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

Turkey's Not-Quite President

Selahattin Demirtas and the Evolution of Turkish Politics

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 PPK. 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.

Above all, he told me in an interview in early August, “Turkey has a trust problem.” As a result, he said, he put trust at the core of his presidential campaign. “We are calling into question the dominant political forces that have exacerbated polarization and political tensions,” he said. “We are emphasizing the need to unite and work together.” The message recalled that of another strong opposition candidate: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003. 

Erdogan -- the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), sitting prime minister, and, now, president-elect -- emerged on Turkey’s political scene with a similar argument. “There are approximately 72 million people in this country, and I represent each and every one,” Erdogan told me shortly after taking office. He had the track record to prove it. As mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, Erdogan had improved the city’s public services. He had fixed roads, built up public transportation, delivered clean water, cleaned up trash-strewn streets, and pulled the city out of debt and political sclerosis. As prime minister, Erdogan has continued much of this work.

Yet, over the past two years Erdogan -- beset with anti-government protests, corruption allegations, and an ugly confrontation with Fethullah Gulen, a powerful religious cleric -- has prioritized political survival. To do that, he has abandoned his democratic and progressive agenda and, instead, adopted an anti-Western and (supposedly) anti-establishment one that plays well with conservatives in the Turkish heartland.

Eager for an alternative to Erdogan, at least some Turks have been listening to Demirtas. Tens of thousands attended his campaign rallies. Mainstream Turkish media outlets -- as opposed to state-run television channels -- sought out airtime with Demirtas. Cengiz Candar, a columnist for the liberal Turkish daily Radikal, noted that Demirtas was his preferred candidate. And, in an interview with al Jazeera, Sinan Ogan, a parliamentarian for MHP, a far-right Turkish nationalist party, noted that “In this election Demirtas has single handedly transformed HDP … from a party [that was] rigidly ethnic to being a party for the whole of Turkey.” 

But Demirtas’ attempts at inclusivity haven’t impressed everyone. “Demirtas is, up until now, the only person I’ve heard (in this election) to lay out an independent vision,” tweeted Zeynep Gurcanli, a columnist at the major Turkish daily Hurriyet. “But so long as Imrali stands in the way, Turkey will find it hard to embrace him.” Imrali is the island where the head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, is imprisoned. Similarly, Suat Kiniklioglu, a former parliamentarian and representative for the ruling AKP, tweeted, “Demirtas has captured Turkey’s zeitgeist. If only his politics weren’t based on ethnicity.”

As it turns out, 3.9 million Turks did vote for Demirtas on Sunday. He did well among the Kurds (six percent of the electorate) and other minorities, namely the Alevis. But he also did well in Turkey’s commercial capital, Istanbul -- where voters were looking for a persuasive alternative to Erdogan and the AKP -- and Izmir, a coastal city. Those results are up from March’s municipal elections, in which Demirtas’ HDP came in with six percent of vote, or 2.7 million votes. In the grand scheme of things, his showing this time around is impressive. No Kurdish candidate has done this well in any Turkish election; no Kurdish party or candidate has been able to extend beyond a Kurdish constituency and attract non-Kurdish voters. 

Demirtas’ gains matter because, despite Erdogan’s apparent hold on power, he is vulnerable. In a Pew survey released at the end of July, 51 percent of Turks said that they are dissatisfied with their country’s political direction and 48 percent believe that Erdogan is having a negative impact on Turkey. Cast against these results, it is not surprising that Demirtas and his progressive platform garnered considerable attention and enthusiasm. If Demirtas can maintain that message and prove that he is committed to representing all of Turkey’s citizens, for example by pushing for policies that uphold universal civil rights, not just minority rights, as he promised to do in his concession speech, he is sure to be a truly formidable opponent to Erdogan and his ruling AKP in Turkey’s general elections, which are slated for June 2015.

Until then, Demirtas’ strong showing gives both sides of Turkey’s intractable Kurdish issue something that neither has ever had: confidence. Although a number of factors still make finding a solution difficult, including the prospect of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, confidence in Demirtas can provide Kurds and Turks a critical starting point for discussions. 

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