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Turkey's presidential campaign from prison

Daniel Heinrich
June 18, 2018

Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas is running in the Turkish presidential election — from prison. He may have a huge following in the country, but he has received little coverage in Turkey's mainstream press.

Woman holding up photo of Selahattin Demirtas
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

Selahattin Demirtas, the 45-year-old human rights attorney and former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), is the first presidential candidate in the history of the modern Turkey to organize his election campaign from behind bars. He has been held in pretrial detention for more than a year-and-a-half on terrorism-related charges.

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Demirtas has been coordinating his campaign from a prison cell in Edirne in western Turkey, and despite the adverse conditions, he seems headed for a respectable result. An opinion survey by Turkish pollster Sonar in early June gave Demirtas just shy of 8 percent of the vote, ranking him fourth among the presidential candidates.

Campaigning via Twitter

HDP lawmaker Ziya Pir is not surprised by Demirtas' popularity. "With his candidature, Mr. Demirtas is taking a stand on peace, freedom and democracy — our values," he said, noting the difficulty of running a campaign from prison.

Read more: Demirtas: Europe is letting Turkey’s opposition down

"They won't let him out, just like thousands of other jailed members of our party," Pir added. "The government doesn't want our people to be able to run a campaign."

Stuck behind bars, Demirtas has turned to social media — mainly Twitter — to communicate with his supporters, dictating 280-character tweets to his lawyers every day. He has nearly 1.7 million followers on the platform, and uses the hashtag #AskDemirtas to respond to questions.

Mainstream media ignore Demirtas

While the campaign is thriving on social media, it doesn't exist in most traditional Turkish press. Frustrated, Pir said the main problem is that Turkey's mainstream media for the most part ignore Demirtas: "Last week, [HDP] co-leader Pervin Buldan was interviewed on Fox TV, but other than that, we only exist in niche media, where we can't reach the masses — so we go from door to door."

Jailed candidate runs in Turkey

A glimpse at the actual broadcast time allotted to the candidates shows Demirtas' great disadvantage. CNN Turk and NTV dedicated 70 hours and 13 minutes to incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party during the first two weeks of May alone. Demirtas only appeared on Turkish state TV for the first time on Sunday, in a 10-minute speech allotted to all candidates.

Read more: The puppy, populism and the dance: Elections in Turkey between sanity and insanity

It is not a new phenomenon that state media ignore the opposition parties. In the month leading up to the last election, state broadcaster RTUK made 100 hours of broadcast time available to Erdogan and the AKP, but not even a quarter of that time was allotted to the opposition parties.

The Kurdish conflict

Demirtas has thrown his hat in the ring for the country's top office before. In 2014, he garnered almost 10 percent of the vote running against Erdogan, finishing third. Back then, both Erdogan and Demirtas campaigned in Germany, and Demirtas' greatest problem was already evident — the HDP's perceived links to the the Kurdistan Workers' Party(PKK), a group regarded by the Turkish government and the European Union as a terrorist organization. The armed conflict between PKK and the Turkish state has cost tens of thousands of lives since the early 1980s. Demirtas has repeatedly visited convicted PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in prison.

Selahattin Demirtas, HDP
Demirtas has been forced to conduct his presidential campaign from a prison cell in EdirneImage: HDP/Presse

The PKK and HDP both advocate for greater rights for Turkey's Kurds and share a similar political base, but Pir stressed that the organizations are independent of one another. "As a party, we have no links to the PKK," he said. "But for historic reasons, many of our voters show sympathies for the PKK."

Read more: Turkey raises rates to curb runaway inflation

The Kurdish conflict is the reason the HDP isn't in an alliance with other parties. Nationalist candidate Meral Aksener has clearly ruled out any cooperation with the HDP, for example. As a result, Demirtas has little chance of making it to a runoff with against Erdogan. Should the incumbent not win the presidency outright in the June 24 vote, he will presumably face Aksener or the candidate from the Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, in a runoff on July 8.

It remains to be seen how and even whether Demirtas will be able to continue his political career after the election. If convicted of terrorism-related offenses, he faces up to 142 years in prison.

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