Translation of remarks by Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), at the Middle East Institute's 6th Annual Conference on Turkey on December 3, 2015 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Gonul Tol, director of MEI's Center for Turkish Studies, moderated the discussion.
Gönül Tol: Mr. Demirtaş, first of all I would like to thank you both personally and on behalf of my institute for taking time out of your busy schedule to participate in our conference. I want to start on my questions right away, because we have limited time. My first question pertains to the period leading up to the June elections as well as the results of the elections. In the course of asking the question, I also hope to provide our audience with a bit of information about the HDP.
Before the June elections, you made a very important -- and, according to many, risky -- decision by entering the elections as a party, while in previous elections you fielded independent candidates to circumvent the ten percent electoral threshold.
To many, you carried out the most progressive election campaign in the history of the country, focusing on democracy and transparency. You underlined the need for a Turkey where people of different backgrounds, religions, and cultures can live side by side peacefully.
You fielded Armenian, Syriac, Yezidi candidates. Almost half of the candidates were women; you fielded the first openly gay candidate in the history of Turkey.
You were described in the international media as the man who could crush Mr. Erdoğan's presidential dreams and save Turkish democracy. In the end, you achieved a historic success, securing 13 percent of the votes.
You proved that the HDP is more than just a Kurdish party, as you received votes from Turks in the West, the main opposition party CHP, from minorities, as well as environmentalists and women's rights activists. Read moreover, some of the AK Party's votes went to your party. My first question is, what were the factors that allowed you to get 13 percent of the vote?
Selahattin Demirtaş: First, I would like to thank you and the institute for the invitation. I also thank the participants here who came to listen to us. Welcome all. The fact of the matter is, you actually explained the answer at length in your question. We got that 13 percent precisely for those reasons.
We defended a pluralist democracy, a radical democracy, a radical transformation and change that the whole society in Turkey needed. Each one of the political forces and societal groups that came together under the roof of the HDP has been longing for freedom, peace and democracy for many years. But we were like creeks, rivers flowing in separate beds. It was necessary to unify them in a sea. It was necessary to bring together all their experiences with struggle and those who were struggling in different venues, but for similar principles. The HDP became exactly the umbrella for this.
Of course if all the dramatic historical and tragic events that took place in the Middle East, in Syria in particular, are taken into account, the public in Turkey immediately realized that we were defending our principles in a much more critical and historical period. There was a need for this. In our campaign, we said: We all have wounds. Kurds, Turks, Alevis, Sunnis, Armenians, women, the youth… We all have wounds. Some of those wounds are much deeper, some are more superficial. But we are all wounded. There was a need for a common ointment for these wounds that are very similar to each other. The HDP set off with the claim of being the medicine. And yes, we did the right thing and undertook the right campaign. We took a risk, but politicians and political parties must take risks in order to change certain things in Turkey. We are not struggling to remain in a certain vicious circle. We want to get results. We want to achieve a lasting peace and establish an institutionalized democracy in our country. By providing a space within our party for the pluralism you mentioned, we produced and proposed alternative models of both a mechanism of state administration and the solution of economic problems around democratic and universal principles, and thus showed our seriousness to the public in Turkey.
The Kurdish people had been already supporting us for many years, but we also received very significant support from non-Kurds in the western Turkey; we received votes. On June 7, we received 13 percent of the vote, but according to surveys and studies, nearly 50 percent of Turkey's population described the HDP as a party that can be voted. That was a very significant development for us. Previously our share of the vote was around 6 percent, but around only 10 percent described our party as a party that can be voted. In other words, half of Turkey embraces and sympathizes with the principles we defend. I think this is a much more important and notable achievement. We totally defend these principles. Yes, in subsequent elections our votes decreased slightly for some other reasons, including unfair competition and the pressure on us. But this of course does not mean that our principles are not defended and embraced in Turkey.
Gönül Tol: This is exactly what I want to talk about. In the November elections, your party passed the electoral threshold again and received nearly 11 percent of the votes. But, compared to the June elections, you lost votes. What were the factors behind this loss?
