Ankara (AFP) – Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party elected two new leaders on Sunday, one of whom replaced its charismatic jailed co-chief Selahattin Demirtas, ahead of elections in 2019.
Demirtas, the best-known face of the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been behind bars since November 2016, detained on terrorism charges, and faces a possible 142-year prison sentence.
Former MP Sezai Temelli, 54, was voted by party delegates to replace Demirtas while Pervin Buldan, 50, was elected co-chair as well.
Buldan, a serving MP and deputy parliament speaker, replaces Serpil Kemalbay, who herself took over from another incarcerated former leader, Figen Yuksekdag.
The party says it always has a woman and man in leadership positions in the interests of equality.
There was heavy security at the congress in Ankara where the venue was filled with several thousand HDP supporters waving the party’s symbol of a tree.
The new leaders take over a party isolated in parliament where many of its beliefs will likely clash with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The HDP has regularly accused the president of “authoritarianism”, many of its MPs and members have been detained, and it opposes Turkey’s current offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria.
Ankara views the YPG as a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state for decades.
“The solution is not with war but with peace, not with dying or with killing, it is with living and to keep (others) alive,” Buldan told supporters.
– ‘Peaceful opposition’ –
The new co-chairs will attempt to lead the party to a fresh start ahead of general and presidential elections in November 2019.
On Thursday, MEPs in the European parliament called on Ankara to scrap emergency powers brought in after the failed July 2016 coup, which they said were being used to stifle “legitimate and peaceful opposition” and a free press.
Since the attempted putsch, more than 140,000 people have been suspended or sacked over alleged links to coup-plotters.
Demirtas, dubbed by some the “Kurdish Obama” after the ex-US president, came to prominence after leading the HDP into parliament for the first time in June 2015.
Analysts say his success was because he appealed to voters outside the Kurdish minority including non-Kurdish leftists and liberals.
Huseyin Gungor, a HDP supporter, said “the party would never forget Yuksekdag or Demirtas”.
But he told AFP: “We are behind Temelli and Buldan.”
Demirtas and Yuksekdag were among a dozen HDP MPs detained in November 2016 as part of a crackdown that followed the attempted coup. Nine HDP lawmakers remain in jail.
Yuksekdag was stripped of her lawmaker status in February 2017 and stepped down as co-leader in May last year.
Demirtas, 44, faces multiple legal cases including accusations he has links to the PKK, which is also blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara’s Western allies.
– ‘Terror propaganda’ –
The government accuses the HDP of being a political extension of the PKK, but the party denies any direct links to the group and calls for a political solution to the conflict raging in Turkey’s southeast.
At the congress, images shown on a large screen of the PKK jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Since entering parliament under Demirtas’s leadership, the HDP has come under heavy pressure with seven of its lawmakers losing their MP status. The party had 59 MPs in late 2015.
The party says some 3,300 HDP members have been arrested since the collapse of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK in July 2015.
In a letter read out during the congress, Demirtas said “if (their) response to resistance is to arrest us, they can build a thousand more prisons, they will not find the space to fill us all”.
Since Turkey’s offensive in Syria began in January, there have been more arrests. The HDP says 368 of its members had been detained over their opposition to the fighting.
But supporters remained defiant: “In 2019, we will either be ruled by a one-man regime or as members and voters of the HDP we will say ‘stop’,” Ilknur Guc said.