Thursday, January 14, 2016
Christopher de Bellaigue - The battle for Turkey: can Selahattin Demirtas pull the country back from the brink of civil war?
In the autumn of 1990, six years into the Kurdistan Workers party’s (PKK) insurgency against the Turkish state, a political activist named Vedat Aydin rose to his feet to address a human rights conference in the capital, Ankara. When Aydin began to speak, it was not in Turkish, the official language of the state, but Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect that had for decades been effectively banned in public places. The result of this gesture was pandemonium. The moderator of the conference demanded that Aydin switch to Turkish; a fellow Kurd came mischievously onto the platform to translate. Around half those present walked out, and Aydin was detained by police and briefly jailed.
Eight months later Aydin was arrested again, back home in the city of Diyarbakir, in what is effectively the capital of Turkish Kurdistan. Two days after that, his mutilated body was discovered in the countryside outside the city.
Turkish security forces perpetrated thousands of extra-judicial executions of Kurdish activists in the 1990s – along with village clearances and torture on a massive scale – but few provoked the anger of ordinary Kurds more than the killing of the man who had achieved notoriety by standing up to the linguistic proscriptions of the state. On 5 July, 1991, the day of Aydin’s funeral, they came out in their tens of thousands in Diyarbakir.
Among the mourners that day was an 18-year-old local boy called Selahattin Demirtaş, the second son of a plumber and his wife who had given their seven children as stable an upbringing as they could manage in the dirt-poor regional capital.
To Tahir and Sadiye Demirtaş this had meant acquiescing to the official claim that all citizens of the country, bar a few tiny minorities, were Turks. It was only from school friends that Selahattin had learned of the existence of the Kurds, a people that had been living on the mountainous intersection of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor long before the first incursions by Turkish nomads in the 11th century. State propaganda and the collusion of his parents had left Demirtaş unsure as to whether he was a Turk or a Kurd. On 5 July all ambiguity was removed.
The first that Demirtaş saw of the violence that day was when he was swept up in a wave of youngsters being chased by plainclothes policemen wielding planks of wood. Later on, as he recalled in an interview last year with a Turkish newspaper, “they opened fire on the crowd from all sides … the wounded couldn’t be treated because if they went to hospital they would be arrested. And despite all this the newspapers depicted the people of Diyarbakir as responsible for what happened!”
According to the government, eight people were killed that day. Kurdish sources put the figure at more than 20. For Demirtaş, the Diyarbakir killings were an epiphany of the kind that hundreds of thousands of Kurds have experienced over the past 40 years – generally in response to a government atrocity. Such incidents have secured continuous support for the PKK’s war against the Turkish state. “That day,” Demirtaş has said, “I became a different person. My life’s course changed … although I didn’t fully understand the reason behind the events, now I knew: we were Kurds, and since this wasn’t an identity I would toss away, this was also my problem.”
A quarter of a century later, Demirtaş is the embodiment of the Kurds’ political aspirations in Turkey. He is also the exponent of an inclusive politics that is startlingly new, and that owes much to the liberal traditions of the west – so much, in fact, that an admiring ambassador in Ankara recently described him to me as “the only Turkish politician that would not be out of place in a European capital”. But Demirtaş is also the civilian adjunct of a brutal armed movement, caught between bomb and ballot box – a man in the middle.
Since 1984 the PKK, which most western governments consider a terrorist organisation, has been waging an armed insurgency that aimed at first to prise much of southeastern Turkey from the Turks, though autonomy has latterly become the goal. In a conflict that has taken more than 40,000 lives, destroying communities and families from central Anatolia to the Armenian border, Demirtaş is advocate-in-chief for the peaceful solution that many on the government side – and some on his own – demonstrably do not want. And those Kurdish sceptics of peace may include his own elder brother, Nurettin, who served 12 years in a Turkish jail for membership of the PKK’s youth wing and is now believed to be fighting somewhere in Syria or Iraq. (Demirtaş professes ignorance of his brother’s precise whereabouts.)
In 2014, Demirtaş helped found the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), the latest in a long line of Kurdish nationalist parties – with the crucial difference that this one has become a major player on the national stage. In the general election of this June, the HDP became the first such party to surpass the 10% threshold required for parliamentary representation. The HDP’s 13% of the vote secured it 80 seats out of 550 in the Ankara parliament, and prompted the country’s president,Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to insist on a rerun that is to be held on 1 November.