Selahattin Demirtaş: In order to call what we had in Turkey an election, it is necessary that all parties appear before the masses under equal conditions, introduce and explain themselves, and that the people understand all the options. That’s what you can call an election. There was no such situation on November 1. A single party entered the election. The MHP just stuck to the AKP's tail. Both the HDP and the CHP began to face extreme pressure after the Ankara massacre. We were not able to run a campaign. I have said as much before. We were given the following message: “Other rallies will also be bombed, other mass rallies you carry out will be bombed. We have intelligence.” It is difficult to prevent such incidents. The prime minister said that they had the list of suicide bombers, but could not move to arrest them before they take action, as Turkey is a state of law. We were clearly given the following message: If you continue mass rallies, bombings will continue. As a party we decided that we could not risk another Ankara massacre. This is not our personal issue. The security of the people who come to the rallies is important, and it seemed if we insisted and continued to run campaigns, there would have been other explosions. There were 20 days to the elections, but we were not able to run a campaign. This was a serious threat and pressure.
Another anti-democratic, unequal condition was the pressure on the whole media. Even writing news articles about us became a crime. Some journalists were accused of crimes because they interviewed Selahattin Demirtaş. This is in the official records of prosecutors. A prosecutor asks a journalist: Why did you interview Selahattin Demirtaş? The threat was this apparent. Newspapers were closed down, journalists were arrested, investigations were started. The president, prime minister openly threatened the media institutions by even mentioning names. The state’s public channel TRT undertook propaganda for the AKP on all of its channels. No opposition member was given space in the state channel. 136 hours were given for the prime minister, even more than that for the president. We were given just a 16-minute live broadcast on TRT.
On the other hand, we were not given financial aid from the treasury, even though we were entitled to it after exceeding the 10 percent election threshold. All the financial resources of the state treasury were employed by the ruling party.
Governors of provinces and provincial districts and security forces conducted electoral campaigns. Village headsmen were threatened if the AKP failed to get a certain amount of votes in their districts. We could not fairly stand before the voters and offer them an alternative. We invited the prime minister and the president many times for live TV debate. We said, let the journalists ask questions, and the people be satisfied. They never accepted. We did not have a chance to introduce ourselves.
We were attacked in 136 places in the run up to the June elections. In the period prior to the November 1 elections, 400 of our party buildings and business places, including our central headquarters, were burned. The second floor of our headquarters, where the papers for candidates were kept, was burned while the police were waiting outside. In such an environment we received 11 percent of the votes. I describe this as a miracle of the people. It was the highest percentage that we could get in such an environment. Despite everything, people voted for us.
We came to this point as the society was exposed to a shock doctrine and put under threat and pressure. We of course respect the will of the people. However, we are not obliged to recognize the legitimacy of this situation in its entirety.
Gönül Tol: You mentioned the security problems. In the last elections, the HDP lost some of the votes it had received from conservative Kurds in the June elections. After June, due to the armed conflict between the government and the PKK, many Kurdish civilians lost their lives. Curfews were imposed on many towns where Kurds are the majority. In such an environment, how did conservative Kurds vote for a government that embraced ultra–nationalist rhetoric and froze the peace process with the Kurds?
Selahattin Demirtaş: As a matter of fact, we do not have a serious amount of votes that went to the AKP. We reached the following conclusion after reviewing the election results: Some of our voters could not go to the ballot box, some deliberately decided not to go. There were many voters who live in the western part of Turkey, but had to go to the east in order to vote. We were able to mobilize them in the June elections. We carried more than 200,000 voters. Most of them were poor people, migrant workers, and students. But, we could not do much of this in the November elections. Therefore, we can not talk about a radical shift to the AKP.
