Demirtas: “I am an HDP member and will continue to remain so”

“My criticism should not be exploited by anyone to weaken HDP. I am a member of HDP and I will remain so. I want everybody to know it well,” Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas said

Imprisoned Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, has openly acknowledged the failures and mistakes of his party, and called for self-criticism, fresh blood, and a change in party leadership through a party congress.

Demirtas also expressed his concerns about the consequences of opposition’s joint candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu's defeat in the elections, stating that Turkey would become more authoritarian, polarized, and economically dependent on other countries.

In a long interview with Irfan Aktan from arti gercek, Demirtas said he steps back from active politics but does not resign from the HDP.

Here is a full translation of the interview:

As Erdogan said you would not be released from prison, his supporters chanted 'Death sentence to Selo.' What was your instant feeling when you heard it?

In fact, I and my cellmate Selcuk Mizrakli, we just smiled at the scene, and we felt sorry for that crowd. One can only feel pity for the desperation of that crowd, who along with their leader are reminiscent of Middle Ages.

- It is now a general opinion that after May 28 the government's oppressive practices against the Kurdish political movement will be more ruthless than ever. What sort of steps do you think the government might take?

Actually it is now only massacres that they have not resorted to yet, and it's hard to imagine that they would dare to do that. They will probably resort to practices that will amount to cultural genocide, while they continue to use violence. They will particularly try to penetrate the social core using Huda Par [Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party], and Kurdish people will have to respond with an unprecedented resistance and ideological struggle.

- What will be the middle and long term consequences of Kemal Kilicdaroglu's defeat in the elections?

We will see a more authoritarian, poorer, more polarized Turkey, and it will also be even more dependent on other countries.


- If you were free, what would be your opposition strategy in the face of the current picture?

I do not have a miracle formula, and neither am I a savior, but I could have contributed by setting solid objectives that would motivate and mobilize masses. I can contribute from prison only through social media and other media, and that is prone to shortcomings. And somebody can even describe this as being a social media phenomenon [an apparent reference to the recent use of the term in a negative context in an article on election results by former HDP co-chair Sezai Temelli], as if that was what I was trying to do, and as if I had any other mean at my disposal!

- What would be your response to people criticizing you over "being populist?"

I respect critics who say that I'm shadowing HDP's principles by populist politics. I take this kind of criticism into consideration, while I leave aside those who mix up being popular and being populist. I don't think there is any point anymore trying to push things any further. If this is what my friends are insistently saying, then it's possible that they know something which I am not aware of, and we accordingly should now have the right to expect an outstanding performance from them.


- What are you planning to do from that point on? What will be your political path?

I told our party leadership months ago that I will no longer be engaged in active politics after the elections, whatever the results may be. I still think likewise. I believe that all comrades outside will successfully come out of these times with our own resources. I have confidence in all of them. My criticism of our party and my suggestions have always been made constructively, with good intentions and to contribute. My criticism should not be exploited by anyone to weaken HDP. I am a member of HDP and I will remain so. I want everybody to know it well.


- The Green Left Party now have 61 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. What should these deputies do for a strong opposition?

Our party has experience and a collective memory regarding such issues, and they will be able to do the best. On the other hand, it's very important that while they use parliament effectively they do not limit the struggle to only the parliament.


- What were your feelings on the evening of May 28 [when the results of the presidential election runoff were announced]?

It wasn't so surprising. I actually believe that Kilicdaroglu won. While the winner was officially Erdogan, that was made possible with some election fraud, with votes from abroad, and with the votes of those who were recently granted citizenship. What took place had nothing to do with democracy, and it was not the people's will that came out of the ballot box. The entire thing was an operation.

The situation in Turkey is obvious: Economic issues, the authoritarian regime, the situation surrounding the youth, poverty, the earthquake disaster, foreign relations... How was AKP still able to receive 35% of the vote despite all these? The opposition had particularly high hopes for the Z generation, but it looks like that did not come out as expected. What's your analysis of the election results?

