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article imageDemirtas: 'Kurdish Obama' the man to beat in Turkey vote

By Dilay Gundogan (AFP)     Oct 31, 2015 in Politics

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish party, is the man in the spotlight after he scored a stunning election breakthrough in June.

Nicknamed the "Kurdish Obama" for his smooth rhetorical skills, Demirtas propelled his Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) into mainstream politics with a message that embodies the hopes of Turkey's biggest minority but also appeals to non-Kurds.

But he has been the butt of fierce attacks by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has belittled him as a "pretty boy" acting merely as a front for the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

And in the run-up to Sunday's vote he has had to tread a delicate path after the PKK tore up a fragile 2013 ceasefire and renewed its bloody conflict against the Turkish state.

Selahattin Demirtas (C)  leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP)  came third w...
Selahattin Demirtas (C), leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), came third with just under 10 percent of the vote in the 2014 presidential election
Ozan Kose, AFP/File

The 42-year-old has made a dangerous enemy of Erdogan, who was clearly infuriated after the HDP's success in the June election blocked his own dream of winning enough seats in parliament to create a more powerful presidency.

Admirers say Demirtas, with his good looks and sharp sense of humour, is the only candidate with anything like the charisma and political talent to take on Erdogan.

He came third, with just under 10 percent of the vote, in the 2014 presidential election.

- 'Trying to find middle way' -

Much is made of his image as a family man, with broadcasts showing him breakfasting with his wife and two daughters, or singing folk songs and strumming the saz, a Kurdish lute.

Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, described him as a "human rights defender, always trying to find a middle way in the worst antagonistic debates".

Outgoing Turkish parliament
Outgoing Turkish parliament
L. Saubadu / V. Lefai, vl/gil, AFP

Under Demirtas, the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish party in Turkey's history to win enough votes to sit in parliament, delivering a message of sexual equality, gay rights, secularism and socialist economics.

And its haul of 80 seats deprived the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002.

But detractors say his wholesome image is just the appealing front for a party that remains tied to the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies over the three-decade armed insurgency that has killed 45,000 people.

Leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas with rel...
Leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas with relatives of a victims of a deadly attack in Ankara in October
Ozan Kose, AFP/File

His position is more complicated by the fact his brother Nurettin has joined PKK fighters at their base on the Kandil mountain in northern Iraq.

Prosecutors in July opened a criminal probe against Demirtas accusing him of provoking violent pro-Kurdish demonstrations last year. If ultimately convicted he could face up to 24 years in jail. HDP co-chair Figen Yuksekdag faces a similar probe.

- 'PKK a reality of Turkey' -

In an interview with AFP this week, Demirtas insisted his party had "no organic links with the PKK," but said: "The PKK is a reality of Turkey."

"We have always maintained that the PKK should lay down arms and tried to convince them to move in that direction, but the Republic of Turkey should also end all its military activities against the PKK.

"We have never wanted or defended the war. We have always mobilised for peace."

Selahattin Demirtas (C  black jacket  grey shirt)  marches towards Sihhiye Square in Ankara on Octob...
Selahattin Demirtas (C, black jacket, grey shirt), marches towards Sihhiye Square in Ankara on October 11, 2015, after the attack that killed 95 people
Ozan Kose, AFP/File

Demirtas said the HDP is willing to form a coalition with any party -- except the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is bitterly opposed to the peace process with Kurdish rebels.

Demirtas, who is referred to as "Selocan" (My darling Selo) by his supporters, says he has to don a hat and sunglasses to avoid being recognised on the streets of Diyarbakir when he goes out without his bodyguards.

But Erdogan has mocked him as the "cici cocuk" (pretty boy) and "pop star" and declared he would "run to the (Kandil) mountain" if given a chance.

The president also bizarrely claimed this week that Demirtas had hired Obama's campaign staff for the election.

Admirers of Selahattin Demirtas (C) believe that  with his good looks and sharp sense of humour  he ...
Admirers of Selahattin Demirtas (C) believe that, with his good looks and sharp sense of humour, he is the only candidate with anything like the charisma and political talent to take on President Erdogan
Ozan Kose, AFP/File

In response, Demirtas sent a sarcastic tweet to Obama that read: "If this is true, why do you not tell me, my cruel friend Obama!"

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 the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir before going into politics in 2007.

He was elected to parliament in 2007 election as a representative for Diyarbakir and the Democratic Society Party, a precursor to the HDP.

In 2010, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison for alleged links to the PKK, but his parliamentary immunity kept him out of jail.

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