Demirtas: Erdogan seeks "chaos" before elections, but will fail
Imprisoned Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas said the attempt to ban his leftist party was part of Tayyip Erdogan's plans to create "chaos" in Turkey's opposition ahead of elections this year, but will not save the president from defeat after two decades in power.
In a written interview with Reuters from Edirne prison in northwestern Turkey, Selahattin Demirtas called on the country's main opposition bloc to work with his pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) to win presidential and parliamentary elections expected in May.
The HDP's future is far from certain, however, as the party is under ban proceedings for its alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Recently, the Constitutional Court agreed to block the HDP's funding, which is essential for the parties' election campaigns.
Demirtas said Erdogan and his ally, ultranationalist Devlet Bahceli, were behind the legal push to shut down the HDP.
"The aim of these two is to win the elections by creating a vacuum and chaos in the opposition and weakening the HDP before the elections," Demirtas said, calling the timing of the closure a "deliberate political decision."
Critics of Erdogan's government, including Human Rights Watch, say it is using the courts to silence political opponents, including the mayor of Istanbul, a potential challenger to the president who was sentenced last month to prison and banned from politics.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled three years ago that Turkey must immediately release Demirtas, saying his detention was a pretext to restrict pluralism and debate.
Demirtas had previously been sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the president and now faces a possible life sentence in an ongoing trial with more than 100 other HDP politicians accused of inciting protests in 2014 that left dozens dead. They deny the charges.
In addition to the imprisonment of Demirtas and other party leaders, many HDP deputies and mayors have been deposed and thousands of HDP members have been imprisoned.
If not banned, the HDP, whose supporters are mainly Kurdish, would likely play a kingmaker role in the elections.
Opinion polls put the main opposition bloc on par with Turkey's ruling alliance, but it needs the support of HDP voters to defeat Erdogan, whose popularity has suffered in recent years as economic hardship has grown.
"Even if Erdogan puts pressure on voters, even if he tries to use tricks, he cannot prevent defeat," Demirtas said. "A large majority of people have lost their trust and faith in Erdogan, and it is impossible for him to regain it."
'WE ARE THE PEOPLE'
In the run-up to the elections, Demirtas' Twitter account posted daily political messages to his more than 2 million followers. A song he wrote was played at an HDP-led rally in Istanbul on Sunday, where thousands chanted his name and waved red, yellow and green party flags.
"We are not just an institution and a building. We are the people. You cannot eliminate the people," said attendee Ferhat Encu, a former HDP lawmaker who was jailed with Demirtas in 2016.
Saruhan Oluc, one of the leading HDP representatives at the rally, said the party is prepared for a possible ban but will not leave its voters without alternatives. He did not elaborate.
The HDP last week requested that the court case be postponed until after the elections in order to uphold democratic principles.
Demirtas said he assumed the court would not shut down the HDP because it did not want to interfere in politics.
The party currently plans to put forward its own presidential candidate, but Demirtas did not rule out supporting a joint opposition candidate against Erdogan.
Asked about his own future when he is released from prison, Demirtas said he does not want to return to the forefront of party politics, "I closed the page of active representative politics for me a long time ago. I'll just keep fighting."