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Year after arrests, Turkey pro-Kurd party weakened but defiant

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Ankara (AFP)

One year after the arrest of its charismatic chief, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party defiantly insists it is the only true opposition against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but faces an uphill battle to remain a major force.

Selahattin Demirtas was detained in a police raid on his home overnight on November 4 last year. His then co-leader Figen Yuksekdag was detained in a simultaneous swoop.

While the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) splits all its main posts between men and women to ensure gender parity, Demirtas was and remains the main face of the party, an impassioned speaker with an instinct for political symbolism.

The HDP first entered the Turkish parliament after the June 2015 elections and is now the second-largest opposition party after the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), a breakthrough largely credited to Demirtas.

Demirtas and Yuksekdag were among 12 HDP lawmakers rounded up under the state of emergency imposed after the July 15, 2016 failed coup, which the party strongly opposed. Now, nine HDP MPs remain in prison including Demirtas and Yuksekdag.

Yuksekdag was stripped of her MP status in February and she stepped down as the party's co-chair in May. Demirtas remains co-leader but his incarceration severely limits his ability to communicate with the outside world.

"The (government) is trying to paralyse us with these attacks but I can in fact say that they have not succeeded," Serpil Kemalbay, who replaced Yuksekdag as co-leader, told AFP.

- 'Not easy to shut up' -

Before his arrest, Demirtas was the only politician in Turkey who matched Erdogan's rhetorical skills, even earning himself the moniker the "Kurdish Obama".

But now Demirtas, 44, who is being held at a prison in Edirne, northwest Turkey, risks up to 142 years in jail if convicted.

He and the other HDP suspects are accused of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), blacklisted as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies. Despite being held for a year, Demirtas has yet to go on trial on those charges.

But HDP officials insist he retains his political weight.

"He is in prison but his words reach the people," HDP MP Filiz Kerestecioglu told AFP. "He is not a person easily shut up."

He has written poetry, produced artwork, tweeted while in prison through a third party and even written a selection of short stories entitled "Seher" ("Dawn" in Turkish).

His publisher Dipnot said Seher was sold out within three days after 20,000 copies were bought in September while 130,000 copies have been put on sale.

- 'Attracted non-Kurd votes' -

But some observers question whether the party can remain a major political force without its most recognisable figure who managed to expand its popularity beyond the traditional Kurdish electorate.

"Demirtas was attracting especially non-Kurdish leftist and liberal voters," said Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, author of the upcoming book "The Peace Process between Turkey and the Kurds: Anatomy of a Failure".

"Without Demirtas, it is not surprising to expect the HDP to adopt an ethnic and radical agenda," he said, adding it was not an "influential" party anymore.

Ankara accuses the HDP of merely being a political front for the PKK, which has battled the Turkish state for over three decades in search of greater rights and powers for the Kurdish minority.

But even Demirtas never succeeded in fully distancing the HDP from the outlawed group, a predicament not helped by the fact his own brother fought for the PKK in Iraq.

But Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Demirtas' imprisonment had "not made a dent in the HDP leader's charisma, but seems to have strengthened it".

"Demirtas could end up as an even more powerful campaigner for the Kurdish cause from his prison cell," he argued.

- 'Deliver a solution' -

But the party has been hit hard by arrests. Some 11,500 officials, members and HDP sympathisers have been detained since the end of the PKK ceasefire in July 2015 while 4,537 have been formally arrested.

A total of five MPs lost their lawmaker status while authorities have opened investigations into 55 out of 59 HDP MPs, the party says.

Opinion polls -- to be treated with caution in Turkey -- suggest it is currently well short of the 10 percent threshold needed to get into parliament.

But Kemalbay expressed determination that the HDP would pass the threshold to enter parliament again in general elections in November 2019.

"We may not be able to see this because of the media embargo but the people see the reality," she said.

"They see the HDP as the force to deliver a solution" to the Kurdish issue.

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