'Kurdish Obama' Saves Minority's Prized Political Voice: Selahattin Demirta

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'Kurdish Obama' Saves Minority's Prized Political Voice: Selahattin Demirta

Co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas delivers a press conference in Ankara on November 1, 2015, after the first results in the country's general election were released. (AFP)

Istanbul:  Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish party, remains the biggest thorn in the side of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after managing to hold onto his HDP's cherished parliamentary representation, against considerable odds.

Nicknamed the "Kurdish Obama" for his smooth rhetorical skills, Demirtas propelled his Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) into mainstream politics with a message that embodies the hopes of Turkey's biggest minority, but also appeals to non-Kurds.

Under the 42-year-old former lawyer, the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish party in Turkey's history to win enough votes to sit in parliament in June -- taking support from Erdogan's AKP in the southeastern Kurdish heartland and among non-Kurdish Turkish liberals.

Five months later, the party managed once again to breach the formidable 10-percent threshold needed to take up seats in the assembly. But only just about.

From 13.1 percent of the vote which gave it 80 seats in June, the HDP's support fell to 10.7 percent for a reduced tally of 59 seats, according to results based on 97 percent of the votes.

The odds were stacked against Demirtas, who had to tread a fine line after a two-year-old ceasefire between the state and the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fell apart in July, leading to a cycle of deadly tit-for-tat attacks.

Clearly infuriated by the HDP's success in the June election, which blocked his own dream of winning enough seats in parliament to create a more powerful presidency, Erdogan went on the attack.

The combative president lashed out at Demirtas, calling him a "pretty boy" acting merely as a front for the PKK.

The HDP also came under attack from suspected jihadists, with suicide bombers killing 102 people at a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Ankara last month -- the bloodiest attack in Turkey's modern history, which forced the HDP to cancel all its major election rallies.

Demirtas attributed Sunday's losses to the violence and vowed to work for peace between the state and the PKK.

"We will not back down on our stance for the need for a new constitution and for the peace process," he said.

Erdogan's rival

With his good looks and sharp sense of humour, Demirtas is widely seen as the only politician with charisma and talent to rival Erdogan.

Much is made of his image as a family man, with broadcasts showing him breakfasting with his wife and two daughters, or singing folk songs and strumming the saz, a Kurdish lute.

Detractors say his wholesome image is just a photo-shopped front for a party that remains tied to the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies over the three-decade armed insurgency that has killed 45,000 people.

Prosecutors in July opened a criminal probe against Demirtas accusing him of provoking violent pro-Kurdish demonstrations last year. If convicted, he could face up to 24 years in jail.

In an interview with AFP this week, Demirtas insisted his party had "no organic links with the PKK," but said: "The PKK is a reality of Turkey."

"We have always maintained that the PKK should lay down arms and tried to convince them to move in that direction, but the Republic of Turkey should also end all its military activities against the PKK.

"We have never wanted or defended the war. We have always mobilised for peace."

Demirtas, who is referred to as "Selocan" (My darling Selo) by his supporters, says he has to don a hat and sunglasses to avoid being recognised on the streets of the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir when he goes out without his bodyguards.

Erdogan has mocked him as a "cici cocuk" (pretty boy) and "pop star".

Born in the Kurdish-majority city of Elazig, Demirtas is the second in a family of seven children.

After completing his studies at the prestigious Ankara University, Demirtas worked as a human rights lawyer in Diyarbakir before going into politics in 2007.

He was elected to parliament in 2007 election as a representative for Diyarbakir and the Democratic Society Party, a precursor to the HDP.

In 2010, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for alleged links to the PKK, but his parliamentary immunity kept him out of jail.

 

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