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Selahattin Demirtaş: an ever-present threat to Erdoğan

Selahattin Demirtaş

By Cevheri Güven

Selahattin Demirtaş has been under arrest for four years now. In fact, he was released by a court; however, another court order was quickly issued before he could be freed from prison. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that his imprisonment had violated his right to freedom, but Turkish courts have not implemented the ECtHR decision. Demirtaş’s arrest and the political interventions in his case indicate how far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will go in a bid to eliminate a powerful political rival. 

In his younger days, Demirtaş began to distinguish himself as a human rights advocate. In 2006, when he was president of the Diyarbakır Human Rights Association, he made a name for himself in Turkey through his work on human rights violations. His career as Turkey branch director at both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) carried him to the forefront as a political figure. 

His rise in the Kurdish political movement culminated in his leadership of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2010. Unlike former Kurdish leaders, he was unique in creating policies not only involving Kurdish issues but also the general public in Turkey. That is why a pro-Kurdish party, under his leadership, was able to surpass the 10 percent electoral threshold for the first time in Turkish history and gain representation in parliament.

Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş (C), pro-Kurdish politicians Sırrı Süreyya Önder (R) and Pervin Buldan (L) give a press conference at the Ataköy Marina in İstanbul on March 18, 2013.

This electoral success on June 7, 2015, was also the beginning of a period when alarm bells started to ring for Demirtaş. He was the first political leader to focus on the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Erdoğan with the election rally slogan, “We will not make you President.”

During this period, Demirtaş worked with Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a scriptwriter and an actor, as a strategist and organized small but very effective propaganda campaigns. He became the most influential politician in the use of social media in Turkey. Thanks to Önder’s influence, he established strong ties with the country’s younger generation.

The political balance in Turkey was totally changed when Turks, for the first time, voted for a Kurdish politician. In the elections, the HDP received 6 million votes, 13 percent of the vote, ousting Erdoğan. 

The then-peaceful environment in which the Turks voted for a Kurdish politician could have well become a reality thanks to a “solution process” initiated in 2012. 

People from various segments of society were doubtful about the process. Critics said at the time that both the Turkish state and its declared enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had their own plans behind the process. They further claimed that such a solution process that had not been discussed in parliament was unrealistic. After many years of clashes between the state and the PKK, there were no more funerals on either side. The atmosphere of peace increased public support, exceeding 80 percent, for the solution process to a level far beyond what the state and the PKK had expected. 

Many first regarded the solution process as an excellent advantage for Erdoğan as he was getting significant backing from the Western world, most notably the European Union. Moreover, the process was causing the elites, including liberals and democrats, to unite under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

However, while leading the solution process, Erdoğan had the ultimate goal of bringing a presidential system of governance to the country. What spoiled Erdoğan’s game was Demirtaş’s early awareness of his authoritarian tendencies.

Recognition of the slogan “We will not make you President” that marked the June 2015 elections emerged thanks to Demirtaş. Meanwhile, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed PKK, had clearly stated that he supported the presidential system. Demirtaş’s policy also marked the first split between Öcalan and Kurdish politics. This conflict was another factor that made it easier for Turks to cast their first vote for a Kurdish politician.

The public responded positively to Demirtaş’s discourse against Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Thirteen percent of the vote was a significant success. The AKP lost its position as a single-party government for the first time in its history. However, Erdoğan was able to remain in power by preventing the formation of a coalition, an act that exceeded his authority as president. Consequently, the country was forced to hold new elections on November 1, 2015.

Erdoğan realized that Demirtaş had replaced Öcalan in wielding authority over Kurdish voters. Öcalan was already in prison and thus under control. He thought Demirtaş should have been in jail as well.

Erdoğan put an end to the solution process in 2015 because he no longer viewed it as a means of realizing his presidential system.

Erdoğan was as much a visionary as Demirtaş was. He had already seen that his AKP government had lost its power after the June 2015 elections and that Demirtaş was the main reason for this defeat.

While the country was heading toward the new elections, Erdoğan moved into arms. The purchase of huge amounts of weapons was carried out by the Security Directorate General in April and May of 2015. 

Heavily armed armored vehicles, called Rangers, which were able to operate semi-robotically, were imported. They made multi-million dollar purchases of weapons and ammunition suitable for use in clashes in city centers. All those purchases were made for police units in eastern cities where the Kurds constituted a majority of the population.

Most people were unaware of these huge arms acquisitions as everybody was talking about the upcoming elections. However, Nokta magazine pointed it out in its May 1, 2015 issue with a photo of Erdoğan on its cover, showing him pulling the pin out of a grenade. Nokta interpreted the sudden procurement of large amounts of weapons as an indication of the termination of the solution process and the start of a war in Kurdish cities.

That was what happened in the end. Months earlier, Erdoğan had seen the results of the June elections in which the AKP lost its single-party status. Therefore, he made his post-election preparations, a period of planned clashes. During that period, the Kurds were no longer his partner but his chosen enemies. His new partner was the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), known as the Gray Wolves, for its racist policies.

