Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gave a remarkable campaign speech to Turkish voters on Sunday. His supporters say Demirtas is the only real challenger to incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even though Demirtas is running with a rather large handicap: he is in jail.
Demirtas gave his speech, from the prison where he has been incarcerated since 2016, to a base constituency rallied around a giant television screen 750 miles from the prison. He is running strongly enough to threaten Erodgan’s grip on power even though it is effectively illegal for him to mount a traditional political campaign or attract mainstream press coverage. Demirtas has been working almost entirely through social media and word-of-mouth until now, dictating Twitter messages to his lawyers.
Sunday marked Demirtas’s first television appearance since he was arrested. He took advantage of a Turkish election law that promises each candidate at least 20 minutes on television during campaign season. He used up about half of that time on Sunday.
Demirtas may get some satisfaction from knowing opposition candidates who are not in jail do not enjoy much more media attention than he does. Deutsche Welle noted on Monday that Erdogan gets about four times as much coverage as all of his opponents combined.
Demirtas was arrested in November 2016 during a crackdown on alleged participants and sympathizers in the failed coup attempt against Erdogan the previous summer. He was held in prison for over a year before his trial even began. He was accused of establishing a terrorist organization, spreading terrorist propaganda, and “praising crimes and criminals.” The combined sentence could be over 140 years if he is convicted on all counts.
The party Demirtas represents, the leftist HDP, is pro-Kurdish and routinely accused of ties to the violent PKK Kurdish separatist party by Erdogan’s government. The HDP has said up to 5,000 party members were detained after the coup attempt, which Erdogan and his officials blamed on their other nemesis, the followers of cleric Fethullah Gulen.
“The only reason why I am here is because the AKP is scared of me,” Demirtas said of his imprisonment during his Sunday address.
“What we are passing through is only the trailer of a one-man regime. The scary part of the movie is yet to start,” he warned.
“My imprisonment is totally illegal and politically motivated,” Demirtas charged during an interview from prison last week. “I not only am a lawmaker, but also a presidential candidate. I have been in jail for 20 months now while my trial could have been done without me being imprisoned. Now they do not even allow me to conduct my election campaign freely, and the letters and messages that I am sending outside prison through my lawyers are the only way that my voice is being heard.”
“Under these conditions, it has become almost impossible for me to conduct my campaign because the prison atmosphere is quite unfair to me. It is clear now that the upcoming election is not going to be fair. This is taking place while Erdogan is using all the public facilities in his campaign,” he added
Demirtas maintained his insistence that the HDP is not merely the “political wing” of the PKK.
HDP voters complain the Turkish police are harassing their campaign operators, jailing their political representatives, and moving polling places around to make it harder for them to vote. However, some other opposition leaders say the HDP makes unrealistic demands, and are uncomfortable with the number of PKK sympathizers who end up voting with the HDP.
In his own campaign rallies, Erdogan refers to Demirtas as a “terrorist” and claims the HDP is trying to divide Turkey with “threats, looting, and extortion.”
Current polling has Demirtas running in fourth place, behind Erdogan, nationalist challenger Meral Aksener, and Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Demirtas is seen as more of a factor than his poll numbers suggest because his enthusiastic supporters are concentrated in areas where they can win seats and potentially break Erdogan’s lock on the national legislature. If HDP does not reach the threshold necessary to participate in the general election, its seats could go to Erdogan’s AKP party instead. Demirtas might also be able to peel enough votes away from Erdogan on June 24 to drag him into a runoff election.
Demirtas has accused Europe of letting the Turkish people down by relaxing its human rights demands in order to “sell weapons to Turkey at great profit.”
For his part, Erdogan is urging his supporters to re-elect him in a gesture of defiance, to teach the Western world a “lesson“ about daring to criticize his brand of Islamist nationalism. Erdogan called the elections over a year ahead of schedule to “overcome uncertainty” by promoting national unity.
Some observers suspect he is actually trying to cash on in nationalist sentiment inspired by Turkey’s military victory against Kurdish militias in Syria and consolidate his political position just as the Turkish presidency begins to exercise sweeping new powers established by last year’s constitutional referendum.
Erdogan’s ambitions have been complicated by an economic downturn and surprisingly strong performances by his top opponents, including Demirtas pulling eight percent or so in the polls from a prison cell. Current handicaps of the race predict the incumbent will not win the first round by a wide enough margin to avoid a runoff, at which point the opposition will coalesce around whoever stands revealed as his strongest opponent, and control of parliament could shift away from AKP. Much could be decided by the willingness of HDP voters to join a coalition with enough muscle to unseat Erdogan or break his party’s hold on the legislature.
The election is so tense that the cruel torture and killing of a puppy has become a wild card, with Erdogan and his challengers competing to take the strongest stance against animal cruelty. Several people have also been killed in pre-election violence, including an incident where bodyguards for a member of parliament from AKP opened fire on angry demonstrators in a largely Kurdish town.