One of the reasons why Demirtaş has caused Erdoğan much anxiety is that he is more than simply a Kurdish nationalist. He is pushing for a wider liberalisation of the country that would change conditions for all Turkish citizens, empowering minorities and ending the monolithic “national” identity on which Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP), have built 13 years of electoral success.
Narendra Modi and even Vladimir Putin would recognise Erdoğan’s majoritarian tactics – if not its religious and ethnic nuances. Erdogan’s belief is that Turkey is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Turks who are also pious Sunni Muslims; Demirtaş has identified all those who do not fit in as his natural constituency. Nothing less than the future of Erdoğan and his conception of Turkey are up for consideration when more than 50 million voters go to the polls, and Selahattin Demirtaş is a big reason why.
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Earlier this month, I spent a day following Demirtaş around Istanbul, where his constituency lies. A few days before, dozens of his HDP colleagues and supporters had been blown to pieces in a double suicide bombing, apparently carried out by Isis, as they attended a peace march in Ankara. The death toll was 102, making it the worst terrorist outrage in Turkish history. The bombings had clearly been designed to throw the election into chaos – Demirtaş accused the state of collusion – but no one was sure exactly what their effects would be.
Demirtaş cancelled all party rallies and interviews with the foreign press, mine included. The rest of the campaign would be fought in mourning and a heightened atmosphere of fear and insecurity. In person, Demirtaş looks younger than his 43 years, with hardly a wrinkle and a full head of black hair, but his smile is older, slower, and impressed with pain. Because it exhibits none of the cynicism one associates with politicians’ smiles, it is peculiarly powerful, emanating from expressive dark eyes, then spreading over a handsome, wide-open face.
Again in contrast with many politicians in Turkey, Demirtaş does not shout or fulminate when delivering speeches. And he impresses even his opponents with his intelligence. A friend of mine who had been an adviser to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, described the aftermath of the first meeting between the two men. “When Kemal came out of the meeting,” my friend related, “he looked astonished. He said, ‘Phew! that man’s sharp!’’’
On the day I spent with him, Demirtaş arrived at his first meeting in the official Mercedes Benz that it is his privilege as a party leader to use. When getting out of the car he buttoned the jacket of his blue suit fastidiously, before shaking the hands of wellwishers. Taking his seat at a table inside, nodding at the welcome of his hosts, an association of Shia Muslims, he unbuttoned his jacket again. It’s a way of protecting his good suit – as he himself jokes, his campaign is penniless – but there may also be an element of vanity.
That afternoon we went to a meeting of a cultural centre in the middle of town. Some policemen saw the crowd that had gathered around Demirtaş and made this an excuse for a fracas, with the police pushing the Kurds and the Kurds pushing back. “How rude!” one of the women exclaimed at some obscenity she had heard from one of the policemen.
The meeting room was packed with about 150 supporters. The head of the cultural centre had trouble controlling his breathing as he tried to introduce himself and his colleagues. “I’m excited,” he managed to say. “I am too,” Demirtaş replied. There was a ripple of sympathetic laughter and everyone relaxed.
Demirtaş said a few words. He was building, he said, a “union of the crushed”, which would not simply incorporate the Kurds, but others who have been excluded. A middle-aged woman with short blonde hair indicated she wanted to speak. She introduced herself as a teacher in Sariyer, a wealthy suburb. She was of the generation of Turks that had been brought up to despise the twin menaces of Kurdish nationalism and political Islam – the sort of person who until quite recently would not have contemplated talking congenially with a Kurdish nationalist linked to a terrorist organisation.
But 13 years of AKP rule, with their sour fruits of authoritarianism, corruption, and a leader who seems to regard himself as indispensable, have changed things. “I’ll be voting HDP come November 1,” the woman announced brightly. “And so will a lot of my friends. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of votes you get!” The warmth of Demirtaş’s response did not suggest that he looked at her as the symbol of a state that had for years put him down, belittled him, denied he existed. Outside the meeting, an admirer told me: “It may take a few years, but you just watch: he’ll rise the same way Erdoğan did.”
* * *
It was only an accident of fate that spared Demirtaş from a brief, fizzling glory as a freedom fighter, and led him into politics. As a 19-year-old, he was shamed into joining the guerrillas by the barbed comments of his friends (“How come you’re still studying when everyone else is heading for the hills?”), but his plan was thwarted by the arrest of the PKK contact who was to take him to the rebel camp. “I realised then,” he would recall, “that a political and legal approach would be far more effective than armed struggle.”..