Skip to main content

The rise of Turkey’s Demirtas, Erdogan's nemesis

Ozan Kose, AFP | The co-president of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, is credited with 12-14% of the vote for the legislative elections on November 1

All eyes are on Selahattin Demirtas as Turkey heads to the polls on Sunday, but the charismatic leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the main rival to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP has had a far from smooth campaign.


As Turkey heads to the polls once more in the country’s second legislative election in just five months, all eyes are on Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and arch foe of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Spoken of as a “Turkey’s Alexis Tsipras”, “the Kurdish Obama” or, more sarcastically, a “pop star”, Demirtas – little known just two years ago – has stolen the limelight in Turkish politics in recent months. With his youthful appearance, relaxed air and peace-preaching rhetoric, the 42-year-old has emerged as the biggest threat to Erdogan in the run up to the November 1 elections.

Polls suggest the HDP could equal or even better the result of June’s election, where the party inflicted a significant blow to the AKP, taking 13.1 percent of the vote and helping to deny the party a majority. At the same time, it also scuttled Erdogan’s bid to turn the role of president from a largely ceremonial one to that of an executive power.

Just five months later, new elections are being held at the behest of Erdogan and the AKP as the party looks to claw back its lost ground.

But while Demirtas and Erdogan may be political enemies, they have at least one common trait according to Dorothée Schmid at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) – charisma.

"Demirtas is the only politician in Turkey that has ability to connect with people and as much charisma as Erdogan," she says.

In nearly all other regards, the two men are worlds apart. Demirtas’s modern, reserved image contrasts heavily with the authoritarianism of Erdogan’s rule. According to Ali Kazancigil, a specialist in Turkish politics and director the geopolitical magazine "Anatoli”, Demirtas is the antithesis of the notorious megalomaniacal Erdogan, largely because of the democratic roots of his political movement.

A mix of Obama and Tsipras

Demirtas, who comes from a modest and pious Sunni family, has been credited with inspiring the rise of the HDP – born through a merger of seven political movements and 33 associations. A fervent defender of human rights during his time as a lawyer, he has set about broadening the base of HDP support beyond Turkey’s Kurds. Now, Jews, gays and environmentalists all are drawn to the party’s now wide umbrella, while Demirtas has also placed a firm focus on youth issues.

The party also fields candidates from other minority groups, including Armenians and Yazidis, while rigorously applying a gender quota whereby each post is shared by a man and a woman. Demirtas, therefore, occupies his role of party chairman alongside Figen Yuksekdag.

Yuksekdag may not enjoy as high a profile as her male counterpart, though Kazancigil believes “this is because Demirtas has the greater aura”.

Indeed, Demirtas’s “aura” and his role as the leader of a new party firmly anchored on the political left, has led to comparisons with another youthful and charismatic politician, Greece’s Tsipras.

Demirtas will certainly have had his eye on Tsirpas’s meteoric rise to power across the Aegean and has invited the Greek Prime Minister to campaign rallies.

For Demirtas, Tsipras represents the bridge between the pro-Kurdish party and its integration with the wider European alternative left, says Aurélien Denizeau, assistant researcher at IFRI.

On the other hand, Demirtas’s relaxed attitude and family man image – he has two daughters with his teacher wife while he has said he "irons his own shirts" and makes a "good terrine" – has earned him the nickname "the Kurdish Barack Obama".

He also has the US president’s cool demeanour when in front of the television cameras. On some occasions, he has even taken a break from talking politics for a musical interlude, treating TV audiences to a few songs on his saz – a traditional stringed instrument. It is a quirk that Erdogan abhors: “He is a pop star … a pretty boy”, the Turkish president has said with derision.

‘Between a rock and a hard place’

But it has not all been plain sailing for Demirtas.

The terms “infidel” and “traitor” are among the other ways Erdogan has chosen to describe Demirtas, who has also been accused of eating pork during a trip in Germany by Turkish newspapers close to the government – a big taboo in mostly Muslim Turkey.

"Our biggest fault is really our success in the last legislative elections," retorted Demirtas.

But Erdogan’s main strategy to discredit his political rival is in linking Demirtas with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – something that requires little digging to accomplish. Demirtas’s elder brother Nurettin was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his association with the PKK, considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey. After his release, Nurettin joined up with the PKK at their headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq.

The HDP are “accomplices to those in the mountains”, Erdogan is fond of repeating. The Kurdish rebels, meanwhile, have declared a temporary cease-fire in hostilities with the Turkish army in order not to "interfere" with the HDP’s election campaign.

Demirtas is no doubt in a delicate position.

“He’s caught between a rock in a hard place, between the hardliners of the PKK and the one-upmanship of the nationalists in power,” political analyst Ahmet Insel recently told French newspaper Libération.

Dermirtas takes fight to ‘serial killer’ Erdogan

Then came the tragic double suicide bombing at a “Labour, Peace and Democracy" rally orgainised in part by the HDP in Ankara on October 10. At least 102 people were killed in the attack, which has been blamed on Islamic State group militants. After five months of taking to the stand in front of thousands of supporters at rallies, Demirtas reverted to more discreet campaigning. The party cancelled all mass gatherings, replacing them with "meetings" in enclosed areas inspected by sniffer dogs beforehand.

Ordinarily measured in his public pronouncements, Demirtas has since pulled no punches in his criticism of the government, accusing it of deliberately neglecting to ensure the security of the Ankara rally and labeling Erdogan’s regime a “serial killer”.

But far from being a weakness, the targeting of Demirtas and his party by the establishment could work in his favour, says Kazancigil. The more Demirtas seems to be slighted, the stronger his appeal grows.

During the campaigning for June’s elections, Demirtas was given just three hours of air time on Turkish state television, compared to Erdogan’s 45 hours and the 54 hours granted to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Demirtas, it seems, is a man who cannot be ignored.

Daily news briefReceive essential international news every morning

Page not found

The content you requested does not exist or is not available anymore.