It's getting late and Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish HDP party and President Tayyip Erdogan's strongest opponent, has had a long day. The conflict in the Kurdish parts of Turkey claims ever more victims, president Tayyip Erdogan has accused him of treason and many people would like to know whether Demirtaş is really supporting Putin's Russia after his Moscow visit. Demirtaş whose name means ironstone in turkish, is called both savior and traitor. For the past year everyone, both nationally and internationally , want a piece from the the 43 -year-old father of two, lawyer and leader of the Kurdish party HDP, which for the first time ever passed the 10-percent to the parliament in 2015. The expectations on him are enormous. Selahattin Demirtaş have the power to calm down or escalete the conflict between the Kurdish rebel group PKK and Turkish military . But he also has international weight since the Kurds have successfully fighted IS, something most other countries failed to do. Himself prefers though to speak more about peace, diplomatic solutions and less about weapons and military solutions.
"Sweden has embraced not only Kurds but all oppressed people. Sweden has demonstrated courage and a profound clarity about this."
When we meet in HDP's headquarters in Ankara the Kurdish leader mentions that he is tired. But after a quick glance in the mirror and a soft stroke across the dark suit, he sits down and bid us welcome. He recently visited Sweden and he praises the way the Kurds have been received.
– Sweden has embraced not only Kurds but all oppressed people. Sweden has demonstrated courage and a profound clarity about this. The Kurdish people in Sweden define the country as one of the most comfortable countries in the world for them, says Selahattin Demirtaş.
In Turkey it’s different. A few hours before our meeting, the Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, who have a strong support among the Turkish population, claimed that a presidential rule will result in a more stable and successful country.
Selahattin Demirtaş does not support this idea.
– Of course the presidential system is a model which has been applied in both democratic regimes and dictatorships. But it does not mean that presidency equals democracy. There are other factors that define a democratic, functioning system such as balance, an independent judicial system, a strong civil society and political society, the right to organize and freedom of speech. A system where one man has all the authority is a dictatorship and cannot be called democratic.
"The alternative is not dictatorship"
Most likely president Tayyip Erdogans statement is a step in the process of transferring the power from the prime minister to the president of Turkey, i.e. himself. Something many kurds fear will danger their situation.
–There would be harsher, more severe rules compared to the existing situation. A more centralized system would emerge, a kind of constitutional dictatorship. In fact there is a need in Turkey to change the system of government, we agree with this. The existing system of government does not address the necessities of Turkey. But the alternative is not dictatorship. It is more democracy.
President Erdogan recently made a positive statement regarding Hitler's regime as a well-functioning system. What do you think his intensions were here?
–He does not say anything by chance or mistake. He always has a plan, a calculation. I think he wanted to send a message to the Turkish society:”If you want a strong leader and a president who boldly resorts to all means of violence, to the degree of fascism, that's exactly me.” He did not mention Hitler as a negative example. He said ”there can be a presidential system also in a unitary state” and he pointed to Hitler”s Germany as an example to this. It was a positive message sent to the racist, nationalist public opinion in Turkey.
HDP, People's democratic party, is a pro-Kurdish left-wing party founded in 2012. Their main issue is rights for the Kurdish people in Turkey but they also have a large following from other minority groups and among feminists and the LBGT community. Women's and gay rights has been a large issue for HDP and many of the party's members of parliament are women.
”There have been explosions in our rallies”
It has been a quite tumultuous year for the Kurdish HDP party and the Kurdish population in Turkey. They were hailed as heroes for defeating the Islamic state, ISIS, in Kobane, two of their peaceful demonstrations were subjected to bloodstained terrorist acts – probably ISIS – where at least 22 and 102 people died respectively, and they have twice crossed the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary elections, however with a significantly weaker performance in the elections in November compared to the first elections in June.
