For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party has won a place in the legislature. Peoples’ Democratic party’s leader Selahattin Demirtas expounds on his hopes for the coming years – and the challenges that lie ahead.
There are to be no photographs of Selahattin Demirtas outside his party headquarters in Ankara, according to his press attaché. It will attract too much attention, we’re told. Too many fans.
Demirtas presents a refreshingly new and youthful face in politics. He co-chairs the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), which attracted 13 per cent of the vote in June’s general election and allowed a pro-Kurdish party to take seats in Ankara for the first time. A Kurdish human-rights lawyer born to a Zaza-speaking family – a minority within a minority – Demirtas has broadened his party’s reach beyond its Kurdish heartland by appealing to liberal Turks who are disgruntled with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We are the rainbow,” announced the party line, with a manifesto that encompassed LGBT rights, ethnic and religious minority rights and a 50 per cent quota for female candidates.
Demirtas has another delicate balancing act on his hands. The Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) still holds the hearts and minds of many Kurds after decades of separatist activity against the government. To distance his party too much from the Kurdish question, observers say, would be disastrous for Demirtas’s standing with these voters. At the same time he has to convince Turks that his party is not the legitimate face for a separatist agenda. With the resumption of hostilities between Turkey and the PKK, the electorate is closely watching how Demirtas responds. Opponents of the HDP point out meetings between Demirtas and Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK who commands cult-like reverence. Even the HDP flag, which shows a pair of tree-trunk-like hands reaching towards a cloud of leaves, has been called a cryptic PKK message by detractors. Nevertheless, the HDP is a new opposition voice in Turkey. Here, Demirtas outlines his vision for the future.
Monocle: How has the HDP's entry into parliament changed politics in Turkey?
Selahattin Demirtas: Previously there has been only one religion and one ethnicity represented in parliament and that didn’t reflect Turkey’s reality. We are a pluralistic party, with many different ethnicities, ideas and religious groups.
M: You’ve made LGBT rights a key part of your manifesto. How will you placate Kurds who wanted representation but don’t necessarily share your liberal views?
SD: Around 80 per cent of our voters are conservative Muslims. But within the party people support democracy and human rights. They may be conservative but they are not discriminative. They understand why the HDP is giving rights to minorities.
M: What is the relationship between your party and the PKK?
SD: There is no organic relationship between the HDP and the PKK whatsoever. We don’t represent PKK and they do not represent my party. However, some of our voters sympathise with the PKK. It is an organisation that prefers to fight with weapons whereas we choose democracy. We are not each other’s enemies.
M: How do you respond to the claim that your party is merely the legitimate face of the PKK?
SD: If we were the legitimate face of the PKK we would say so. The PKK tells us that we cannot speak on its behalf.
M: What is the future for Kurds in Turkey?
SD: There is no need to separate from Turkey. This would lead to new conflicts. We could have autonomy for all areas of the country rather than one centralised government. Not autonomy based on ethnicity but in terms of administration and politics. Turkey should be a shared land for Turks and Kurds and others.
M: Turkey has pursued a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ stance. Would you like to see a more interventionist foreign policy?
SD: My view is that our relationships should be different with each country and based on dialogue and co-operation. If we want to have good relations with Armenia, for instance, we should face the Armenian genocide, we should confront our past and develop cultural, social and economic relationships. The HDP has defended reopening the border with Armenia and if we come to power we can do it immediately. Turkey could be a pioneer for peace in Syria; it could play an active role, which would change the image of Turkey.
M: Does Turkey’s future belong in the EU?
SD: Not exactly. The revival of this country is not directly related to the EU. We can offer mutual support but Turkey can become a democratic country even if it’s not a full member, although membership would accelerate this process.
M: How should Turkey change after 13 years of Justice and Development party (AKP) rule?
SD: In the first five to six years, the akp carried out some good reforms. Then democracy went downhill. First of all, support for Isis should stop. It is known that Turkey supports Isis [the government refutes this]. Secondly, there should be a pluralist democracy and a civil constitution. And the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims should be defended.
M: In 2023 it will be 100 years since the formation of the Republic of Turkey. Where do you want to see the country by then?
SD: There are several dreams that I would like to see realised. Kurdish people have contributed a lot to the establishment of the republic; however, they have not been given due rights and respect. I would like to see peace in Turkey. I would like more flexible borders with the Middle East, which would allow for greater economic relationships in the region. I would also like issues around Cyprus and Armenia to be a story of the past.