Of course we respect those, no matter Kurd or Turk, who criticized our party and therefore voted for other parties. We are trying to understand the reasons behind this. Security concerns were of course very critical. Recent studies showed that security was the primary problem for 74 percent of the people of Turkey before the November elections. Even though the unemployment rate was very high, only 4 percent of people recognized it as the primary problem.
That’s why people thought uniting behind a single party would bring security and more votes went to the AKP. The AKP administration knew this very well. They knew very well that people would be pushed in a certain direction when they did that. In fact, we lost the fewest votes. Other parties experienced more serious losses. But it also became clear that even in such a fearful environment, there are millions who stand behind universal principles. The hope for Turkey is there. Hope for the future and excitement for the solution is there. In our view, this shouldn’t be underestimated. We respect those who voted for us as well as others who did not vote for us due to their criticisms. But there are very few of these.
Gönül Tol: What role did the PKK play in the loss of these votes? The PKK dug trenches and undertook urban warfare; what role did these play in decreasing the HDP’s votes?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Armed conflicts of course have a negative impact on civilian politics. But as to whether the trenches and declarations of self-administration led to a loss of votes – our share of the vote did not decrease in the eight provincial districts where self-rule was declared, and the only cities where our vote increased were actually Şırnak and Cizre. These are the places where clashes happened the most. Therefore, we cannot quantitatively measure how much impact these had.
But war itself is a painful reality, fact that puts pressure on the realm of civilian politics. However, we never claimed that the PKK started the war to push back the HDP and undermine the HDP. We don’t think this thesis is correct, and we don’t accept it.
Gönül Tol: In Washington, I constantly hear that since its struggle against ISIS, the PKK’s image has improved a lot in the West. The PYD cooperated with the US in Syria. In light of this, the PKK could have chosen not to escalate the violence in order to protect its image in the West and increase the HDP’s chance in the November elections, regardless of how much the government attacked. It did not. Why do you think that it did not?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Of course, this question should be directed to PKK leaders, who can answer it themselves. But as the HDP’s co-chairman, we observed the following as we monitored developments: On 28 February 2015 at İstanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, the deputies of my party and government representatives shared a joint declaration with the public just after returning from a meeting with Mr. Öcalan on İmralı Island. It was a declaration of a road map on the main parameters of the Kurdish issue, which was also supported by Mr. Öcalan. In that declaration were 10 main principles of a solution, and there was a section on disarmament. Shortly thereafter Mr. Erdoğan said that the image presented in Dolmabahçe Palace was wrong and he did not accept it. He claimed that he did not have any knowledge of it. In fact, he knew every detail. He even knew the order of the seats. He stated that it was an unnecessary declaration. He said that there was nothing left to be done about the Kurds, the Kurdish problem was over, asking “What else you want?” He said, the solution process was now frozen.
For this reason, I don’t understand this debate about who ended the solution process. No one said that the solution process ended more clearly than Erdoğan did. What are we discussing? He stepped forward and said, the solution process is over. We are still discussing who ended it. Everyone who does not have the courage to say Erdoğan ended the process looks around to find who ended the solution process. Because they see the PKK as the weakest link, they are blaming the PKK. If it were the PKK that ended the solution process, I would never hesitate to criticize them.
But there is a statement the PKK’s co-chairman Cemil Bayık made to the BBC: We are ready to declare a mutual ceasefire. We are ready to return to the table; we are committed to the Dolmabahçe accord; we agree to reinitiate negotiations in the presence of an observer. This is a will for a solution. The government, the president must say something. The prime minister says they’ll bury in those who dig ditches, in ditches. Which approach is pro-peace: That which responds to negotiation overtures in this manner? Or the other approach?
I am not saying all this to make accusations, or to put the onus on the government. All these occurred. We are definitely against the approach that ended the solution process. We think that we cannot make progress with mutual accusations. Yes, of course we should derive lessons from the recent past. But, primarily, we have to discuss how to return to the table again.
