At a conference in Washington a few weeks
ago, a colleague of mine mentioned “the fatal error of Selahattin Demirtas and
the rest of the HDP (People’s Democracy Party in Turkey) of not supporting Mr.
Erdogan’s bid to become President of Turkey.” I asked him, “So you think they
should have backed Erdogan’s drive to become Turkey’s elected dictator for
life?” He replied, “Of course – look where their choice got them now. Demirtas
and most of the others are in jail, the state’s war on the PKK has resumed, and
the Kurds in Turkey have less rights than before.”
Your humble columnist, perhaps out of
naiveté, has trouble accepting such logic. Most of us spend our days
complaining about politicians who make back room deals, who betray their
nation’s dignity to others, who lie just about every time they open their
mouths. I know my colleague who made this comment about Mr. Demirtas complains
about these sorts of things in America all the time. So how can we then turn
around and berate the HDP and its leaders for holding true to their word and
The HDP’s platform from the beginning
revolved around more rights and democracy not just for Kurds, but for everyone
in Turkey. In a fairly devout and conservative country, the HDP ran female and
minority candidates, including Alevis, Armenians and Chaldeans, in the
elections. They loudly stood up for the rights of women, minorities, atheists
and even the LGBT community. Selahattin Demirtas insisted on grieving for both
Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish soldiers killed in fighting between the state
and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saying that “they are all our
These principles eloquently put forth by
their leaders brought the HDP, a very new party, from having less than one per
cent of the vote in Turkey in 2014 to around 13% in the June 2015 elections.
When President Erdogan and his party
thought that they could benefit electorally from Kurdish votes, they pursued a
“Kurdish opening” and peace talks with the PKK – which the HDP mediated. The
siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane in the autumn of 2014, and the
Erdogan government’s apparent satisfaction with the imminent ISIS take-over of
the city, changed everything. In reaction to Ankara’s embargo on the defenders
of Kobane, assistance to jihadis in Syria and refusal to assist Syrian Kurds
against ISIS, Kurdish protests broke out across Turkey.
Shortly after quelling the protests
violently, Mr. Erdogan probably looked at opinion polls showing that he and his
party had just lost the Kurdish portion of its electorate. He then seems to
have reasoned that “If they’re not going to support us, then why do anything
The “Kurdish opening” and “peace process”
with the PKK was quickly abandoned as a result, as the Erdogan government
tacked to the Right and began working harder to court the vote of extremist
Turkish nationalists who normally vote for the fascist National Action Party
In the lead up to the June 2015
elections, Mr. Erdogan and his AK Party nonetheless still looked to the
possibility of getting the HDP’s help for passing constitutional amendments to
turn Erdogan’s post from a ceremonial one into an “executive presidency.” HDP
leaders refused. Co-chair Demirtas described the HDP’s stance on the issue in
I want to remind here our promise to the people
not to abandon the principles of democracy, peace and freedom. We are not a
movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty
deal, between us and the AKP and there will never be….I will keep today’s
parliamentary group very short. I will in fact express my message in just one
sentence: Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you will never be able to be the head of
the nation as long as the HDP exists and as long as the HDP people are on this
soil. We will not make you the president [he repeated the last phrase three
When the HDP’s share of the vote in the
June 2015 election denied the AKP a majority government for the first time, Mr.
Erdogan’s reaction to this and Mr. Demirtas’ refusals quickly became manifest:
resuming the war with the PKK and throwing HDP deputies, including Mr.
Demirtas, in jail.
The HDP deputies are still in jail, with
exception of a few such as Osman Baydemir – who was thrown out of the Turkish
parliament this week for saying the word “Kurdistan.” Mr. Erdogan got his
executive presidency via a questionable referendum.
Yet still I think my colleague is
mistaken. Mr. Demirtas and other HDP leaders did not make a mistake. The kind
of political system that has taken hold in Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey would have
never given the Kurds or others their rights. By holding to their principles
instead of making back room deals for short-term advantage, HDP leaders such as
Selahattin Demirtas, Osman Baydemir and Figen Yuksekdag keep their dignity and
play the long game.
One day authoritarianism and intolerance
in Turkey will wane, and just like Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters in
South Africa, they are willing to wait for that day.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the
Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University
and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the position of Rudaw.