A Kurdish star rising in Turkish politics

A Kurdish star rising in Turkish politics

Not more than five years ago, Selahattin Demirtaş was only a name familiar among human rights circles in Turkey. As a young lawyer, he assumed leadership of Turkey’s Human Rights Association’s (İHD) Diyarbakır branch in 2006. Then, after joining the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (PKK), Demirtaş was elected as its co-chairman in 2010.

The BDP shares the same grassroots as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkish governments since 1984 - and has attempted to be something more than a legal showcase for the PKK. Demirtaş was elected to Parliament in 2011 and the roles of the BDP and Demirtaş have been gradually boosted in parliamentary politics, particularly throughout Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s initiative to start a proxy dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned-for-life leader of the PKK, via Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), in 2012. He has taken an active part in the talks, which eventually forced the government to introduce a legal package on the issue to Parliament this week, extending the summer recess as the country heads to presidential elections with a first round scheduled for Aug. 10.

The 41-year-old Demirtaş, at a relatively young age for Turkish politics, is now a candidate for the presidential race. He is up against PM Erdoğan and Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a non-partisan academic-diplomat supported by the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), as well as three other smaller parties.

Observers suggest that it would be a success if Demirtaş manages to receive something in the 8-10 percent band. He is supported by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), mainly a de facto coalition between the BDP and smaller socialist Turkish parties and groups in order to widen the “only-for-Kurds” party’s scope.

Answering questions live on CNN Türk on the evening of June 8, Demirtaş was so confident that he is “the antidote” to the status quo in Turkey “squeezed between the old regime and Erdoğan’s one-man tendency,” that he said he believed no one could win the race in the first round, but he would definitely be in the top two for the second round on Aug, 24. According to the law, anyone who gets 50 percent plus 1 of the votes in the first round will become president. If there is no outright winner, the top two will compete for simple majority in the second round. Both Erdoğan and İhsanoğlu have already claimed that they will win in the first round.

Contrary to Erdoğan’s vision of further concentrating executive power in the president’s hands with less checks and balances, and İhsanoğlu’s vision to promote a stronger Parliament, government and judiciary with a “supervising” president, Demirtaş said his aim would be to push the system to have a weaker president and a weaker central government with empowered local administrations. He described this system as “radical democracy,” and following questions he underlined that it would not lead to Kurdish separation, rather strengthening Turkey’s national unity on a voluntary basis.

Answering a question about what would happen if he loses, Demirtaş said he would carry on with his struggle for rights and freedoms and a better quality democracy. He added that was saying this not because he is a presidential candidate, but on the contrary he is a presidential candidate because he has been saying these things for years. Whether he wins or loses, Demirtaş is definitely fresh blood in Turkey’s ageing politics.