Gönül Tol: What do you think will happen to the peace process with the Kurds?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Cases like this have taken place elsewhere in the world before. Conflicts restarted, persisted, but when the sides saw that the conflict would not bring any outcome or faced enough pressure, they returned to the table. The sooner the sides return to the table, the sooner there’s an end to the mutual losses, the costs paid, and the suffering. Our job as civilian politicians is to continuously keep the table as a serious alternative, make it visible and be persistent. To be frank I cannot give a date. If this process was in the HDP’s hands, we would say the sides shall return to the negotiation table at this very hour. This process, it seems, is going to be possible with the increasing public pressure. The Kurds desire peace. Kurdish society wants the sides return to negotiations. The KCK in a statement expressed its desire to return to negotiations. We are sure that Mr. Öcalan – with whom we’ve been unable to communicate since April 5, 2015, due to the strict isolation he is subjected to -- also prefers returning to negotiations. He took a serious responsibility of this process. Now it is the government’s turn. The government must realize that this problem cannot be solved by armed conflict and seriously respond to the calls to return to the table again. I am not that pessimistic. The majority of the society in Turkey desires peace. The regional balance is also forcing, imposing this. What is happening in Syria’s Kurdistan, next to us, in Shangal, Mahmour, Mosul and even Yemen is full of painful lessons. It’s continuing. Turkey's moves to further expand its own civil war are not wise. I think common sense will prevail again in Turkey and the will to return to the table will get stronger.
Gönül Tol: If Mr. Erdoğan came to you tomorrow and promised to meet all your demands, would you support his dream of a presidential system?
Selahattin Demirtaş: You know, there’s a saying that a promise is a promise. Rights and freedoms -- of individuals, society, or peoples – cannot be a matter of bargaining on any issue. This is very clear. To even open this to debate would be deeply unprincipled. That’s how we see it.
Neither Mr. Erdoğan nor the AKP has proposed a presidential model to Turkey. Their proposal is entirely a one-man system, a kind of constitutional monarchy, dictatorship. But it is never a presidential model. In the past, they never submitted a proposal during the debates undertaken in the constitutional reconciliation commission. Still today, when we ask what they mean by presidentialism, they have nothing to say. This is because they do not propose a presidential model. They have never proposed democratization in the administrative model of the state in Turkey. We don’t accept the idea that the AKP is proposing a democratic presidential model for the country, and we as the HDP are opposing it. There is no such a thing; they have never made a proposal, and I don’t think they ever will. They will not propose a presidential model; they will propose one-man model. This we will never accept. It cannot even be a matter of bargaining.
Gönül Tol: Can the US or the European Union take steps in order to initiate the process, or this is a decision that only Mr. Erdoğan can take?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Mr. Erdoğan is of course a dominant player in Turkish politics. He has considerable influence in both the parliament and the government. I wish the parliament could take the initiative instead. In fact, it is much better if these kinds of processes develop under the supervision of the parliament. This is our proposal: A joint commission should be formed in the parliament. The parliamentary commission, and not only the government, should undertake negotiation processes. The commission should undertake them.
However, even the government lacks initiative at the moment. No process can begin without the approval of the president. We know that no such process can begin. I wish the government had some initiative.
If Mr. Erdoğan has his own views about the solution process, we are ready to hear them as well. If he says he wants to debate how we made mistakes in the past, and what kind of shortcomings there were, we’re ready to do so. Politics is a tool for solutions. We asked our electorate to give us votes so we could solve problems. We do not have any personal animosity towards Mr. Erdoğan. We are ready to discuss everything.
But this task would be easier if the international community, the USA or the EU or EU states did more to encourage and embolden negotiations and the table instead of clashes. This is also a reality. I do not think that the sides have been sufficiently encouraged, emboldened. Both sides have to be encouraged more. This is what we are trying to do as the HDP. We are trying to encourage both sides, the PKK and the government, to declare a mutual ceasefire and return to the negotiating table. But we do not think that the international community has provided enough support.