–Indeed we have lost 2 percent of our votes these few months. Firstly because the government started a new wave of violence and there has been a multitude of attacks against our party and demonstrations. There have been explosions in our rallies. And the government once again turned to an armed conflict against PKK. Negotiations and peace processes were terminated. The people were left with a feeling of mistrust, fear and panic. The society was stunned, shocked. The people went to the ballot box when they were still in shock, and the AKP managed to create a perception of us being guilty and they being the only ones who could repair things. Under these circumstances we lost 2 percent of our votes and they managed to increase their votes remarkably. But it's not the result of a democratic election, of an equal, fair competition. It is the result of a fascistic environment and is not something that can be called an election.
Some of Demirtaş' critics would rather claim that HDP did not dissociate themselves enough from the Kurdish guerilla, PKK, that are classified as terrorists by many countries in the West and also Turkey. They would argue that many voters are tired of the armed conflicts and would prefer an economically stable life. Demirtaş says that this may be true and that he hopes the PKK will at some point stop existing or at least put down their arms.
”We don't have an organized relationship with the PKK”
–Maybe some people thought so and chose not to vote for us, I don't know. But we don't have an organic relationship with the PKK. This is not something we would hide. If we had that kind of relationship we would say that we are a political wing of the PKK, but we are not. Whatever happens in the future, I would like to see this scenario: PKK leaves the armed struggle against Turkey and enters into democratic politics. I don't know if this will happen in the name of PKK or a party with a different name, but PKK's members should have the right to democratic politics. They should be free to engage in peaceful politics. If we still exist as a party by then, of course we would relations with them. But we don't have an organized relationship with the PKK.
Even if Demirtaş dissociate himself from PKK today, he has a long relationship with them and came close to being a PKK guerilla when he was younger. He tells us that his contact was imprisoned just when he was about to join, and since he couldn't find a new contact he chose to study law instead. But his older brother is in the PKK and has fought ISIS in Syria. But they have not spoken for many years.
–We don't know very much, but of course I am proud of him and his struggle.
Demirtaş also has a close relationship to the Kurdish godfather Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. That is a relationship that some would advise him to put a stop to but which is crucial for his support among the Kurdish population.
When did you last meet him and what was his advice?
–I have met with Öcalan at Imrali Island perhaps 8 times in total, but the last time was a year ago. Nobody has met him since April 5th. He is under severe conditions of isolation. But in all those 8 meetings we had good discussions and he gives good advice. He is an impressive leader, in his ideas and his style. He has greatly influenced me. He has spent 15 years in a one man cell but he is still completely lucid and able to analyze the events in Middle East and come up with solutions. I remember one advice in particular. He reminded me of the Turkish football player Drogba. He asked me if I knew Drogba, who played for Galatasaray if I'm not mistaken. He is a scorer, he said. ”Your job is also to score goals. Yes, You run a lot on the field, you put much energy into it but you don't score goals. I respect your hard work; however you must not only run you must score too. If you don't score, your team will not be victorious. Adapt this to politics,” he said to me.
”The tensions are extremely dangerous”
The memory makes Demirtaş smile, one of very few smiles during the interview. With that advice in the back of his head he decided to score one big goal: enter the Parlament.
The next goal is to create peace and work for Kurdish and other minorities rights. Mr Demirtas say that this is not only important in Turkey, but also in other regions and he hope that kurds can be a gamechanger.
But the situation in southeast Turkey rather becomes worse.
Can you see an end to this conflict?
–The tensions are extremely dangerous and I support the idea to decrease these tensions immediately and make the parties return to the peace negotiations. We frequently ask the PKK as well as the Turkish Government about this. But it seems improbable in the short term. However, we are hopeful; we need peace talks, dialogue and negotiations. We also need to strengthen and empower the voices of those who want peace.
Many blame the conflict on the Turkish regime but others argue that PKK is responsible for taking the battle into the cities, and for building barricades in some areas. This has severely affected the civilian population.
Do you support the armed groups in the cities?
