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article imageDemirtas the 'Kurdish Obama' faces his biggest test

By Fulya Ozerkan, Stuart Williams (AFP)     Jul 31, 2015 in World

Turkey's charismatic Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, who led his party to a remarkable breakthrough in June 7 legislative polls, is facing the biggest test of his career as Ankara cracks down on militant Kurds.

Demirtas, 42, known as the "Kurdish Obama" for his silky rhetorical skills, guided his Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) to 80 seats in the polls and prevented the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from winning an overall majority.

His party won 13 percent of the vote and for the first time managed to attract large numbers of non-Kurdish Turkish voters with its message of sexual equality, gay rights, secularism and socialist economics.

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party walks past graves at a cemetary near the PKK headquart...
A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party walks past graves at a cemetary near the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq, July 29, 2015
Safin Hamed, AFP/File

But Demirtas now finds himself in a delicate predicament as Turkey presses an air campaign against Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants in Iraq and the rebels respond with deadly attacks inside the country.

He has come under huge pressure to distance himself from the PKK, even as his own elder brother Nurettin is among their ranks in northern Iraq.

Deimrtas has made a dangerous personal enemy in Erdogan, who was clearly infuriated by the HDP's success in the elections which blocked his own dream of creating a more powerful presidency in Turkey.

And prosecutors on Thursday opened a criminal investigation against Demirtas on the grounds he provoked violent pro-Kurdish demonstrations in October 2014. If ultimately convicted, he could face up to 24 years in jail. His co-chair Figen Yuksekdag faces a similar probe.

- 'Two separate groups' -

The relationship between the HDP and PKK has long been hotly contested. Demirtas strongly denies his party is a political front for the PKK, which has waged a three decade insurgency against the Turkish state.

"We are two separate groups," Demirtas told AFP in an interview in Ankara on Thursday. "We are definitely not a party of the PKK, nor its political wing."

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan early elections should be called "immediately"...
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan early elections should be called "immediately" if negotiations to form a coalition government fail
Adek Berry, AFP

Demirtas, whose talents extend to singing and playing the baglama (a Kurdish lute), has clearly needled the AKP, who accuse him of being the attractive frontman for the "terrorists" of the PKK.

His position is made all the more complicated by the fact that his own elder brother Nurettin is known to have joined the PKK rebels at their headquarters on Kandil mountain in northern Iraq.

Demirtas insisted his brother's involvement in the PKK is not a secret but admitted: "I don't even know if he's dead or alive."

Erdogan, who previously has belittled Demirtas as the "pretty boy", this week goaded him by saying that he would "run to the (Kandil) mountain" if given a chance.

"Had I believed going to the mountain is a solution I would have gone... It is not difficult to go there. What is difficult is to stay here," Demirtas told AFP.

- 'Dear Demirtas, be bold' -

Demirtas said he did not have any personal problem with Erdogan but said it "appears his psychology is not in good state."

The politician has also faced criticism in the media for the party's reluctance to clearly condemn violence by the PKK, including the killing of two police in their sleep last week.

Selahattin Demirtas  co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party  holds a press confe...
Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, holds a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 7, 2015
Ozan Kose, AFP/File

Respected commentator Ahmet Hakan published an open letter to Demirtas in the Hurriyet daily Friday, saying it was time he told the PKK to stop their "treacherous murders".

"Make a very strong, very clear cry, without leaving any space for debate," Hakan wrote in the letter.

"Dear Demirtas, Don't be afraid. Don't be shy. Be bold. Just as you said, peace requires courage," he added.

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.

Demirtas has sought to project a wholesome family image, frequently appearing in public with his wife Basak, a teacher, and their two daughters.

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