Imprisoned Pro-Kurdish Leader May Run for Turkish President from Behind Bars

A woman standing behind a fence holds a portrait of Selahattin Demirtas, a jailed former leader of the Peoples' Democratic Party HDP, as Turkish Kurds gather during the celebration of Nowruz (aka Noruz or Newroz), the Persian calendar New Year, in Istanbul on March 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / …
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

The pro-Kurdish, anti-Islamist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) may run its imprisoned former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, as a candidate against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in elections scheduled for June.

Erdoğan’s Islamist government arrested Demirtaş and co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ in 2016 on charges of supporting terrorists for their Party’s stance against government use of force against Kurds in the south of the country. Both remain under arrest, but reports have surfaced that the HDP may find no candidate more popular than Demirtaş to run against Erdoğan. How Demirtaş would campaign while imprisoned remains uncertain. As Demirtaş is no longer officially the head of the HDP, this may also cause some logistical concerns with putting him on the ballot.

HDP representatives have accused the Turkish government of “torture” in the Demirtaş case for preventing him from receiving visitors and keeping him in isolation for much of the time shortly after his arrest.

The Kurdish outlet Kurdistan 24 cited two sources within the HDP who said Demirtaş, who is himself Kurdish, was a “likely contender” to represent the party in upcoming elections.

“We have no other alternative,” HDP Member of Parliament Adem Geveri told the outlet. İmam Taşçıer, another HDP lawmaker, said “the Kurdish public” would prefer Demirtaş as a candidate, but some within the Party have expressed concern that his prolonged imprisonment will damage his chances and that someone not facing criminal prosecution may have a better chance at uniting the fray of anti-Erdoğan factions taking hold in the country.

Cumhuriyet, a secularist Turkish newspaper, reports that the HDP “party base” would prefer Demirtaş as its presidential candidate. The newspaper also reported on a statement from Demirtaş’s attorney, Mahsuni Karaman, amid all the speculation about his client. Karaman stated only that the full appeal process in the event of a conviction in his case “can be finalized in 2019 at the earliest,” suggesting Demirtaş could be a very long way from serving as president.

The HDP will reportedly announce on April 30 whom it will choose as a candidate. That is the day of Demirtaş’s final hearing before a trial on the charges of aiding terrorism. He faces up to 142 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors has cited as evidence against the former party leader images of him with Kurdish individuals the government claims are tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The Turkish government considers the PKK indistinguishable from the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), one of America’s most reliable allies in the battle against the Islamic State in that country, so it is unclear whether the individuals in the photos are PKK or YPG members. Both groups are stridently anti-Islamist and anti-jihadist, with a Marxist bent that many PKK supporters argue the group has abandoned since its founding in 1978.

Demirtaş has dismissed accusations of support for the PKK as “propaganda” from the Islamist government, asserting, “We do not represent the PKK and the PKK does not represent us” in 2015.

Demirtaş ran against Erdoğan in the 2014 presidential election but received only 9.7 percent of the vote. Today, at least one analyst believes, he could elevate that number up to 15 percent. Turkey requires a presidential election winner to win twice: once against all candidates and in a second run-off race if he does not receive at least 50 percent of the vote.

Hakan Bayrakçı, the general director of the research firm SONAR, said in an interview with Habertürk that Demirtaş was indisputably “the person who attracts the highest possible votes” for the HDP. He posited that being in prison may even be an “advantage” for him, as many in the political center who oppose Erdoğan’s crackdowns on opposition voices will listen to him more, whereas they previously may have dismissed the HDP.

Erdoğan’s party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced last week that it would hold presidential elections on June 24.

“At a time when developments in Syria have accelerated and we have to take very important decisions, from macroeconomic equilibrium to large investments, the election issue should be taken off the table as soon as possible,” Erdoğan said.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan accused opposition parties of “polluting” the Turkish Parliament with dissident voices.

“On June 24, my nation, my citizens will give a suitable response to those who polluted parliament. The solution is the ballot box,” Erdoğan asserted.

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