From the first moment on, the elections took place on an unequal, unfair, illegitimate ground. AKP used all state power for lies, slander, smearing, repression and obstruction. There were interference at polling stations. Turkey actually did not have the conditions for a fair race after seven years of absolute authoritarianism. The legitimacy of the results will always be disputed. Despite being aware of those facts, the opposition made a great mistake by legitimizing the government, by acting as if it was a normal government. The opposition helped the government by readily accepting the criminalization of HDP. When your opponent is conducting and operation instead of an election, you can succeed only by using extraordinary means in your struggle against it.


- Like what?

A struggle involving large masses of people should have been organized long before the elections. A seven-year operation of social engineering [of the government] cannot be overcome by an election campaign in the course of a few months. A majority of the people were actually in favor of change, but that demand for change could not be transformed into a social movement. It was restricted to political parties.

-The HDP leadership assesses that the elections resulted in their failure. Three reasons are cited: Repression of HDP, two parties in Labor and Freedom Alliance running individually, and [wrong] selection of parliamentary candidates. What do you think? Could the election results be different?

First of all, let me make it clear that I earlier and several times shared with party officials the criticism I made in my article yesterday and the criticism I'm making now. This is not something new. HDP is obviously under constant attacks of all kinds recently, under huge pressures, and these kinds of things also happened many times in the past. Our party offices in the cities of Adana and Mersin were targeted by bomb attacks, our rallies were subjected to organized attacks before the elections on 7 June 2015. Our election rally in Diyarbakir was targeted by a bomb attack and friends were killed. I'm telling these not to make a comparison, only to note.

The Labor and Freedom Alliance should actually be discussed in a separate context. Although the reason behind its establishment, its principles and its objectives are exciting, it has unfortunately remained on paper. Some parties, from the very beginning, acted like the alliance did not exist, they have taken independent action. Then conflicts emerged on the issue whether or not the candidates should run under a single party. While this process could not be managed well, negative discussions led to loss of motivation and precious time. Although the notion and strategy of forming an alliance is very important, mismanagement of the process caused serious damage. All parties should come forth with self-criticism and draw lessons. On the other hand, efforts were not enough for an alliance with other Kurdish parties, although this is also of strategic significance and is a major network for HDP.


What is your opinion about the candidate lists?

There are criticisms that there is a lack of a specific method in the creation of the lists and that the expectations and suggestions of the people are not taken into account. These criticisms need to be taken seriously and a sincere self-criticism should be given by explaining them to all local areas. Our candidates and the comrades elected are all valuable and precious, but the issue is not about their personalities; it is an internal democracy issue. Despite all our experience, not valuing people's democracy and democratic society is more than a technical deficiency; it is an ideological deviation. The responsibility for this lies primarily with the party leadership. Considering the weaknesses of the election period politics, unfortunately, our management has fallen into serious inadequacies. In my opinion, they owe the people an apology and self-reflection for this entire process. Additionally, I do not exempt myself from this responsibility. I consider myself as one of the responsible ones, of course.

What do you think are the lessons to be drawn?

I believe there is a strong need for fresh blood, a change in party leadership, and a party congress should be swiftly held, beginning with local congresses. As far as I can see, this is the sort of maturity and responsibility that the people expect from the party leadership, including party co-chairs. What we should be guarding over right now is the organized struggle of our people and our party.


- What did HDP fail to achieve but could have achieved despite the intense repression since 2015?

Before discussing shortcomings and mistakes in tactics, we have to make something clear: The Kurdish political movement suffered a very serious erosion in its ranks because of arrests, forced exiles and other pressures. There has been a significant qualitative drop everywhere, all the way up from local branches to the leadership, from women assemblies to youth assemblies. Committed friends lacking experience did their best, but it wasn't enough. The steps to be taken are now actually obvious, but we do not have enough people with required qualities. So, the Kurdish political movement should urgently have the quality back through the right discourse, action and organization model. The Kurdish movement should stop giving credit to mediocrity and implement a model to reach out for thousands of qualified people. Otherwise it will be difficult to take the struggle and party to new heights, without participation of qualified people from all segments of society, including youth, women, workers, peasants, unemployed, students, middle class. There is nothing we won't be able to achieve with qualified people. This is the major shortcoming for HDP right now. Once this is addressed properly, the rest will be easier. And this depends on the sincerity and success of the reconstruction move. In short, reconstruction should be our main agenda.


