For the first time in the history of the republic of modern Turkey, the people rather than parliament are electing their next president. One of the three candidates is Selahattin Demirtaş. He is 41, two decades younger than the outgoing head of state. Demirtaş is a trained lawyer and a human rights activist. He is also a Kurd.
He presents a face of renewal in a land of conflict between the Turks and the Kurds that has only recently seen realistic prospects of solutions grow.
Demirtaş said: “We came to a point where we can start building a new life. I offer not only a new presidency but also a new way of life to Turkey.”
Selahattin Demirtaş is the candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.
Born in the Kurd-dominated southeastern city of Elazığ, in the uppermost reaches of the Euphrates valley, Demirtaş was the second-born in a family of seven children.
He told us he felt starting a political career was an ‘obligation’ for him rather than a choice.
“I have been interested in politics and the struggle for democracy since my youth. Like many young Kurds, I became politically active at a very early age, to fight for rights the Kurds were denied, for our ethnic identity and against oppression. I’ve been in politics for almost 25 years. In the last eight years I have been a member of parliament and co-chair of a political party. I was a volunteer lawyer in the field of human rights. At each moment in all these years, I have stood up for the principles that I believe in, and everything relating to them. As a candidate for the presidency, I am continuing this struggle. I am a presidential candidate who came of age during the historic Turkish struggle for democracy.”
Here in Diyarbakır, problems with state institutions brought Demirtaş to the chairmanship of the Human Rights Association. He promises to defend not only the rights of the Kurds but of all Turks, and all the other ethnic groups in Turkey.
Even a decade ago, to see a t-shirt for sale with a flag saying “Kurdistan” on it would have been unthinkable, but now it is common. Most of the people in Diyarbakır today say they believe that the negotiations with the Kurds launched by the Justice and Development party (AKP) government will finally bring peace. Demirtaş’s candidacy seems to provide evidence in support of that.
Kurdish Diyarbakır resident Vahit Yılmaz said: “He could pursue very wise policies. To tell you the truth, he could bring everybody together. But I believe he can’t get more than 10 per cent of the votes, since his constituency is in the southeast. For Kurds it is just great to have him as a candidate like this.”
Demirtaş‘s detractors criticise him as following ethnically-based policies, and yet he promotes respect for different cultures and a new social contract; in his eyes, this election is all about freedom and democracy.
Demirtaş said: “Prime Minister Erdogan has been ruling Turkey for more than 12 years. He pursued policy that empowered him, empowers autocratic rule but not democracy. In his messages, he implies that he will strengthen that line further if he becomes the next president. We think that the other candidate’s line represents the past. Turkey needs a new direction, to take the side of the poor, workers, the labour force, and which would equip Turkey’s pluralist society for the future.”
In the past, Demirtaş was sentenced to ten months in prison for saying that (jailed) Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan’s role must be recognised in the solving of the Kurdish issue. He is adamant that after the presidential elections there must be progress in that.
“My candidacy for the presidency is also a call to build up the content of the negotiations. If I am elected, the chances of these negotiations turning into a permanent peace will be stronger and more possible to realize. I believe Turkey will eliminate concerns raised by the peace process and there will be a better understanding of the talks.”