–We think that the war should be neither in the mountains nor in the cities. Of course the governement should head for dialog and negotiations with the members of the resistance there, instead of massacres. But the government say that they will never build a dialog or a negotiation. Even before the barricades were in place, the police carried out operations and raids in the cities. And a large number of young Kurds were killed. Many of them were unarmed civilians. After that the young people started building barricades in order to stop the army. And this movement has expanded rapidly into towns. It was a reaction to an action. Yes, there should be no barricades but the way to reach this is not through military operations. The correct way is opening the channels of politics and negotiation more.
”We did not betray anyone, we are no traitors”
In recent weeks there have been pressures and demonstrations for autonomy in the Kurdish areas. Demirtaş openly supported the idea and fuelled the conflict, which resulted in Erdogan accusing him of treason.
–Yes, those accusations are putting me on the target, threatening me. We did not betray anyone, we are no traitors. He can discuss dictatorship under the name of presidency, but we cannot discuss autonomy or decentralization. He points at us, making us targets for public prosecution. We will however never be frightened by that kind of threats and step back.
But it's not only the situation between Turkey and the Kurds that contribute. It is a turbulent region and Demirtaş has also entered into the international political storm. To raise the Kurdish question but also to negociate or discuss peace. The other week he went to Moscow where he criticized Turkey for shooting down a Russian military aircraft that allegedly had flown into Turkish air territory. Demirtaş claims his trip to Russia was an attempt to heal the damaged relationship and that only Kurds can have a sensible dialogue with Russia at the moment. But the statement has been criticized, specially from Syrian living in areas that has been bombed by Russian aircrafts.
Russia has been heavily criticized for killing many civilians in Syria as they claim to be bombing ISIS. Can you understand that your support causes critical responses?
–We have never made any announcement about openly supporting Russian politics in Syria. All countries who are struggling to be effective in Syria have their insufficiencies and wrongdoings. If we took this as criteria, there would not be many countries in the world that we could be in touch with.
”We have great relations with the Swedish government”
There are some speculations about the Kurdish rebels receiving support from Syria's president Assad. Have you or HDP been in contact with the Syrian regime?
–No, we have had no contact. We never felt the need to.
Can there be peace in this region with Assad in power?
–That is for the Syrian people to decide. It is not for us to decide this; we can only support the people in Syria to develop their own democracy and future.
You have been applauded for managing to push back ISIS in several locations. Where do you think ISIS will be in a few years?
–They might of course be further downgraded. But as long as more decisive and effective policies are not created on a global level, ISIS can be terminated in Syria and Iraq, but re-form themselves in another country, under another name. This is not a threat that can be neutralized with military means only. All over the world there are economic injustices, systems of exploitation, discrimination towards religions, and the tensions of all this prepare the foundation for these organizations. Economic imbalances and social structures which lack equality in human rights could cause this anywhere. It cannot be ended with military means only.
"I would like my daughters to grow up in their homelands where they were born, no matter how much troubles we have."
What are your hopes for future relations with Sweden?
– We have great relations with the Swedish government, the civil society in Sweden. We have a good dialog. And we are very happy with this. Of course it needs to develop and progress. Swedish government does use military options in their policies on the middle east. It is not that kind of government. They have the potential to come up with very effective solution models for peace process. Certainly there is a role they can play in Turkey for the peace process.
And finally, you have two daughters. Many women in Turkey are afraid of more future restrictions in women's rights. What do you want for your daughters when they grow up?
– I would like my daughters to grow up in their homelands where they were born, no matter how much troubles we have. I would never want them to live in another country to protect them. Of course this is going to be their own decision in the future. But we need to transform the country they were born in into a place where human rights and freedom is protected. Into a country where there is justice and economic gain is shared. We need to create a society where woman rights and ecological rights are respected. Not only for my own children but for all children. I have never thought of my daughters to be different from other children. They are getting their education at a common state school. And in the future when they are adults, if we had failed to solve our issues, i am sure they will continue the struggle from where we left off.