“We will not make you a president!” Selahattin Demirtas, a charismatic Kurdish politician, said as he launched a campaign to put his party into the Turkish Parliament in 2015.
His party, the HDP, received votes from almost all walks of life in Turkey. With its liberal platform, it successfully doubled its votes and ended ruling AKP’s 13-year single-party majority in the Parliament. The election results dealt a significant blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes to expand his powers and introduce the presidential system. Mr. Demirtas was true to his word. And he is paying for his challenge in a prison cell.
Following a disappointing outcome in 2015 June elections, the AKP government refused to form a coalition government. When the deadline to form a government expired, the country braced for another election on Nov. 1, 2015. People quipped back then that Mr. Erdogan would announce repeat elections until he won.
The consensus among the government circles was that the peace talks with the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group, benefited the HDP. More than a million conservative Kurds, who previously voted for the AKP, switched to the HDP during June 2015 elections. According to election results, these swing voters preferred HDP during a peacetime while voted for the government when the PKK escalated attacks.
Everyone predicted what the government was supposed to do if it did not want to lose further votes: Abandon peace talks. The peace talks included a free shuttle for HDP lawmakers to visit PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan and an unwritten rule that the military would not conduct operations against the PKK.
During 2 years of the peace process, the government and the military tolerated PKK’s small-scale attacks on the Turkish military. In October 2014, for example, 3 Turkish soldiers were shot in the head in broad daylight in Hakkari. The military did not respond.
Rules of engagement sharply changed after the HDP surged in June elections, costing Mr. Erdogan a crucial majority in the Parliament. A similar incident took place just a month after the June 2015 elections. This time, the government’s reaction was furious. It launched a massive campaign against the PKK and its affiliates, not only in Turkey but also in northern Syria and Iraq. The escalating violence helped the government win nationalist votes and tarnished HDP’s reputation in the November elections. The pro-Kurdish party at times seemed desperate and helpless in the face of the PKK violence. Mr. Erdogan made clear repeatedly that the single-party rule of the AKP was the key to stem the violence.
On Nov. 1, 2015, the AKP won. HDP’s barely tackled the threshold, but lost 21 lawmakers. Even that outcome ruined AKP’s plan to make constitutional changes without going to the popular referendum. For that, the HDP was going to pay a hefty price.
The government then pushed other opposition parties to strip off immunity of lawmakers, a move designed to send HDP lawmakers to prison. With the help of CHP, a secular opposition party, and the MHP, a nationalist one, the immunity of lawmakers was lifted.
When Mr. Erdogan ran for the presidency in 2014 summer, Mr. Demirtas was one of the contenders. He garnered 9 percent of votes, raising the specter of even a better performance in upcoming elections. Mr. Demirtas frequently said his party will use the momentum to be the ruling party in Turkey.
Many things have changed since that elections two years ago. While Mr. Erdogan pushed through constitutional changes to expand his powers as an executive president this week, prosecutors asked a court to hand down 142 years in prison sentence to Mr. Demirtas. He was accused of a number of crimes, including leading a terrorist organization and organizing streets protests in 2014 that led to nearly 50 deaths.
The same indictment also wants 83 years in prison for Figen Yuksekdag, HDP’s co-chair. She is also accused of leading a terrorist group, spreading terror propaganda and violating anti-sedition laws. Another 9 pro-Kurdish lawmakers have been in prison since October, with no indictment and a trial date. Most of them were arrested after refusing to show up in their trials.
In an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper, conducted 50 days ago but published only this week, Mr. Demirtas claims that he is spending his days in prison because his party did well in elections and did not give Mr. Erdogan an easy pass for his presidential ambitions.