The Making of a Kurdish Mandela

By keeping a key challenger in jail, Turkey’s government risks making Selahattin Demirtas an even more popular and formidable opponent.

Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) shout slogans and hold pictures of HDP's imprisoned presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas  at an election rally on May 4, 2018 in Istanbul.
Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) shout slogans and hold pictures of HDP's imprisoned presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas at an election rally on May 4, 2018 in Istanbul. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The Turkish government has just called snap presidential and parliamentary elections, which will be held on June 24. Most analysts are predicting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will sail to victory primarily because of the weakness of the main opposition parties and his complete control of the press. He also appears to have developed the institutional capabilities to cheat if it becomes necessary.

Yet if he wins the election, it may be a Pyrrhic victory. First and foremost, the election’s legitimacy will be questioned. There is a pervading sense of unfairness that stems from the fact that the elections will be conducted under emergency rule — an electoral law tailored to favor Erdogan heavily — and in the shadow of the 2017 constitutional referendum, which was decided at the last minute with the inclusion of unstamped illegal ballots. More problematic for Erdogan is the distinct possibility that a backlash against his authoritarian rule and harsh methods would elevate the stature of Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), as the country’s most formidable politician and a potential Kurdish Nelson Mandela.

Demirtas, who made his candidacy public last Friday, suffers from one disadvantage: He is currently in prison. He was detained on Nov. 4, 2016, on spurious charges of aiding and abetting terrorism that could result in a maximum 142-year jail sentence. He has the right to mount a campaign from his jail cell because he has not yet been convicted. To be sure, his communications with his campaign staff will be restricted by the government.

The case against Demirtas is part of a larger effort to decapitate the leadership of Turkey’s Kurdish movement and halt the rise of a reasonable, popular, and moderate leader. Erdogan’s government has imprisoned and dismissed numerous HDP deputies on trumped-up charges, making use of any excuse to strip them of their parliamentary immunity. Kurdish media and nongovernmental organizations have been severely weakened by arrests and closures. As of early March, almost 12,000, or a third of HDP members, had been detained and sent to jail.

Kurds comprise 18 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population and also reside in three other neighboring countries: Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds have been subjected to continuous harassment and denial of basic rights. Demirtas is the first Kurdish politician to have made inroads among non-Kurdish voters, including some on the left of the political spectrum, as well as students and middle-class voters. He is a young, telegenic, hard-nosed politician who, at his trial, succeeded in turning the tables and putting the government in the dock. Like Mandela, who in his famous 1964 Rivonia trial speech drew on his extensive legal training to directly refute several of the prosecution’s key allegations, Demirtas, ever the lawyer, has also sought to systematically deconstruct the state’s case against him. His command of the law together with a detailed defense is designed to undermine the Turkish government’s mantra on the independence of the judiciary. The Erdogan-controlled press, which today comprises almost all television, radio, and newspaper outlets in Turkey, has of course ignored Demirtas or mentioned him only to hurl insults at him. The daily Yeni Safak called him a murderer and a showman; on a regular television program, two pro-AKP columnists argued that he would be jailed for having killed 53 people.

Demirtas succeeded in breathing life into Kurdish politics by professionalizing his party, appealing to broader constituencies beyond the Kurdish population, and articulating a message of Turkish-Kurdish coexistence. He has emerged as a challenger to both Erdogan and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which since the mid-1980s has been engaged in a violent campaign against the Turkish state. While those Kurds who are sympathetic to the PKK constitute a natural base for Demirtas and his HDP, he has worked hard to make inroads among the more conservative and pious Kurds who have tended to vote for the AKP.

He has already demonstrated his prowess. Thanks to Demirtas, the HDP won more than 6 million votes (13.1 percent of the total) in the June 2015 parliamentary elections and managed for the first time to cross the 10 percent barrier needed to get into parliament. HDP gains caused the ruling AKP to lose its parliamentary majority. Erdogan then forced another election that November, which was conducted against a backdrop of war, as he launched a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK and abrogated peace talks he had been conducting with the Kurds through intermediaries including Demirtas. In these elections, the HDP did not fare quite as well though the party still managed to win the 10 percent needed to remain in parliament.

Today’s conditions are different; following a failed July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against all his enemies — real and imaginary. Purges of educational institutions, the judiciary, the military, and the press have deprived Turkey of independent voices. The upcoming June 24 elections are the last step of Turkey’s transition from a democratic parliamentary system to a full-fledged electoral authoritarian regime with almost no checks and balances to restrain the power of the presidency.

It is quite possible that the spectacle of Demirtas campaigning for the presidency from jail could strike a chord with various different opposition constituencies. Erdogan’s hostility toward the Kurds at home and abroad in Syria and Iraq has alienated the conservative Kurds who used to vote for him. These Kurds may never have been sympathetic to the HDP in the past. However, the sheer magnitude of injustices committed against Kurds; the deliberate disparaging of all things Kurdish, including the elimination of municipal and road signs in Kurdish; and the desecration of Kurdish symbols in the Syrian town of Afrin, where Turkish troops and their jihadi allies waged a campaign against Syrian Kurds, have alienated even the most conservative Kurdish voters.

The conditions that made Demirtas a viable candidate in June 2015 are back. Disillusionment with the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), runs rampant among many non-Kurdish opposition voters; Demirtas is perceived as the only principled leader who in the past forcefully resisted Erdogan’s imperious ambitions. It is possible that voters who deserted the HDP after June 2015 and new ones who know that the traditional opposition parties cannot defeat Erdogan will cast their votes for Demirtas as the most effective method of registering their anger at the country’s autocratic leader.

A strong showing by Demirtas in the upcoming elections, perhaps winning as many as 7.5 million votes or approximately 15 percent of the total, would elevate his stature. In advance of his formal candidacy, one poll put him at 13.4 percent, and another pollster suggested that a 15 percent share was achievable as he might benefit from sympathy votes. He and the Kurds could even emerge as the kingmakers in the second round of the presidential poll in the event that no candidate receives more than 50 percent. This is increasingly likely as a new right-wing nationalist party, the Iyi Party, led by Meral Aksener, has emerged as a contender, further diluting the presidential vote. In a second-round toss-up between Erdogan and the main opposition leader — in all likelihood the newly minted CHP candidate Muharrem Ince, who to his credit bucked his own party and Erdogan by refusing to vote to lift the immunities of HDP parliamentarians — Kurdish votes or abstentions could make the difference. This may explain why in the past two weeks, Erdogan, his press outlets, and his allies have toned down their typically belligerent anti-Kurdish rhetoric.

Still, Erdogan faces an unpleasant long-term dilemma: His complete control of the judiciary means he can decide whether Demirtas will never again see the light of day or be freed. Either way, this is a lose-lose proposition for Erdogan. Releasing him will mean that his most effective and skillful opponent with a dedicated base will have a free hand to organize and cause him trouble.

Keeping him behind bars and denying him the right to run will galvanize not just his domestic supporters but also foreign governments and international NGOs. In addition, the mobilization of large diaspora communities, especially in Europe, will help spread the word and develop into a public relations nightmare. A prolonged jail sentence on discredited charges with time will quite conceivably turn him into a cause célèbre — and possibly into a new Mandela.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey

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