Jailed pro-Kurdish leader steps down “for the good of the party”

The popular leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, is stepping down after more than a year in jail in order to help the party function and face a string of elections due before November next year, an HDP member of parliament said.

Besides Demirtaş, 10 other HDP parliamentary deputies are currently imprisoned, along with dozens of its mayors and hundreds of its members, facing charges for alleged support for the banned separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the state in 1984. Tens of thousands have been killed in the ongoing conflict.

Demirtaş, a former human rights lawyer, faces up 142 years in jail on a string of terrorism charges.

“We are happy with Demirtaş. But, the government is not happy with him. As long as he remains in jail, the HDP struggles to process even day to day activities without its chair,” Ertuğrul Kürkçü, an HDP member of parliament said in an interview. “We are forced to reveal our party plans to prison officials.”

Demirtaş, who has spent his time in jail painting and writing poetry and short stories, realised it was best for the party for him to step aside, Kürkçü said.

“This is what Demirtaş has stated, too. Unfortunately, due to current realities, we have not been able to get him out of jail. Demirtaş does not want to hinder the party or get in the way of its future success, so he is voluntarily stepping down,” he said.

Under Demirtaş, a charismatic public speaker and a man of charm and whit, the HDP extended its appeal beyond the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country and passed the 10 percent national threshold of the vote necessary to send deputies to parliament in two general elections in 2015, the first time a pro-Kurdish party had done so.

Demirtaş also gained 9.7 percent of the vote in the 2014 presidential election, gaining support from many secular middle class Turks wary of the Islamist policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party, and weary of the staid main opposition that has failed to win a general election in decades.

The HDP currently has no one in mind to replace Demirtaş, Kürkçü said, and will make its decision at a party conference in February. The next hearing in Demirtaş’s trial is due on Feb. 14.

“Yes, we want to go forward with Demirtaş,” Kürkçü said. “But, the party itself is more important than one man. For the sake of the party’s success, we have to move forward.”

The HDP faces an uphill task to reorganise ahead of local elections in March next year and parliamentary and presidential polls due by November 2019. Some analysts have said Erdoğan’s ruling party could call the parliamentary and presidential elections early.

As well as suffering from having large numbers of its members jailed, state of emergency powers instituted in the wake of the 2016 coup have allowed the government to rule by decree and remove many HDP mayors and other elected local officials from office with the stroke of a pen.

Turkish opposition parties accuse Erdoğan of becoming increasingly authoritarian, ignoring the constitution and sweeping aside concerns for human rights. But that autocratic style may have begun to alienate even former close allies and cracks have begun to appear within Erdoğan’s party after 15 years in power, Kürkçü said.

“Those in diplomatic circles say that Tayyip Erdoğan’s political style is of the ‘gorilla in the jungle’ type. To put it simply, he is hugging any and every issue, swinging from tree to tree, attacking anyone and everyone,” he said.

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