Selahattin Demirtaş 'Kurds Are Not a Danger to Turkey'

In recent elections, the Kurdish HDP party crossed a 10-percent threshold required to enter the Turkish parliament. Party leader Selahattin Demirtaş spoke about conflict, pluralism and changing politics in Turkey.
The Co-Chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş (center) attends the opening ceremony of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, in June.

Selahattin Demirtaş is co-leader of Turkey’s largely Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, known as HDP.  In national elections on June 7, for the first time, the HDP managed to cross the 10-percent threshold to enter parliament. The success of the party was a major reason why the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the party of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, lost its majority in parliament.

The Islamist-rooted AKP is now in talks with the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) about a possible grand coalition government.

The Kurdish party's success came just two years after the start of a peace process in Turkey, with the government in Ankara sitting down to talk with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK took up arms in 1984 in a fight for Kurdish autonomy. The ensuing conflict has killed 40,000 people.

Mr. Demirtaş spoke with German weekly Die Zeit about the pluralism and the changing relationship between Turks and Kurds.

Die Zeit: Mr. Demirtaş, your pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party was the big winner in the parliamentary elections. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost 10 percent of its votes. Your HDP and the Nationalists, who oppose the peace process with the Kurds, have exactly the same number of seats. What does that mean for Turkey?

Selahattin Demirtaş: Turkey is a Middle Eastern country. In this region people who don't belong to the same faith, who don't have the same religion, the same ethnic background, can no longer live in the same city. When people with such different ethnic roots, religions, denominations and genders come together and rally around a program as in our party, when Armenians, Turks, scarf-wearing women and homosexuals are united in one party, then that is a social revolution. That may be normal in Norway or Sweden, but not here. The voters said “no” to one-man rule, racism, sectarianism, nationalism and fascism. And “yes” to a pluralistic political system, a pluralistic society and radical democracy.

Your party has embarked upon a process of Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation with Mr. Erdoğan. Towards the end of the electoral campaign, he said, “There is no Kurdish problem.” How did that feel for you? Did you think he was being sincere?

Quite honestly, we have never taken sincerity as a criterion. We've always paid more attention to the actions of our negotiating partners. Erdoğan's notion of democracy, freedom, the solution of the Kurdish problem and a new constitution corresponds very little with our world and our dreams. We already knew that when we started the peace process. When he came to understand that war is not the option for a solution, he adopted the attitude: “Can I render the Kurds ineffective through the peace process?”

But the opinions of the AKP have never kept us from engaging in a dialog. We are more interested in continuing the peace process with the support of society than in what Erdoğan wants. The head of the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, has explained under what conditions he would be ready to declare the PKK ready to engage in a cease-fire. When Erdoğan said that there is no Kurdish problem and no negotiations, that only hurt the AKP.

During the electoral campaign, your party emphasized: We are a party of Turkey — and thereby gained points with Turks as well. At the same time, there is the question about what should happen with Abdullah Öcalan, whom many Kurds view as their leader, but whom most Turks consider to be a public enemy and terrorist.

The HDP is a pluralistic party, an alternative to the AKP's principle of one-man rule. Öcalan is our most courageous generator of ideas. I have visited him eight times on the island of Imrali, where he is imprisoned. Ever since my youth, I have read each of his books and texts. I have observed how his ideas have impacted on practical politics, and how they have developed over time. I have never met anyone who is more determined when it is a matter of bringing what he believes to reality.

If you were confined to this room (points to his office, which is approximately 20 square meters) for two weeks, you might change your attitude after one, two days. He has been living for 16 years in such a room, on an island, and he holds to courageous ideas that no one else in the Middle East would dare to think. In Rojava ...

… the Kurdish-administered cantons Cizire, Kobane and Afrin in northwestern Syria ...

… he has even caused a revolution. From our point of view, it is not acceptable that such a person remains isolated and imprisoned on an island. For us, it is a question of honor that he be released as soon as possible. We have to find the right words to explain to Turkish society that this is not a criminal case or blood feud. The Turks as well need to let go of the idea of a blood feud. The fact that today Turkey is not a second Syria is due to the ideas that Öcalan presented to the Kurds.

Many patriotic Turks, devotees of the founder of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, said before the election: "Selahattin Demirtaş seems to be a reasonable person. I would vote for him but he is a PKK supporter.” What do you say to them?

I believe that people will overcome their prejudices with time. Because my identity, the political movement that I come from and the political struggle that I am linked to belong to my reality and make me who I am.

The military successes of the Kurds in Syria have caused great anxiety in Turkey. How do you want to establish an equilibrium there — as “party of Turkey”?

The official history of Turkey is based on lies. We are a party that counteracts that version. We are against one-man rule and against the assertion that everyone here is Turkish. We say that there are other mother tongues. We are attempting to adapt Turkey to the HDP. In its politics, the AKP thrusts the identity of the Sunni Turks into the foreground; the CHP, the party of Atatürk, advocates the Kemalist identity for Turkey; and the Nationalists from the MHP have a racist concept of Turkish identity.

Earlier on, we Kurds pursued politics based on the Kurdish identity, because the very existence of the Kurdish people was being denied. We considered that orientation to be quite normal. And it was necessary in order to create equality. Today we put our faith in pluralistic politics.

