Turkey’s New Left

Kaya Genç

Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the leaders of Turkey’s left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is tall, self-confident, strong and soft-spoken. When he ran for president earlier this month, some of his supporters tried to convince undecided friends to vote for him by asking them to choose the ‘most handsome candidate on the ballot paper’. A friend’s grandmother said Demirtaş may be handsome but she would ‘never vote for a Kurd’. He came in third, with just under 10 per cent of the vote (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent).

Demirtaş has dismissed other opposition leaders as ‘defenders of the status quo’. He wants parliament to draft a new constitution to replace the one drawn up by the military junta after the coup in 1980.

He was born in Diyarbakır in 1973, the son of a plumber. When he was 14 the regime declared a state of emergency in the south-east. Kurds were forced to deny their ethnic identity, often by torture and imprisonment. Since speaking Kurdish was banned in public and in the national school system, Demirtaş’s parents were semi-literate. They made sure to talk to him in Turkish at home.

In 1991, Vedat Aydın, a local Kurdish politician, was kidnapped and murdered. Shots were fired at the funeral procession, probably by the military, killing three people, injuring many more and provoking widespread unrest. Demirtaş has said that it was on that chaotic day that he decided to get involved in politics.

The state of emergency ended in 2002. Kurdish broadcasts began on state TV six years later. The right to campaign politically in local languages became legal after a constitutional change in 2010. As the bans were lifted, Kurdish politicians began speaking for the whole country, not only for the south-east or the Kurds (though the bulk of Demirtaş’s support still comes from the region). The HDP defines itself as pro-minority and feminist left. Established in 2013, the party has quotas for LGBTI and female candidates. Its environmentalist message and promise of ‘democratic change’ make it popular with younger voters.

Erdoğan announced today that his replacement as prime minister would be Ahmet Davutoğlu, the current foreign minister, a professor of international relations and, like Demirtaş, a soft-spoken man. It will be interesting to see them competing for votes in next year’s general election.


  • 22 August 2014 at 8:10am
    Ugur Hikmet says:
    Apparently Mr. Demirtas has been working for a long time on a sustainable and peaceful solution for Turkish - Kurdish conflict. However, his name has become more familiar for non-Kurdish part of the society since 2007 after when a drastic and noticeable change has occurred in state's Kurdish policy.

    His recent presidential campaign has attracted incredible attention from very different fractions of the society. He was, of course, the shining star of the presidential elections and this, almost undeniable, observation has been expressed by many people with different political backgrounds. Probably, only exception was nationalist movement party (MHP) and I believe this is more about historical rhetoric rather than recent political developments. Long story short, with very limited financial and media support, he has successfully managed his campaign and his language is promising for the future of the Turkey's politics. During the campaign, he tried to explain his vision for Turkey delineating a bigger picture (at least language wise, he tried really hard to break Kurdish movement's locally trapped political discourse) rather than relying and focusing solely on recent Fettullah Gulen - AKP conflict based accusations (which was a strategy for the main opposition party CHP during 2014 local elections).

    I, however, still believe it might be very early to use "Turkey's New Left" phrase for the recent developments. I admit Demirtas' move was a very successful spark but there are some main questions to be answered. Although Mr. Demirtas got promising amount of votes from the western cities, as expected the bulk of his support comes from south-east part of Turkey. It will be really interesting to see his efforts to carry and spread his political ideas to the rest of the Turkey. This might/will require a decent amount of distance and separation between HDP and Kurdish nationalist rhetoric (I don't claim Demirtas & HDP have or don't have this rhetoric but such a perception exists). It is really hard for me the read and analyze the internal reflection of such a derailment in Kurdish political movement.

    The competition within People's Republic Party (CHP) might also play a role on HDP's dynamics on leftist politics in Turkey. I know I'm pushing the limits too much by using "left" and "CHP" in the same sentence, but if we consider the practical aspects of the daily politics in Turkey and people's historical perceptions, a potential collaboration between more socialist inclined CHP and HDP as Mr. Erdal Inonu had tried at the beginning of 1990's (of course, CHP's September convention will clearly show the probability of having such a collaboration and I'm not very optimistic about it) could change the whole game for Selahattin Demirtas and HDP. In such a scenario, I would expect CHP to be the main attractor for secularists and middle-leftist fractions and HDP to be the satellite party.

    Finally, analyzing the big picture without taking the latest developments around Kurdistan region in Syria and Iraq into account would be a strategic mistake too. I think future of the region will directly affect Kurdish political movement in Turkey. In the long term, being part of Turkey or being an autonome region in Turkey or being a part of a bigger automome region in between Iraq, Turkey and Syria are completely different scenarios which might change the direction of the evolution of Kurdish political movement.

    Mr. Demirtas is an important chance for everyone. As a society, we should take advantage of such leaders for democracy and peace in Turkey. Such movements are going to push the boundaries in favor of human rights, transparent politics with transparent politicians. Having said that, it is very early to put Demirtas led recent developments under "Turkey's New Left" umbrella.