Gönül Tol: I think this is a good time to look at the issue from regional and international perspectives. You have always criticized the AKP's foreign policy towards Syria. How do you see the conflict in Syria? What are your solution proposals?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Of course this is a horrific situation. Today Syria’s territories have turned into hell. The Syrian people are faced with a tragedy whose burdens they will carry for centuries. Even if the Syrian war ends today, there is a human tragedy that will affect the next century. The situation in Syria is something that will change history. Therefore, we are not facing a simple civil war or an ordinary conflict. I agree with certain observations. World War 3 is taking place in Syria’s territories. Previously there was a war in Syria waged by the world’s great powers through their proxies. Now they began to enter the field themselves. Everyone had a pawn, a representative in Syria that waged war in their name. They faced each other there. The Syrian people, history, culture paid the price, and they continue to pay.
We are facing a very complicated problem. There is no longer a solution proposal that can fit into one sentence. There were things that could be done in the beginning, before this tragedy started. Those opportunities were missed. Syria certainly need to build its own internal democracy. Steps had to be taken in order to prevent the potential of war and internal conflict, but they were not taken. At that time we told Davutoğlu that you should not take any side in Syria. Read more correctly, you should not be the supporter of one group only. Because Turkey is an important country. In addition to having a very long border with Syria, we are also historically intertwined. Therefore, we said, any mistake made by Turkey in Syria will lead to much greater costs than mistakes made by any other country. We repeatedly made these warnings to Davutoğlu.
We said, do not pursue sectarianism, and never build a foreign policy or Syria policy on a policy that favors and supports Sunnis. There are so many different communities there: Shiites, Christians, Kurds and Turkmens. These are all realities of Syria. All deserve support. With no fear Turkey must bravely defend all of their rights and freedoms. This did not happen. Turkey took a side. It started by supporting different small groups. Under the support of the Free Syrian Army, Turkey and the West created an environment that benefitted the radicals, Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS. Turkey was aware of this from the very beginning. The West probably became aware only later, but most of the aid that went through Turkey was going to the radicals. This is not something new; it was obvious at the beginning of the process. It became apparent that these mistaken policies, which were deliberately undertaken, have deepened the pain.
Now we expect a radical change in Turkey's foreign policy. Even though Davutoğlu does not admit to doing it, he has to give up pursuing sectarianism. Foreign policy cannot be based on sect. It cannot be based on a single identity. This is going to be a big mistake. Misusing its credit in this manner has made Turkey ineffectual even though Turkey could be a great peacemaker. By contrast, Turkey came to fuel the Syrian war. It is necessary to retreat from this position. Turkey must establish good relations first of all with the Kurds in Syria, then the Turkmens, the Shiites, the Armenians there, the people. It is a must that Turkey should see them all as essential elements in the future of Syria. This policy change must be swift and felt in the field. At that moment Turkey will gradually gain the trust of the Syrian people. Turkey’s pioneering in peace will be taken more seriously and respected. Unfortunately however, Turkey at the moment has become a country that is far away from playing such a role.
Gönül Tol: You mentioned Syrian Kurds. You said, Turkey should not exclude Syrian Kurds. You mentioned that Turkey has always seen the PKK as a bigger threat than ISIS. Why do you think that Turkey sees the PKK as a bigger threat than ISIS?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Turkey’s historical paranoia and fears have an impact on this. What is currently happening also contributes to this. At the end of the day, the PKK has been waging an armed struggle against Turkey for more than 30 years. Prejudices have accumulated from this both historically and in the recent past. I do not claim that these are totally unjustified. I say that Turkey should overcome these fears. These fears are real. There are Kurdish forces struggling against ISIS – such as PYD-YPG and the peshmerga forces – and they happen to be the only forces that can stop and push back ISIS. To go and say that they are terrorist forces and that they are more dangerous than ISIS is not a realistic or productive assessment.
