The major opposition candidates in Turkey’s presidential election, scheduled for June 24, have launched campaigns against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and have strategically avoided targeting each other, instead spending much of the week condemning Erdogan’s moves towards an Islamist dictatorship.
Under Erdoğan, the Turkish government has imprisoned, detained, questioned, and fired from government and academic jobs hundreds of thousands of people and shut down hundreds of media outlets considered detrimental to Erdoğan’s message. The crackdown began in July 2016, following a failed coup against Erdoğan that the president blamed Islamic cleric and former ally Fethullah Gulen for. Most of those targeted were accused of being allies of Gulen or of Kurdish separatist groups.
One of the candidates running against Erdoğan, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) nominee Selahattin Demirtaş, has been in prison since November 2016 for allegedly supporting terrorism by urging the Turkish government to stop the violent persecution of Kurdish Turks in the country’s south. Demirtaş is Kurdish.
In a New York Times opinion piece published Wednesday, Demirtaş explains how the government chose to imprison him in northern Edirne, Turkey, far from the southern Diyarbakir region home to much of the nation’s Kurdish population and the HDP’s base.
“The Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., has turned its back on universal democratic values and pushed the country to the brink of political and economic crisis,” Demirtaş writes. “A state of emergency was imposed on Turkey after the failed coup attempt in 2016, and existing prisons are stretched beyond their limits. The right to free expression and assembly has been cast aside, and the number of ordinary people incarcerated is growing by the day.”
Demirtaş notes that prosecutors want to imprison him for 183 years, and only Erdoğan of all Turkish presidential candidates has not called for Demirtaş to be released. He has not been convicted of any crime.
Demirtaş has been campaigning through is lawyers and phone calls with his wife, through which his words have reached the public. In a video smuggled out of prison and published Monday, Demirtaş calls for an end to violence in southern Turkey between the government and Kurdish separatist groups.
The Turkish government has been embroiled in military conflict in the Diyarbakir region for years against elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group. Allegedly in the service of fighting the PKK, however, the Turkish military has essentially imposed martial law in Kurdish Turkey, exposing civilians to nearly incessant clashes between the Turkish military and alleged PKK members.
The HDP has campaigned heavily in Diyarbakir and Mardin, Turkey’s largest Kurdish population centers. Yet given his status as a third-party candidate and high-value political prisoner, Demirtaş is not in optimal circumstances the challenge Erdoğan. The main opposition party, however, has taken much to heart from the demands of the HDP, including calling for the release of political prisoners and restoration of opposition media.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP) – Turkey’s oldest party, established by founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – has promised to return expelled academics to universities and restore order in areas where Erdoğan has sent in his troops.
“We will abolish all [state of emergency] decrees and all sacked academics will return to universities,” CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said on Tuesday, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “All 81 million people living in Turkey do not have safety of life because there is no justice in this country. We will continue our fight until justice is served.”
The CHP organized a march against Erdoğan that attracted more than one million Turks last year in which Kılıçdaroğlu declared, “the era we live in is a dictatorship.”
A year before that declaration, Erdoğan boasted that he would act how he wished despite the backlash.
“I don’t care if they call me a dictator or whatever else. It goes in one ear, out the other,” he told students at Istanbul University in 2016, shortly after the mass arrests of HDP members.
The CHP’s presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, insisted in an interview Wednesday that the CHP wishes to return Turkey to friendly ties with the West, abandoning the Iran-Russia alliance that Turkey has pursued under Erdoğan.
“Our choice is the west,” İnce asserted. “I have spoken to some ambassadors and told them they should not force us to change our choice [of the West]. Immediately after I am elected president, I will tour the European capitals.”
“We will not return to the past. Our parliamentary system in the past was bad, but the new one is even worse. We will change this. Even newspaper headlines are decided by one man. We will change that too,” İnce added, promising to end the Islamic education that Erdoğan has imposed on Turkish students.
Opposition candidates face the prodigious hurdle of being largely removed from national media, government-run or otherwise. According to the Associated Press (AP), citing Turkish media watchdog statistics, “the state broadcaster had Erdogan on air for 68 hours, Ince for 7 hours and [Iyi Party candidate Meral] Akşener for 13 minutes.” Demirtaş, of course, did not appear on air at all.