Before the election, you also supported Gultan Kisanak's call for "running in the election with a joint list" for TIP, but your call did not receive a response. How do you evaluate TIP's overall policy during this process? Would the outcome have been significantly different if there had been a joint list for the election?

TIP's decision was wrong, and it remains wrong. The task of revolutionary, pioneering politics is to insist on changing and transforming its mass base. I had conveyed these views to Erkan Bas during his visit to me and before that. What good would the votes you would receive by saying, "We have other voter groups we can appeal to if we don't stand together with the Kurds" do in terms of solving and transforming anything? The Kurdish issue is not like a traffic problem where you can say, "This street is blocked, let's take another route." How can you provide a lasting solution to Turkey's social, class, and political problems by sidestepping and ignoring the Kurds and their national demands? Despite being one of the parties that knows these things best, TIP chose to turn its back on reality. It was a mistake. I hope everyone makes a sincere effort, as they should, to remedy this.


After the election, some Kurdish circles made evaluations stating that it is no longer appropriate to walk together with Turkish socialists. In your opinion, how should the Kurdish movement proceed and what should it do?

HDP should not only seek alliances with socialist parties during election periods. Joint struggle is much more meaningful and important. From May Day to Newroz, from strikes to protest marches, a common struggle should be carried out everywhere. Unity confined to electoral alliances brings more harm than benefit. Even within HDP, the practice of quotas and quotas for components should be abolished. This is necessary to form an HDP identity. All components should form a unity of struggle, and during election time, everyone should participate in primary elections, with a limited number of quotas determined by the Central Headquarters, and the rest should be determined by the people. This is a much more democratic and populist method. This method should be applied in general elections as well as local elections. I advocated for these principles while I was outside, and I still hold the same opinion.


Do you think that the Green Left Party's determination of the candidate lists from the central headquarters, despite objections from the local level, had an impact on the current results? Did you have any consultation with your party on this matter? Would a different method have resulted in a different outcome?

Certainly, one of the reasons for the failure is the insufficient consideration given to the local level. Regarding the candidate selection method, we did not have any consultation with the Central Headquarters. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that a limited quota should be allocated to the Central Headquarters, and most candidates should be determined through primary elections. Of course, primary elections have their own problems, and efforts should be made to minimize those problems. Candidates elected through primary elections for mayors and members of parliament would be the choice of the local level, and they would carry out much stronger campaigns. If this method had been adopted, we might have been able to have more MPs in some areas, but it is not possible to know for certain if it would have resulted in a completely different outcome.

Did you have intense contact with HDP during the election campaign? Were you consulted on various issues, including the election campaign, presidential candidacy, and parliamentary candidate lists?

Due to regular visits by my lawyer friends, we do not have any technical issues in terms of communication with the Central Headquarters of my party. However, it seems that there have been occasional shortcomings in informing us due to the busy schedule of the Central Headquarters. Especially during election periods, these shortcomings can be more pronounced.


HDP Co-Chairs stated that they would make self-criticism in the face of the May 14 elections results . In your opinion, what should this self-criticism entail and how should it be done?

First and foremost, all of us, including myself, owe an unconditional apology to our selfless, hardworking, patriotic people. Our people did more than their best, but we failed to develop effective policies and tactics. We must provide sincere and substantial self-criticism. Personally, I sincerely apologize for not presenting a policy that is worthy of our people. I promise to make efforts to address these shortcomings through practical endeavors. Additionally, I thank everyone for their constructive criticisms. I will try to benefit from the criticisms. While continuing the struggle with resistance like every comrade of mine from prison, I am leaving active politics at this stage.

So, are you resigning from HDP?

I feel the need to clarify that the discussions have been conducted on an incorrect basis once again; I am not resigning from HDP or any position. I state that I will not intervene in current, topical politics and that I am stepping back from active politics within this framework. Regarding the news article on Halk TV's website by Seyhan Avsar, I must mention that she did her job, but her story turned out to be false due to inaccurate information from the source. We have a comradely relationship based on trust with the HDP Central Headquarters. Our shortcomings and mistakes should be mutually and comradely criticized, and we should continue the path together. Our party, HDP, needs to initiate this self-criticism process by organizing comprehensive and widely attended public meetings at all local levels. These meetings should also serve as a foundation for gathering public opinions, suggestions, and criticisms leading up to the party congress. What we need most is internal party democracy. When internal party democracy diminishes, deviations and mistakes occur successively.