For now it is impossible for Turkey to say that the PKK is not a terrorist organization. We cannot ask this of the government. This is not practical. So, what else can we do? We can solve the security problem the PKK poses for Turkey. This can only be possible, however, by returning to the negotiation and peace table we just mentioned. As an outcome of negotiations, the PKK can totally end its armed struggle inside the borders of Turkey and abandon Turkey’s territories with its armed elements. This will help eradicate Turkey's historical fears. That is when a rapprochement between Ankara and the Kurds in Syria may become more possible. It is much wiser to start within Turkey to arrive at a solution in Syria. As the relations between the Syrian Kurds and the KRG (Iraqi Kurds) get stronger, this will be for the benefit of both Turkey and Kurds and contribute to the development of regional peace.
Why am I constantly uttering the word “Kurd”? One might think that, because I’m Kurdish, I put Kurds at the center of my analysis and speak from an ethnic or nationalist perspective. But I talk about Kurds especially because the reality of Kurds and Kurdistan occupies a central position in the world. It has been denied for a hundred years and has been awaiting a solution for a hundred years. It’s right in the middle of Mesopotamia and the Middle East. In fact this is the problem which is most amenable to a solution. If you solve this problem first, it will be much more possible to realize a peace in Syria, Iraq. If I were not a Kurd, I would still say all this.
Gönül Tol: You utter the word Kurdistan. This word scares the Turks. You just talked about structural fears. Turks are afraid, from the perspective of their relations with the Syrian Kurds, of the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Do Turkey’s Kurds want an independent Kurdistan?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Our party advocates democratic autonomy in its program. Therefore, the votes we receive mean support for this proposal. But, how are we going to solve all these problems if the reality of the Kurds and Kurdistan that I just discussed is not candidly and sincerely discussed and understood by everyone? Yes, when we say “Kurdistan” in Turkey, or even here, people might get nervous, and they might even get goosebumps. Some might get goosebumps out of fear, some out of excitement. This is a reality: I am not making it up. This is not something the HDP has invented. Before the HDP was established, there was a geography called Kurdistan. Even before the foundation of the Republic of Turkey there was a Kurdistan region. If we go back even further, there was a Kurdistan region before the Ottoman state was founded. We cannot solve anything by denying reality. I am talking about a geography. Historical developments will determine whether this geography will turn into a state or states. Kurds in Iraq already have a federal government. And the name of this state is Kurdistan. If some people want to feel fear, there is already Kurdistan. Turkey does a $10 billion worth trade with it. Thanks to this trade with Kurdistan, unemployment and hunger rates in Turkey are lower. This is a fact.
If there is also going to be any solution in Syria, we cannot decide how it is going to be. If people there decide to form an administration or a political status, we will respect this. In Turkey as well, we, the HDP, as the political party stated in our party program that we defend co-existence. But, we definitely think Kurds must be given the right to participate in administration, or the right to share administration. We support the solution of problems through a strong unity in a democratic framework, not separation.
Gönül Tol: This is my last question. If you were to advise President Obama for a few hours, what would you recommend him to do about Syria and Turkey?
Selahattin Demirtaş: I would say that things are not as you think they are…
Gönül Tol: I’m sure he wouldn’t be surprised.
Selahattin Demirtaş: Things are not always what they seem to be from Washington. The situation on the ground, over there, in those lands, might be different. It might have already turned into something else by the time it is put into the reports here. There is great pain over there. This is the reality. There is great destruction there. There are owners of those lands, the ancient peoples and cultures. If we really desire peace and stability, we have to respect the will of the people over there. We have to respect their lands and their cultures. We have to respect the right of those people to self-governance in their own lands and their right to use their own economic resources. If we truly want to turn those lands into heaven again -- and remember those lands are the birthplace of human civilization -- we have to start by respecting everyone. I do not know, someone might have already told him all this. I do not want to be unfair. But, if he asked me for advice, this is what I would tell him. If a solution is desired, I would recommend him to follow these principles, search for a solution so that these principles are not be breached. Of course, I do not know how he would respond…
Gönül Tol: I'm sure he would respect that. Thank you very much, Mr. Demirtaş.