I Am Running for President in Turkey. From My Prison Cell.
By Selahattin Demirtas
Mr. Demirtas is the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in Turkey. June 20, 2018
EDIRNE, Turkey — Turkey will vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. I am one of six candidates running for president. I am running from my prison cell.
I am writing from a maximum-security prison in Edirne, a city in northwestern Turkey, near the border with Bulgaria. I was arrested one year and eight months ago while I was a member of the Turkish parliament and the co-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, known as the H.D.P., for which six million people voted in the last election.
My jailers chose to imprison me here because Edirne is far from my home, family and friends in the southeastern Kurdish region of the country. My cellmate is, like me, an elected member of the parliament.
For the past few months, we have been hearing the nearly unremitting noise of construction. A large new prison is being built next door. A state of emergency was imposed on Turkey after the failed coup attempt in 2016, and existing prisons are stretched beyond their limits. The right to free expression and assembly has been cast aside, and the number of ordinary people incarcerated is growing by the day.
The Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., has turned its back on universal democratic values and pushed the country to the brink of political and economic crisis.
With the exception of President Erdogan, all of my fellow candidates have declared that I should be freed. They cast aside ideological differences and came to my defense because they know the government is holding me for its own political gain and not for any crime I committed. They understand that if I were free, Mr. Erdogan’s chances of winning the elections would be far slimmer. They recognize that no matter who wins, the imprisonment of a presidential candidate casts a pall over the legitimacy of the elections.
I am among the tens of thousands of dissidents who have been targeted by punitive measures normalized under the state of emergency. The government has so far started 102 investigations and filed 34 separate court cases against me. If it has its way, I will face 183 years in prison.
The accusations against me in the indictments by prosecutors are based entirely on political speeches and statements that I made. If only the Turkish judiciary hadn’t buckled under government pressure and had adhered solely to the law. After my arrest I was not allowed a courtroom hearing for more than a year. My prosecution has been unjust. My arrest was a political decision. I remain a political hostage.
Only the democratic struggle of the people for their own freedom will free Turkey from authoritarianism and fear and free its institutions — the judiciary and the press — from tutelary control by the government.
I am deprived of the right to hold rallies or communicate directly with the people. The men and women of the H.D.P. are campaigning with great determination. I reach you and the world beyond the prison walls through messages conveyed by my lawyers. I address the people through social media accounts my advisers help me run.
My Twitter account was dormant for a long while after my arrest. When tweets from my account started appearing again in September 2017, prison guards rushed in to inspect my cell. The search was pretty invasive. When I asked them what they were searching for, they replied that they were looking for the source of my tweets.
The only vaguely sophisticated device they found in my cell was the electric kettle I use to boil water. After establishing that I could not have used the kettle to tweet, the guards left. Despite the absurdity of the incident, it was quite revelatory about the indescribable fear that engulfs authoritarian leaders when confronted with opponents who persevere despite persecution. How acute must Mr. Erdogan’s fear be?
For the past three years, the A.K.P. has conducted a relentless propaganda campaign with the acquiescence of the media to undermine the Peoples’ Democratic Party by portraying our members as “terrorist collaborators.” Yet our voters and supporters have remained steadfast.
In the summer of 2015, after the peace process broke down and armed conflict returned to the southeastern Kurdish areas of Turkey, my party did its best to prevent conflict through dialogue. We could have devised more effective ways to stop the fighting.
But everything changed after the June 2015 elections, which saw Mr. Erdogan’s party lose a parliamentary majority. His government insisted on military intervention, and the Turkish Army moved in against the militant Kurdish youth who had set up barricades in various towns and cities.
Mr. Erdogan sought to punish the Kurds, who robbed his party of its parliamentary majority, and to consolidate the nationalist vote. His party won the November 2015 elections and he continued to intensify the conflict thereafter.
The coming elections will shape the future of Turkey. It is statistically unlikely that any candidate who shuns the support of Turkey’s Kurdish population — around one-fifth of its 81 million people — and their demands for peace can win.
An inherently anti-democratic rule in Turkey bars a political party that does not win 10 percent of the national vote from taking its seats in the parliament. The seats are transferred to a party that has crossed the threshold and has the second-highest number of votes on those seats.
We are confident of crossing the steep threshold, but if we fail to get 10 percent of the vote, around 80 of our parliamentary seats will go to Mr. Erdogan’s party, which would deliver him a comfortable majority in the parliament and further ease his executive presidency. In essence, the A.K.P. rule will be unjustly secured through the votes of millions of disenfranchised Kurdish citizens.
Mr. Erdogan and his governing A.K.P. are using the prolonged state of emergency and other underhanded measures to ensure that the H.D.P. doesn’t get 10 percent of the vote.
Thousands of polling stations have been relocated in the southeastern Kurdish region, which will force rural voters to travel miles through military check posts to cast their votes instead of voting in their own villages. An increased number of security personnel are also being deployed at the polling stations in the region, which could cause intimidation of our voters.
In a video of Mr. Erdogan addressing his party workers that was leaked last week, he emphasizes the importance of the H.D.P. falling below the election threshold and asks them to mark H.D.P. supporters and “conduct special work.”
Turkey now understands that the collective punishment of the Kurds on the southeastern
periphery affects freedoms and democratic culture across the country. What was limited to the Kurds has become the norm for Mr. Erdogan’s opponents elsewhere too. The only hope for a liberal, democratic future lies in our coming together to defeat the authoritarian regime.
Selahattin Demirtas is the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in Turkey. This essay was translated from the Turkish by Amberin Zaman.
Link to the English subtitled YouTube video