What is the way to ensure internal party democracy?

To implement democracy, we must establish new mechanisms and internal party institutions. The advancements in communication technology, enabling participation and oversight through mobile phones, require us to end the delegate system and ensure that all levels of leadership are directly elected by the people, by party members. Important decisions of the party must be subject to the approval of the people through this method. The public should be able to scrutinize and question the party anytime and anywhere they wish. We must create the means for this. Our new leadership should prioritize this. Without accomplishing this, progress is not possible. Because the true and sole owner of our party is the people, so let the people manage and engage in politics. The foundational paradigm of HDP is of vital importance, and deviating from it in practice is a serious deviation. While defending democracy externally, there cannot be bureaucratic and factional approaches within HDP politics. This is not just a deficiency but also a criminal practice. It is beneficial for everyone to act with this awareness.

How was the decision made not to nominate candidates in the Labor and Freedom Alliance? What kind of discussions took place during that process? What was your opinion and recommendation?

Before the discussions on presidential candidacy began, I informed our Central Headquarters that I was ready to be a presidential candidate and suggested that we leave the election to the second round, where we could make more contributions with democratic moves. I also stated that my candidacy could increase our party's vote share. In fact, I did not have a political ban, but in case the Supreme Election Council rejected my candidacy, I mentioned that it would be easier for our base to embrace the candidate we would nominate afterwards. However, my proposal was rejected without any explanation. I still do not know the reason behind it. While these discussions were ongoing, an earthquake occurred, and the process evolved towards not nominating candidates. This decision was jointly made by the Central Headquarters and alliance components. I was also informed beforehand, and of course, we stood behind this decision.

Erdogan frequently mentioned your name (Selo) and targeted you during the election process. He stated that as long as they are in power, you will not be released from prison. Were you and your party able to provide sufficient responses to Erdogan's anti-Demirtas discourse?

Erdogan uses "Selo" as a way to target the resisting Kurdish people and code Kurdish hostility. Instead of explicitly saying Kurdish, he says Selo. Erdogan has conducted a smear campaign against Kurds using my name in the past three elections. It's not surprising coming from him. I don't have the opportunity to provide him with the response he deserves from here. My friends outside, except for a few short tweets in recent days, have hardly responded at all. This is actually an interesting situation. However, the Kurds have given Erdogan the response he deserves and more. The determination of our people to fight and uphold their values is truly valuable and respectable. I will always be indebted to our people in this regard.

I asked you in a previous interview as well, when can you be released from prison?

There are already release orders issued about me, and those orders will probably be implemented when the law is applied. The day of implementation will be determined by our struggle.

On May 23, the Minister of Interior, in a TV speech he shared on his Twitter account, said the following: "The most important step taken by the Republic of Turkey and Turkish politics in recent years in this regard is the step of Huda Par. (...) And the benefits of this will be seen in Turkey in ten years, and they will say, 'a mortal named Suleyman Soylu said this.' But Tayyip Erdogan did it." Why do you think Soylu openly declares the state's Huda Par plan?

With this statement, Suleyman Soylu is telling all internal and external structures, "Do not be afraid of Huda Par, they are an apparatus of our state, there is no need to fear." He was also giving assurance to nationalist, ultra-nationalist, and racist circles that could be hesitant to vote for Erdogan out of fear of Huda Par. At the same time, he is sending a clear threat message to the Kurdish political movement. He openly states that they are preparing for a 2023 version of the operations in the 90s, which is meant to intimidate and suppress. For years, the bureaucracy has been infiltrating Huda Par into Kurdish territories, and state resources have been allocated to serve Huda Par. Attempts are being made through the use of Kurdish identity and Huda Par to enter the areas where the AKP cannot gain access due to its decline.

The fact that we are being held in the Kobani Trap Case also serves the purpose of opening space for Huda Par. While Süleyman Soylu openly states that Huda Par is an apparatus of the state, there is no objection from Huda Par regarding this. Those who engage in politics with good intentions in Huda Par should know that this policy does not benefit them or the Kurds. Our history is full of mistakes like this; we should learn from them. No policy that pits Kurds against Kurds brings any good. The right policy is for all Kurds to come together, stand side by side for their rights, through dialogue and consultation.

