He’s 42 years old, socialist, Kurdish, a native Zaza speaker and an Ankara-trained attorney who encourages gentle outreach to the Armenian diaspora and champions the cause of LGBT rights in a conservative country with a 12-year Islamist government.
Nevertheless, Selahattin Demirtaş is well on his way to becoming the most potent opposition leader in the 12 years since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to national power in Turkey. Notwithstanding grumbling about Erdoğan’s Islamism, authoritarianism, presidentialism or Turkey’s wilting economy, Erdoğan remains the most important figure in Turkish politics since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the military officer who essentially founded the modern state of Turkey as a secular, democratic(ish) republic in the 1920s and 1930s.
Enter Demirtaş, a virtual political pop star, who challenged Erdoğan for the presidency last year and won 9.8% of the vote. Since the August 2014 presidential campaign, Demirtaş has only become more popular, and he hopes that Sunday’s election will mark a breakthrough performance for his party, the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party), a merger of several left-wing groups and the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party.
If he succeeds, the HDP will be the first pan-Kurdish party to clear the 10% electoral threshold to win seats in the Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly). In the past, candidates from Kurdish parties have run as independents. This time around, Demirtaş is betting that he can achieve the 10% support that would double Kurdish representation in the Turkish parliament.
Polls show that it will win anywhere from 8% to 13% in the June 7 elections and, provided it meets the 10% electoral threshold, between 57 and 72 seats in the Grand National Assembly, though most observers believe the HDP will skew even higher than polls capture.
On the campaign trail, Demirtaş has championed a leftist agenda not atypical for a social democratic party across Europe — a call for a rise in the minimum wage, calls for national unity and respect for all Turks and, most astoundingly, greater rights for Turkey’s LGBT population — not the easiest sell in the conservative, Islamic country of 77 million. Though he’s emerged as the star of the 2015 campaign season, he points out that he’s only the co-chair of the HDP. Like Germany’s Green Party, for example, Demirtaş serves alongside Figen Yüksekdağ, a female activist from the socialist wing of the HDP.
Yüksekdağ (pictured above) founded in 2010 the ‘Socialist Party of the Oppressed’ and joined forces with the HDP in 2014, and brings to the HDP campaign an emphasis on feminism and the kind of leftist economic policy that wouldn’t be out of place at a SYRIZA rally in Greece or a Podemos rally in Spain. Though she’s not as flashy as her co-chair, she provides greater depth to the HDP, which could transcend the Kurdish electorate and appeal to the wider circle of Turkish liberals.
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The HDP will largely draw its support from Kurdish voters in the southeastern corner of Turkey, but Demirtaş has attracted support from liberals across the country, including secular urbanites in Istanbul and Ankara disenchanted with 12 years of Erdoğan rule.
Even if the HDP succeeds beyond its wildest expectations, it is still likely to be just the fourth-largest party in the Turkish legislature. If it wins around 60 seats, however, it would easily be enough to deny Erdoğan the supermajority he needs to amend Turkey’s constitution, and it could be enough to deny Erdoğan’s ruling party, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party), an outright majority, plunging Turkey back into multiparty coalition politics for the first time in nearly two decades.
Demirtaş’s electoral gamble is so important because many Kurdish voters would otherwise support the AKP over alternative opposition parties. If, for example, Demirtaş wins just 9.8% of the vote, he’ll win no seats and the second-place party in Kurdish-heavy regions will almost certainly be the AKP. It’s an important moment for Turkish Kurds, who constitute between 15% and 25% of the population. After being treated for years as inferiors in their own country, Turkish Kurds are now a vital component of the country’s political outcome.
That’s one reason why, though Erdoğan has relaxed the heavy-handed restrictions on the Kurdish language since coming to power and, in 2012, launched peace talks with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an armed militia that waged a guerrilla struggle against Turkey starting in the 1980s, AKP leaders have used Demirtaş’s Kurdish roots to bludgeon him on the campaign trail. If you listen to the AKP, Demirtaş is not a social democrat, but a Kurdish nationalist hellbent on dividing Turkey and a puppet of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Demirtaş isn’t exactly close to Öcalan, and he rarely mentions Öcalan on the campaign trail, but the two leaders have worked together in the past, and they share the Kurdish experience of suffering from decades of Turkish subjugation.
It is, perhaps, for that reason, that Turkey’s other two opposition parties have been wary of Demirtaş. Those two parties, throwbacks from the pre-Erdoğan, Kemalist era, joined forces in the August presidential race, though they didn’t support Demirtaş.
That doesn’t detract from Erdoğan’s admirable record on Kurdish rights, the peace talks with the PKK or his pragmatic alliance with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Two decades ago, a Turkish leader would have considered an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan a threat to Turkey’s national security; today, it bolsters regional security from ISIS and other jihadist groups and facilitates economic trade and Turkish access to energy. That’s why many Kurdish voters will resist the temptation to make history and pull the lever for the AKP.
If polls are correct, however, enough of those voters will support Demirtaş — and that could mean the difference between the restoration of multi-party politics and the consolidation of power in Erdoğan’s hands.