And are you now equal?

Yes, we are all oppressed to the same degree (laughs). For that reason, we have to liberate ourselves together. The victories of the Kurds will never harm Turkey. But the AKP is not afraid of the so-called Islamic State (IS) becoming victorious. It is not even afraid that the IS might take over the entire border area with Turkey.

Do you mean that Turkey prefers IS to the Kurds as a neighbor?

That's what it is doing. The Kurds there are considered to be a danger for the continuation of Turkey as a nation. The Turkish state has two possibilities. Either it will attempt to fight the Kurds militarily in Syria — which it has already done in Turkey itself for 100 years.

Or Turkey will change and say: The Kurds are no danger for  us. The Kurdish people are our allies and friends. The Turkish state could cooperate with the Kurds at home and abroad. It could say: We will write the history of the coming centuries together. We will act together. If necessary, we will even cancel the borders between us. Just as in the European Union or other alliances, we will build flexible economic and social relationships. Turkey could initiate this type of bold changes.

That is what Öcalan wants. He says: “Over the course of history, we have achieved great things together. The Middle East did not suffer because of this. We can once again enter into a strategic cooperation, but not at the expense of Arabs, Armenians, Circassians, Georgians or Turkmenians We must not exclude anyone.”

How should Turkey change its policies in Syria?

One reason why the war escalated in Syria is because Turkey took sides. More blood was shed because Turkey gave logistic support to groups there. Its calls for peace were not considered to be credible. It must become clear that Turkish foreign policy has changed. Except for humanitarian assistance, the Turkish government must end immediately all support — weapons, logistics, intelligence services — in Syria and initiate a dialogue with all groups, also with the Assad government.

At the moment, Turkey is training opposition combatants together with the Americans.

Yes. Once again, the government is taking sides. The Kurds are fighting there: Are they being equipped? Turkey can call upon all sides to take up a cease-fire. It could do this together with Russia, America and Great Britain. And one can't exclude Iran here. All those who don't adhere to the cease-fire can be isolated from the international community. Right after the cease-fire, there could be an international conference to which all are invited, including the Syrian government. Turkey is a country that could have gathered everyone around a table and itself served as the referee. But it preferred to take up sides, so for now it has disqualified itself for that role.

Will Turkey and the Kurds soon be rivals in the Middle East?

Yes. The Kurds today and 100 years ago — that's no longer the same. Being stateless made the Kurds flexible. If you don't have a country, then you don't have any problems either. I believe that now in 2015, on the train toward more humanity, the Kurds have taken a seat on a proper railway car. They are quite near the engine. Does that lead to rivalry with others? Yes. Here in the Middle East, one's own existence depends on the weakness of others. We have to break out of this sort of thinking.

The Turkish state sees the “Kurdish factor” as the greatest menace confronting it. Actually Turkish citizens have recognized that the Kurds are not a danger but instead are ready, through political forces such as the HDP, to share power with the Turks. The Kurdish movement that is today changing the Middle East is making its full potential and its power with the HDP available to the Turks. We are saying: “Let us democratize the Turkish Republic together.”

We spoke with two youths from (the north Syrian city of) Raqqa, the “capital” of IS, who say: “There are also Kurds who say: 'We won't let you live here.' We don't believe that the political leaders have control over their own base.” Could it come to pass that the Kurds, who have been victims in the Middle East for 100 years, now themselves become oppressors?

That's a very touchy issue. Compared with the Kurds in Turkey, the Kurds in Syria have not been able to conduct any significant political struggle. They have not developed any political awareness. They have had to endure great suffering under the Assad regime. They were even forbidden from setting up a political party. It may be that the people there are expressing some historical anger. But that must not be seen as a political orientation. I believe that the political leadership there has things under control.

What is the next step of the Kurds, their overall plan for the Middle East?

It's not the case that we Kurds get together and think about what we will do next. There is no secret association. If a solution is ever found for Syria, the Kurds will be sitting at the table as protagonists from then on. Syrian Kurdistan, Rojava, has become a reality. That can't be taken away. As far as I can judge, Masud Barzani, the president of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, is pursuing a policy of independence and is also making that promise. That is a decision that the Kurds have to make themselves there. If they want to be independent and express this through a referendum or in another manner, we will be on their side until the very end. In Turkey as well, we are calling for a decentralized form of government, just like in many European countries. Each country must find its own solutions. Iraq, Syria, Turkey — there cannot be only one model.

Will Turkey have a Kurdish head of government someday? Could his name be Selahattin Demirtaş?

No, I wouldn't want that. By the way, there have already been Kurdish prime ministers: İsmet İnönü for example, or Turgut Özal. But my wishes would be that a head of government like that wouldn't deny his identity and that he would be reconciled with the entire society and values of Turkey. Someone who also accepts the Kurdish people.

Actually, I would wish that ethnic identity is no longer an issue. An Armenian, a Bosnian, a Georgian or a Roma could become head of government. Before looking at ethnic identity, people should first consider human identity. When we have brought things that far, then we will have already reached our goal.


This story first appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the authors: [email protected]