in the western part of Turkey does not mean we ignore this fact. HDP will undoubtedly continue to take this reality [of conservative Kurds] into consideration. Our people will turn its face neither to the fascist AKP-MHP bloc nor the Felicity Party. What I believe is that [Kurds] come together in the HDP, their own party.

Kurdistan 24: Assuming poll results are brought to you, do you think your party may not be able to pass the 10-percent-high election threshold? If you have any poll results, can you share it with us?

Demirtas: An election survey is yet to provide us with a sound result. For a climate of real fear and anxiety prevails in society. Although people gradually overcome that, it is not yet possible to get an objective answer from surveys. At this point, we cannot say with certainty that the HDP will pass the threshold, although it undoubtedly has the potential. Until the elections, we will continue to work with our people to get the highest vote. We can overcome threshold with hard work and determination. There is no other way. We will surely succeed.

Kurdistan 24: Do you expect to be released before the election?

Demirtas: Our people’s march for freedom determines our situation, not the courts. One day, all prisoners will get their freedom along with our people. We will continue to fight for that, whether in prison or outside.

Kurdistan 24: Your party is applying a system of co-leadership at all levels. Would you recommend this model for the office of president if you are elected?

Demirtas: This is officially not possible. But half of the vice-presidents and the cabinet should be women.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany

(Kurdistan 24 Ankara bureau’s Adem Ozgur interviewed imprisoned Demirtas via the latter’s lawyers)