Immediately after the elections, operations were initiated in the Southeast, where some Kurdish cities were wiped off the face of the earth after a period of war. Thousands of civilians lost their lives, while hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Like Erdoğan, the PKK was already prepared and eager for the fight. The PKK also used a multitude of bombs in the urban clashes. In the meantime, successive bomb attacks took place in Ankara and Istanbul, to the extent that people were afraid to go out due to the explosions, including those in Ankara’s Kızılay Square, which killed more than 100 civilians.

The only winner in the new period was Erdoğan amidst the escalating tensions. Thanks to the partnership with the nationalist MHP and the fear of war among the public, his AKP won a large number of votes in the November elections, garnering 49.5 percent and paving the way for a single-party government again.

However, Demirtaş was still a danger for Erdoğan. Due to the clashes in the cities, the Kurds were angry not only with the state but also with the PKK. They had believed in the solution process and were deeply disappointed. Therefore, they accused both sides of putting an end to the process. Demirtaş, who made great efforts to keep the solution process alive, was not affected by this disappointment.

Despite the extreme conditions during the conflict, Demirtaş was nevertheless able to craft policies for the good of the general public. It was obvious that he would become more popular as Erdoğan became more authoritarian.

Therefore, Erdoğan, famous for his tactics to eliminate alternative leaders legally or illegally, targeted Demirtaş as his new enemy. First, a media campaign was launched against Demirtaş. Media outlets under Erdoğan’s control openly began to call Demirtaş a “terrorist.” Prosecutors were later ordered to arrest him in the aftermath of a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

Following the July 15 coup bid, the AKP dismissed nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors from their jobs, leaving the judicial system mainly to the nationalists. Mehmet Yılmaz, a hard-core nationalist, was appointed to the presidency of the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), Turkey’s legal disciplinary body responsible for judicial appointments.

HDP Co-chair Demirtaş was detained in Diyarbakır on November 4, 2016, and sent to the Edirne F-Type Prison. Edirne was a specially chosen place. It is located in the far west of the country, while the Kurds live in Turkey’s east. Besides Demirtaş, all new-generation HDP politicians, including Önder, who created the new political discourse that reunited Demirtaş with the masses, were also detained at the time.

In fact, the first step that paved the way for their arrest was taken in parliament in May 2016 when they were stripped of their parliamentary immunity.

Unsurprisingly, the first person to say that “Demirtaş should be tried” was President Erdoğan. Addressing lawmakers on March 16, 2016, in parliament, Erdoğan called on them to remove the immunity from prosecution of HDP members, holding Demirtaş responsible for the deaths of 46 people in the Kobane protests, which had taken place almost two years earlier, in October 2014. 

The new partners, the AKP and the MHP took immediate action to lift the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), supported them in their proposal. Although intellectual circles criticized the support provided by the CHP, it was not that surprising when considering the party’s longstanding anti-Kurdish attitude.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said at the time that they knew the amendment was unconstitutional and would lead to Demirtaş’s imprisonment. However, Kılıçdaroğlu added that they would nevertheless vote for the legislation. 

On May 20, 2016, the proposal for the constitutional amendment was approved with the CHP votes.

Demirtaş has been jailed since November 4, 2016. After being kept for a time in isolation, another imprisoned Kurdish politician was finally settled next to him.

In the indictment drafted against him, Demirtaş is charged with several offenses, including “managing an armed terrorist organization,” “disseminating terrorist propaganda,” “violating the law on meetings and demonstrations,” incitement to commit a crime,” and “incitement of hatred and enmity.” He faces up to 142 years in prison if found guilty in the main case against him. 

Demirtaş appealed to Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) and the ECtHR when the lower courts repeatedly rejected his requests for release.

On November 20, 2018, the ECtHR ruled that Demirtaş was imprisoned for “political” reasons but not for “legal” reasons, recommending his “immediate release.” 

On the same day, Erdoğan said in response: “ECtHR decisions do not bind us. We will make our counter-move and finish the job.”

It shortly became clear what Erdoğan’s counter-maneuver was. The ECtHR ruling was about Demirtaş’s imprisonment. The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court quickly made a ruling based on another accusation and sentenced Demirtaş to four years, eight months in prison. Thus, Demirtaş was no longer a prisoner but a convict. In this way, Erdoğan’s counter-attack was successful in bypassing the ECtHR decision.

Scandals came one after another during his trials. The court accepted his lawyers’ application for his release based on time already served. However, on September 20, 2019, a new indictment appeared before he was freed. On the day of his release, Demirtaş was again arrested, this time due to the Kobane incidents.

“We will be following the case until the very end. We cannot set them free. If we do, our martyrs pay us back in the afterworld,” Erdoğan said in a statement on the same day.

The lawyers also appealed the decision on Demirtaş’s second arrest to the AYM and the ECtHR. On June 9, the AYM said his lengthy detention had exceeded a reasonable period and that his right to freedom had been violated. However, the Ankara 19th High Criminal Court trying Demirtaş did not acknowledge the AYM ruling.

The AKP is looking for ways to keep Demirtaş in prison for a long time on the grounds of the Kobane incidents. To that end, a new police operation was initiated early Friday morning. Eighty-two people, including Demirtaş’s closest friends Ayhan Bilgen and Önder, were detained in police raids on their residences over the 2014 Kobane protests.

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