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article imageDemirtas: Kurdish figurehead, Erdogan's enemy

By Stuart Williams (AFP)     Nov 4, 2016 in Politics

The co-leader of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party Selahattin Demirtas has used his immense personal charisma to spearhead an unprecedented political breakthrough and become an arch rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but is now mired in legal problems.

Demirtas was detained early Friday along with his female co-leader Figen Yuksekdag and nine other MPs from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), in the first such move against the party by the authorities.

The 43-year old lawyer has boldly made himself a personal rival of Erdogan and is perhaps the only politician in Turkey to come anywhere near the Turkish strongman's own charisma.

Dubbed by supporters the "Kurdish Obama" for silky rhetorical skills worthy of the US president, Demirtas has carved out a strong personal image that has won fans even outside the Kurdish minority.

But detractors say Demirtas has failed to distance himself from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a more than three decade insurgency against the Turkish state.

Demirtas led the HDP to an unprecedented political breakthrough in June 2015 parliamentary polls winning over 13 percent of the vote which gave it 80 seats.

Dubbed by supporters the "Kurdish Obama" for silky rhetorical skills  Selahattin Demirtas ...
Dubbed by supporters the "Kurdish Obama" for silky rhetorical skills, Selahattin Demirtas (C) has carved out a strong personal image
Yasin Akgul, AFP/File

This rankled with Erdogan as the party's success meant his Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to secure an overall majority for the first time since it came to power.

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

In snap polls held in November 2015, the HDP's support slipped to 10.8 percent and its number of seats to 59. But it is still the third-biggest party in parliament.

- 'Erdogan's oppression' -

The HDP draws the base of its support from many, but not all, of Turkey's estimated 20 million Kurds.

But Demirtas also struck a chord with liberal secular Turks, reaching out in particular to religious minorities such as Armenians, as well as gays, women and workers.

The HDP strongly opposed the July 15 coup that aimed to unseat Erdogan. But Demirtas told AFP in an interview after the putsch bid there was no contradiction in resisting both the plotters and the president.

Selahattin Demirtas led the HDP to an unprecedented political breakthrough  making it the third bigg...
Selahattin Demirtas led the HDP to an unprecedented political breakthrough, making it the third biggest party in Turkey's parliament
Yasin Akgul, AFP/File

"Turkey was already afflicted by Erdogan's oppression and the putsch would only have made things worse."

He has come under huge pressure to distance himself from the PKK. His own elder brother Nurettin is believed to have fought among their ranks in northern Iraq.

Demirtas and Yuksekdag became joint leaders of the HDP when the party was formed out of a loose coalition of Kurdish political formations in 2014.

As part of its campaign for gender equality, the HDP splits all its major posts between a man and a woman. The co-chairmanship is no exception.

However it is Demirtas who made the most effort to win votes outside the party's core Kurdish base, especially in Istanbul, with Yusekdag focusing on its supporters in the Kurdish-dominated southeast.

- 'You won't be president' -

A winning smile and skills that extend to mastery of the Kurdish baglama (lute) belie Demirtas' steely political instincts, which he has needed to take on Erdogan.

He has consistently opposed Erdogan's vision of creating a presidential system in Turkey, furthering the Turkish strongman's animosity towards him.

In a now famous speech to the HDP in March 2015, Demirtas simply repeated the same phrase three times: "We will not make you the president!" He won a standing ovation.

He has insisted that the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan should be part of the process to make peace, telling AFP he "has to be put back into the circuit".

Selahattin Demirtas (R) and Figen Yuksekdag (L) became joint leaders of the HDP when the party was f...
Selahattin Demirtas (R) and Figen Yuksekdag (L) became joint leaders of the HDP when the party was formed out of a loose coalition of Kurdish political formations in 2014
Adem Altan, AFP/File

Born in the Kurdish-majority southeastern 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 with the Democratic Society Party (DTP).

The HDP said in November 2015 that Demirtas has survived an assassination attempt when a bullet was fired at his vehicle but the authorities denied any such attack had taken place.

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