Jailed Kurdish leader Demirtaş a threat to Erdoğan’s Turkey

In February 2010, Selahattin Demirtaş somewhat unexpectedly became the co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party, a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey and predecessor to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), when his elder brother and then-newly elected co-chair Nurettin Demirtaş was indicted and convicted for draft evasion. 

Even though he assumed the position as a second choice, Selahattin Demirtaş’s witty style, his eloquent and politically correct use of language quickly earned the attention of both Kurdish and non-Kurdish voters. In 2014, when he received nearly 10 percent of the vote as the presidential candidate of the then-newly formed HDP, he emerged in the national public sphere as a charismatic figure with the capacity to bring together all democratic sectors of society, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. 

He really came into his own, however, during the campaign for the June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections, when the HDP won 13 percent of the national vote and stopped President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) forming a majority government. During the campaign he spoke to enthusiastic multitudes across Turkey, articulating a leftist, pro-working class, and radical democratic political discourse that starkly contrasted with the resentful rhetoric not only of Erdoğan but also all the other candidates. 

Demirtaş represented a Turkey-to-come, a Turkey that was on its way to coming to terms with the dark and shameful pages of its past, a Turkey that was inclusive and egalitarian, a Turkey that could celebrate, rather than try to suppress, its internal diversity and a Turkey that was a vibrant heterogeneous multitude rather than a frozen monolith.

As Irfan Aktan once argued in a very thoughtful political portrait, Demirtaş’s emergence as a self-confident and persuasive political figure could only be understood in the context of a three decades long struggle by the Kurdish political movement to remain legal despite the efforts of the Turkish state to persecute it cut it out of the public sphere either by banning one political party after another, or by jailing generation after generation of Kurdish politicians. 

History, as all good Marxists would remind us, is made through the organised struggle of classes and masses. Yet successful group identification with charismatic leader figures remains an indispensable ingredient for achieving political coherence and motivation in the construction of political movements. Demirtaş, with his singular charisma and ability to effortlessly conduct the HDP’s gender egalitarian principles proved an alternative and counterpoint to the patriarchal-corporate-despotic model offered by Erdoğan.

The opposition between these two antithetical political figures is a symptom of a deeper divide that could explain the current crisis of the republic. 

The capture and imprisonment of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 accelerated the ideological shift already underway within the Kurdish movement away from its Stalinist origins towards gender-egalitarian, ecological democratic confederalism inspired by the writings of American social theorist Murray Bookchin. This allowed the legal wing of the Kurdish movement to articulate a radical democratic programme and also made possible the peace process and two-year ceasefire between the state and the PKK that ended in 2015.

Demirtaş became a symbol of this democratic turn in the Kurdish movement and was embraced by democratic sectors of society, regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds, as a harbinger of a Turkey-to-come. In contrast, Erdoğan, starting from his tenure as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, has come to represent authoritarian political Islam.

Demirtaş was arrested in November 2016 and remains in jail facing possible jail sentences totalling more than 100 years on a range of terrorism charges. The European Court of Human Rights this week ruled that Demirtaş should be released as his ongoing detention was in violation of his rights, but Erdoğan said Turkey was not bound by the ruling.

Today, at a time of economic and political crisis, Erdoğan maintains his rule and continues to construct his new regime, however haphazardly, by pretending to defend the old republic against what he sees as the existential threat of Kurdish demands for autonomy. By keeping Demirtaş captive, the new regime criminalises the legal wing of the Kurdish movement, shutting it out of the political sphere and turns it into an enemy of the state. This is the only way the new authoritarian and corporate-nationalist regime can keep the possibility of a deeply egalitarian and radically democratic Turkey-to-come at bay. Demirtaş’ capacity to undermine the fantasy of the threat of Turkey’s dismemberment makes him a threat to Erdoğan’s rule.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.