Turkey's Not-Quite President

Selahattin Demirtas and the Evolution of Turkish Politics

Demirtas speaks during an election rally in Istanbul, August 3, 2014.
Demirtas speaks during an election rally in Istanbul, August 3, 2014. (Osman Orsal / Courtesy Reuters)

In an election, coming in third place is rarely cause for celebration. But for Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic and telegenic 41-year-old politician who ran in Turkey’s August 10 presidential election, it was. Nearly ten percent of Turkish voters cast their ballots for Demirtas, a Kurd. 

The Kurds are Turkey’s largest ethnic minority and are located predominately in the country’s southeast. They have struggled since the late twentieth century against the Turkish majority for increased autonomy and cultural and linguistic rights. Some have called for a separate Kurdish state. Others have fought for it: In the early 1980s, a number of Kurds formed a Marxist guerrilla force called the Kurdistan Workers Party, more commonly known as the PKK. Since then, the PPK, a recognized terrorist group, and the Turkish military have fought a brutal war in which more than 40,000 have been killed. 

Although the Kurds have secured increased rights and legal protections over the past decade, efforts to find a permanent resolution to the so-called Kurdish conflict have gone nowhere. Demirtas’ candidacy offered an opportunity to change all that. “We want peace to rapidly be made a lasting one,” Demirtas repeated to crowds of supporters at a number of campaign rallies. “The presidential election is an opportunity to break the tension.”

Demirtas’ words weren’t empty. As a candidate, he offered Kurds a chance at political power and to engage on wider issues such as education, foreign policy, healthcare, and jobs. He also gave his Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), an opportunity to reach beyond ethnic politics and reach out to mainstream Turkish voters. On the campaign trail, for example, Demirtas avoided ethnically charged pro-Kurdish language, and he dismissed the notion of Kurdish separatism outright. Instead, he focused on the need to reduce the size of government, accord all Turkish citizens more individual rights, and end polarization. Demirtas also said that he wanted to end discrimination and increase the rights of women, minorities, and gays and lesbians.

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