On March 17, 2015, Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), delivered the shortest speech in Turkish parliamentary history. “We won’t let you become an executive president,” he proclaimed at his party’s weekly parliamentary meeting, repeating the sentence three times. The HDP leader was addressing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose drive to install a presidential regime was already a major theme ahead of general elections in June of that year.
An advocate of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, Demirtas led the HDP to a historic breakthrough in the elections. In the raucous campaign season, he stood out as a moderate figure with a sharp and witty intellect, often singing and playing saz during television interviews that defied Turkey’s somber political culture. The peace process between Ankara and the Kurds was not yet officially dead, and the HDP, boosted by Demirtas’ charisma, managed to garner support from voters beyond its Kurdish base. While the HDP won 80 seats in the 550-member parliament, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority for the first time since 2002. Soon, however, the peace process collapsed and fighting resumed between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the security forces. In five months’ time, Erdogan’s maneuvers led to snap elections that restored the AKP’s parliamentary majority and weakened the HDP. Ankara’s ensuing crackdown on the Kurdish movement culminated in Demirtas’ arrest in November 2016.