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Turkey’s jailed Kurdish leader quits active politics after Erdogan’s victory

Selahattin Demirtas' announcement comes amid heated public debate over whether Kemal Kilicdaroglu would resign after he was defeated by President Erdogan in Sunday’s runoff.
A picture shows election flags displaying imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas.

ANKARA — The ongoing public debate in Turkey over whether the country's main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu would resign the Republican People's Party leadership after his presidential election loss took a surprising twist on Wednesday with the announcement of a departure from another opposition figure. 

One of the most influential Kurdish voices in Turkey, jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demritas, 50 years old, announced that he was quitting active politics after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election victory.

In a tweet posted on his personal account, Demirtas apologized for the general election results that saw Kilicdaroglu — backed by Kurdish politicians — defeated by Erdogan.

“On my own behalf, I sincerely apologize for failing to put forward a political approach worthy of our people,” his post read. “As I carry on with the struggle with perseverance from prison, like all of my comrades do, I am quitting active politics at this stage.”

Demirtas’ imprisonment, which is widely seen as politically motivated, has been one of the central themes of the election campaign. Kilicdaroglu pledged to end Demirtas’ imprisonment. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against his imprisonment in 2020 and called on Turkey for his immediate release. 

Erdogan, in turn, weaponized the pledge to accuse Kilicdaroglu and his six-party electoral alliance of alleged links with terrorism. 

During his victory speech early Monday, Erdogan targeted Kilicdaroglu and Demirtas. “You cannot free Selo, who led to [their deaths] … 51 of our Kurdish brothers. Such a prospect is impossible to take place under our rule,” Erdogan told his supporters as the crowd chanted “Hang Selo,” using the Kurdish politician’s nickname.

Demirtas’ announcement of his departure from active politics came amid a heated public debate over whether Kilicdaroglu should resign following his election loss. The official statements coming from the main opposition Republican People's Party's management have given no indication that the 74-year-old intended to resign.

Demirtas, who became Turkey’s first presidential candidate running from prison, emerged as the third-place candidate by receiving nearly 8.5% of the vote in a six-candidate presidential election in 2018. The Kurdish politician has retained great influence over his supporters, as his call for electorates to vote for opposition candidates in the 2019 local elections is believed to have played a key role in opposition candidates’ victories in Turkey’s largest metropolises including Istanbul and Ankara. Days before the May 28 runoff, Demirtas called on the electorate to support Kilicdaroglu. 

The Kurdish politician — behind bars since 2016 because of a speech he made in 2013 while he was co-chairing the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)  — faces charges on more than a dozen counts and has already been convicted of some of those.

Critics argue that Turkey’s judicial independence largely eroded under Erdogan’s executive presidency system, under which hundreds of dissidents, including politicians, activists and intellectuals, were imprisoned. 

The Council of Europe (CoE), which enforces the rulings of the ECHR, repeatedly slammed Demirtas’ imprisonment as politically motivated and aiming to silence dissent. 

The CoE initiated rarely used infringement proceedings against Turkey in 2021 over its failure to implement an ECHR ruling to release prominent philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala, whose case is similarly seen as politically motivated. The country now faces removal from the CoE. If it takes place, the move will strip Turkey’s citizens of Europe's human rights protections.

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