Sezin Öney
Dec 08 2017

Portrait: Selahattin Demirtaş: the Icarus of Kurdish politics

Selahattin Demirtaş, the youthful co-leader of Turkey’s biggest pro-Kurdish party, owes much of his success to being able to reach across the ethnic divide and appeal to secular Turks disillusioned with both the ruling Islamist government and the dowdy serial election-losing main opposition.

In 2015 elections, his People's Democracy Party's (HDP) passed the 10 percent threshold of the national vote necessary to send deputies to parliament and became the third biggest party in the assembly. It was the first time a Kurdish party had bridged the barrier and symbolically, the HDP got more votes than the far-right Turkish nationalist National Action Party (MHP).

But his appeal has perhaps been costly. Demirtaş has now spent more than 400 days in prison fighting terrorism charges for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed separatist group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984.

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is escorted by Turkish gendarmerie as he arrives to the hospital for medical check on December 15, 2016, in northwestern Edirne province where he is imprisoned since early November. AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / STR
File: Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is escorted by Turkish gendarmerie as he arrives to the hospital in Edirne where he is imprisoned since early Nov 2016. Dec 15, 2016. AFP / DOGAN NEWS / STR

Arrested on Nov. 4, 2016, alongside other HDP parliamentarians and the female co-chair of the party Figen Yüksekdağ, Demirtaş faces a sentence of up to 142 years in prison.

At 44, Demirtaş is the youngest party leader in Turkey, where the average age of the others is 67. He is in fact one of the very few young party leaders in the history of the Turkish Republic.

The only other comparable example was Bülent Ecevit, who became the leader of the left-wing People's Republican Party (CHP) when he was 41 back in 1972.

Demirtaş and Ecevit have other parallels; both succeeded in energising the electorate with a left-wing agenda. Both combined a taste for literature with a career as writers and both managed to promote themselves social democratic centrists without abandoning their left-wing roots.

This picture shows a card reading "All together to future with our passion for freedom" during a symbolic signing of the detained leader of Pro Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas' book, "Seher", on November 4, 2017, in Istanbul. AFP / Ozan Kose
Card reads "All together to future with our passion for freedom" during a symbolic signing of "Seher", book written by the detained leader of Pro Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş. Nov 4, 2017, Istanbul. AFP / Ozan Kose

But the comparison between Ecevit and Demirtaş has its limits; the former became an icon of Turkish nationalists when he ordered Turkey’s military invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974. But Demirtaş is a villain in Turkish nationalist circles and seen as an advocate of separatist Kurdish nationalism.

Before the June 2015 general election, Demirtaş addressed the question of whether HDP is a Kurdish party during an interview broadcast by Habertürk.

"At this point, we do not define HDP as solely the Kurdish political movement,” he said. “All diverse colours of Turkey, what we call Turkey's reality; Turks, Kurds, left-wing socialists, democrats, pro-liberties Islamists and Alevis, the women's rights and the youth movements - for the first time, a movement stating that it is pro-unity, pro-coexistence in a free way has established its party and HDP is that party."

That unity message resonated in the first half of 2015. The peace process begun between the PKK and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2009 had opened up that space.

But the June 2015 election produced a hung parliament and the AKP soon called another election in an attempt to win a majority. In July, after a two-year ceasefire, fighting between the armed forces and the PKK resumed.

A Kurdish woman holds a photo of the jailed co-leader of the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, during a rally of the HDP on the eve of the constitutional referendum, on April 15, 2017 in Diyarbakir. AFP / Ilyas Akengin
A Kurdish woman holds a photo of the jailed co-leader of the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, during a rally of the HDP on April 15, 2017 in Diyarbakir. AFP / Ilyas Akengin

The run-up to the repeat elections in November was then dominated by the security question and Demirtaş was repeatedly asked whether he supported the PKK.

Demirtaş said he was inspired to become a lawyer after his older brother was convicted of membership of the PKK, eventually spending 12 years in jail, and the family was too poor to hire an attorney.

His early years, he said, are tainted with memories of poverty. Originally from the rural Palu district of the eastern Elazığ province, the family migrated to Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

Demirtaş grew up on the back streets of Diyarbakır. They were so poor that even buying marbles was a luxury, so he and neighbourhood kids played with nuts they managed to collect. He aspired to become a soldier in the Turkish army, as, he said, "they looked upper class".  

Despite growing consciousness of the ethnic rift in Turkey that has broadened since the fight with the PKK began in the 1980s, Demirtaş refrained from taking part in politics in his early years and helped his father who worked as a plumber.

But it was when he was 18 years old that he became politically active. Local Kurdish political party leader Vedat Aydın was kidnapped and killed by the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism unit (JİTEM) in July 1991.

Pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas (C) addresses a demostration following the arrest of the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, on October 27, 2016. AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN
Pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas (C) addresses a demostration following the arrest of the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, on October 27, 2016. AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN

The crowd that then took to the streets to protest was shot at by security forces and around 20 people were killed. Demirtaş recalled those days as a "period that changed my whole life".

The period of his undergraduate studies in the 1990s was amongst the most brutal in Turkey’s Kurdish region with intensifying clashes and widespread extrajudicial killings. While Demirtaş studied, many of his peers headed to the mountains to join the PKK. Demirtaş also considered the option and friends tried to talk him into it, but chose to complete his studies.

After graduation, Demirtaş started working as a human rights lawyer and soon became the chair of the Diyarbakır branch of the prominent Human Rights Association (İHD). Meanwhile, in he got married to his childhood sweetheart Başak, who became a primary school teacher. They lived on her modest salary as Demirtaş was working pro bono defending political prisoners.

When he was 33, Demirtaş received a proposal to become a parliamentary candidate from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). His humour and oratory skills soon made his star shine in politics.

When it became clear the courts would close down the DTP, its successor Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was founded and Demirtaş became its co-chair in 2010.

File: Co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas delivering a speech in Istanbul during a rally on the lawmakers' immunity, June 5, 2016. AFP / Ozan Kose
File: Co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas delivering a speech in Istanbul during a rally on the lawmakers' immunity, June 5, 2016. AFP / Ozan Kose

Barely after two years later, the transferred to the newly founded HDP, which sought to appeal beyond the Kurdish electorate. His moment came when in 2014 he ran for president against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the first ever popular election for the post. Demirtaş got only 9.76% of the vote, but his light-hearted and energetic style ensured he became a political star amongst many liberal Westernised Turks.

A higher profile meant that Demirtaş attracted further enmity from those at the top and perhaps his eventual arrest in 2016. In that sense, Demirtaş is the Icarus of Kurdish politics who flew too high. With comparative youth on his side, however, he might yet reach for the skies again.