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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

From high-security prison cell, Erdogan rival questions legitimacy of the election

Selahattin Demirtas tells The National that his campaign from Edirne high security prison reflects the 'semi-open prison' Turkey has become under current president

Supporters of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold signs reading "Free Demirtas" in front of Istanbul's courthouse on May 21, 2018 to demand the release of party leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is running against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the June 24 elections. Ozan Kose / AFP
Supporters of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold signs reading "Free Demirtas" in front of Istanbul's courthouse on May 21, 2018 to demand the release of party leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is running against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the June 24 elections. Ozan Kose / AFP

One of the main candidates in Turkey’s landmark presidential election has described his continued imprisonment as a “shadow” over the legitimacy of next month’s vote.

Selahattin Demirtas, who has been in jail for more than a year and a half, is standing for the Kurdish-focused Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) against incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a handful of other candidates in a poll that will dramatically shift the country’s political landscape.

The next president will assume unprecedented powers under constitutional changes pushed through by Mr Erdogan to transform Turkey's governance from a parliamentary to a presidential model.

In his first interview with an English-language newspaper since he was officially nominated earlier this month, Mr Demirtas said his incarceration called the election result into question.

“I am going to ask one question: Whoever wins, will she or he be able to sit in that chair with peace of mind? Because while this race continues, every single day I remain in prison will cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the elections and therefore over the candidate who is chosen in the end.”

The 45-year-old former lawyer, who answered The National’s written questions from Edirne high security prison, is facing a sentence of up to 142 years on terrorism charges based on political speeches in which he allegedly expressed support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged war on the government since the 1980s.

He is among nine HDP legislators currently in jail. The party says up to 5,000 of its members have been detained in a wide-ranging crackdown following an attempted coup in July 2016.

Last month, Mr Erdogan called snap presidential and parliamentary elections originally scheduled for November 2019.

Mr Demirtas’s detention has proved to be a crucial talking point in the campaign for the June 24 polls, with other opposition candidates calling for his release.

“I am not able to hold election rallies, I cannot appear in front of my electorate, I literally cannot even make my voice heard,” he said. “In summary, I cannot run an election campaign like my rivals do. I have no choice but to send messages and letters through my lawyers.

“It is not running an election campaign that I’m doing here. I'm just trying to motivate the campaign that is being carried on out outside.”

He described his candidacy as partly symbolic of the “semi-open prison” Turkey has become in recent years.

Under Mr Demirtas’s co-leadership, the HDP became the first Kurdish-based party to break Turkey’s 10 per cent electoral threshold in June 2015. Its entrance to parliament as the second-largest opposition group caused Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lose its majority for the first time since coming to power in 2002.

In this handout photo provided by the pro-Kurdish Peoples's Democratic Party (HDP), former party leader Selahattin Demirtas and current Turkish presidential candidate, sits in prison in Edirne on May 4, 2018. The HDP announced the nomination of Demirtas for the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey, scheduled for June 24, 2018. Demirtas, who has been behind bars since November 2016, is in prison accused of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels and is facing a 142-year sentence on charges of leading a terror organization. It's unclear if Turkey's electoral board will approve Demirtas's candidacy. / AFP PHOTO / Kurdish Peoples's Democratic Party (HDP) / HANDOUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HDP" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
In this handout photo provided by the pro-Kurdish Peoples's Democratic Party (HDP), former party leader Selahattin Demirtas and current Turkish presidential candidate, sits in prison in Edirne on May 4, 2018. AFP PHOTO / HDP

His charismatic appeal has led to him being dubbed the “Kurdish Obama” in the western media – a tag he joked was “better than being called the Kurdish Trump”.

The most recent opinion poll indicates 12.8 per cent support for Mr Demirtas, compared to 43.5 per cent for Mr Erdogan in a vote that will go to a second round if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent.

Most polls show the HDP will again pass the parliamentary threshold, despite being ignored by most media outlets, the majority of which back the government.

“The biggest challenge is making the election campaign visible where the government uses every state resource and all the public and private media bodies,” Mr Demirtas said.

Despite this and the targeting of HDP members, Mr Demirtas said the party remained a “key actor”.

Although it has its roots in Kurdish politics, the HDP achieved electoral success in 2015 by appealing to the wider left-wing, secular electorate outside the south-east.

Mr Demirtas said the introduction of emergency law after the coup attempt, under which 160,000 people have been detained and a similar number dismissed from public jobs, had widened the repression felt by AKP opponents.

“It’s safe to say the Kurds have been most affected by the harm to Turkey’s democracy and from the country’s overall situation,” he said. “On the other hand, the political sphere has been narrowed not only for the Kurds but also for other parts of society that do not share the AKP’s views.”

Railing against the presidential powers that will come into force after the election, Mr Demirtas said he would distribute these powers should he be elected.

“As I have stated in my election manifesto, I will take my seat with a sack full of powers and at the end of my term I will leave with only my jacket.”

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Read more:

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Turkish opposition nominate candidates for president

Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party replaces jailed chief

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Mr Demirtas also warned against the risk of fraud in the coming vote.

Electoral law changes pushed through in March will allow government officials to run polling stations, relocate ballot boxes on grounds of security and permit police to monitor voting. The amendments also allow the counting of unstamped ballot papers – an issue that clouded last year’s referendum on presidential rule.

A supporter of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) holds pictures of their jailed former leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas during a campaign event in Istanbul on May 25, 2018. Huseyin Aldemir / Reuters
A supporter of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) holds pictures of their jailed former leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas during a campaign event in Istanbul on May 25, 2018. Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

While the government says the changes are necessary to prevent intimidation in the south-east by the PKK, critics argue they could be used to undermine the HDP vote in its heartland.

“We will need to protect our votes against the violations and irregularities that we will face on election day,” Mr Demirtas told The National.

Even after polling day, many observers have voiced concerns that Mr Erdogan could call fresh elections if he wins the presidency but fails to gain a majority in parliament.

Mr Demirtas described this as the “worst possible outcome” and warned: “This country may not survive such a course of events, whether from an economic, political or social viewpoint”.