Do you have a message you would like to convey to Huda Par?

I know Huda Par Chairman Mr. Zekeriya from my years as a lawyer, and I would like to tell him the following: The hand of a Kurd holding onto another Kurd is not worthless compared to the hand of Mustafa Destici that you held while slogans of execution were chanted for a Kurdish politician in the Palace's garden. Today, the hand you need to hold is the hand of HDP members in the Parliament. Without giving in to dirty games, we should all focus on the interests of our people. I hope these messages find a response considering their historical significance.

When asked about Soylu's statement, Professor Hamit Bozarslan makes the following observation: "This plan has two important objectives. The ideological objective is the conservative transformation of the Kurdish society and, based on that, the destruction of the HDP and its tradition, as well as the demolition of the role of women and the positions they have achieved within the Kurdish society. It is currently not possible to predict whether this can be achieved, but the Kurdish movement should take this as a warning." In the face of this "warning," what should the Kurdish movement do, and what can it do? Do you think the plan to conservatize the Kurdish society will succeed?

Certainly, this is not a simple plan. It is a new stage of a comprehensive plan for dismantling. What is being said is just one aspect of a multidimensional and multifaceted attack. Of course, the Kurdish movement will respond to all these plans with its experiences, knowledge, and strategic intelligence by putting forward its own resistance plan. Naturally, the beliefs, lifestyle, worship, and sensitivities of our people are integral parts of their identity. It is our duty to protect them. However, we will also oppose the instrumentalization of religion for the service of power and the state. The Kurdish people did not learn Islam from the state, and they do not accept being handed over to the state. The Kurdish people are well aware of this and resilient. From culture and arts to media, from political field to women and youth, from the economic sphere to local administrations, a relentless assault has been ongoing for years, but despite all its barbarity, they have not been able to achieve results, and they will not be able to. We will resist to the end and with all our strength, and we will render all their efforts futile.


In the same interview, Bozarslan makes the following observations: "The opposition's inability to have a democratic perspective and its attempt to respond to the government in the same language... The discourse of 'We are also conservative, we are also nationalist' was one of the important factors that missed success. As Hannah Arendt emphasized, you can only defend yourself with the attribute that is used to attack you. If you are attacked because you are an Alevi, you can only defend yourself as an Alevi. To do this, you must legitimize Alevism. If you are attacked because you are LGBTI, you cannot defend yourself by saying 'No, we are conservative, we are Turkish,' and so on. If you are attacked because you are Kurdish, you cannot defend yourself by saying 'Excuse me, but we are also Turkish.' If you are attacked because you are atheist, you cannot defend yourself by saying 'Yes, but we respect religion.' Because the attack against you does not stem from whether you show respect to the other side or not, but directly from your existence. If a woman is attacked because of her mini skirt, that woman can only be defended with her mini skirt. A woman who does not wear a mini skirt to avoid being attacked is no longer a woman wearing a mini skirt. Therefore, the other side has eliminated a woman wearing a mini skirt. To avoid being attacked, is it about ceasing to exist, hiding, becoming invisible, or resisting to sustain your existence? Unfortunately, the opposition in Turkey has not been able to reach this consciousness for various reasons. Alliances have not made this possible either. Perhaps now we need to think about politics beyond alliances, and even beyond political parties. We should contemplate what future political movements could be." Based on these assessments by Bozarslan, what additional response can you provide, especially to the question of "what future political movements could be"?

Professor Hamit Bozarslan makes valuable observations. I send my greetings and respects to him. I hope that all the opposition, especially our friends, carefully read his interview. Because we have entered a new phase in Turkey. We need to quickly organize our social and political struggle and take the lead in it. We should prioritize social struggle that emphasizes all civil and political methods, from rallies to marches, from strikes to boycotts, rather than sticking to parties and the Parliament. The foundation of my resistance and that of thousands of my comrades in prisons is the struggle of our people. I thank our people very much. Without the struggle of our people, none of us would exist. We continue the struggle together.

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