Turkey’s New Left
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.