At thirty-nine years old, Selahattin Demirtas is the Chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Turkish parliament. He has held this position since January 2010 and was first elected to parliament in 2007 as the MP for the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir, after which he joined the now-defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP). After the DTP was dissolved, he joined the BDP and rose to his present rank. A controversial figure, Demirtas was sentenced to ten months in prison for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after suggesting that the Turkish government talk to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. He has been extremely outspoken regarding the inclusion of Ocalan in political negotiations and the creation of some sort of autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population. During 2011 he became a leader of the BDP’s civil disobedience campaign, particularly during Kurdish street protests. He holds a degree in law from Ankara University and is married with two children.
Alexander Corbeil of the Foreign Policy Association sat down with Mr. Demirtas during his brief trip to Toronto, Canada. The FPA discussed the Kurdish question with Mr. Demirtas, the BDP’s relationship with the current Turkish government, Mr. Demirtas’ prison sentence and the political party’s role as an interlocutor between Ankara and the Kurdish people. The following interview was relayed through a translator present on location.
1. In your appearance at British parliament earlier this year you compared the events of the Arab Spring with the lead up to the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Kurdish people among four countries. What do you believe are the similarities?
Before and after World War One treaties that were signed were profound in the creation of geography in that area and Kurdistan for that matter; which was divided into four (areas). British policy was determinant and a fundamental reason for dividing Kurdistan in four. Unfortunately during the time that these agreements were taking place, and Kurdistan was divided, Kurds were not able to unify and this has consequently resulted in the situation today. This had led to Kurds being unable to take advantage of the past century, and they pay a great price for that.
(Do you see the events of the Arab Spring as an opportunity for the Kurdish people in the region?)
Of course, there was a Kurdish Spring before the Arab Spring, which has been going on for thirty years. Kurds have been struggling to gain their rights, so these developments with the Arab Spring in conjunction with Syria, provides a great opportunity for Kurds.
2. At the same event you stated that the Kurdish struggle is past the stage of proving that the Kurdish people exist. You continue on to say that the focus has now moved towards what status the Kurdish people will have on their land. How do you see this struggle unfolding?
Of course, the notion that whether Kurds exist or not has been passed, we have lost a great amount of time struggling to prove that Kurds exist in Turkey in the past few decades. So, the claims the were made by these occupying powers, saying that Kurds are Turks, this stage has been passed and we have moved on to the next stage.
We are at the stage to discuss how these people that exist in this area should be governed. Our political party’s proposed solution to resolve this governing issue is to respect the territorial integrity of the countries in which Kurds reside, namely: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. We proposed a federal system or an autonomous solution to end this matter. It is impossible to forecast or predict which type of political solution will be achieved in this part of the world; but one thing is (not) clear though, whether or not Kurds will go towards independence or choose a federal or an autonomous system. (The thing that is apparent) today, is that Kurds will not continue to remain under this status quo of non-existent people; it is clear that Kurds would like to be a recognized self-governed people.
It is safe to say that along with Arab, Persian and Turkish co-existence in that part of the world we will be able to talk about the existence of the sovereignty of the Kurdish people co-existing with them.
(How do you feel a federal or autonomous system would affect the Kurdish people in Istanbul?)
We don’t want an autonomous system based on ethnicity; in reality we propose a provincial system in Turkey. These provincial entities under the umbrella of the federal government and one single constitution, each would have a provincial legislative body and constitution to govern themselves. A solution of this sort and the constitutions created in this sense would be able to protect the cultural and linguistic rights of the Kurds in Istanbul as well. It is possible to solve this issue, as long as you believe in the values of the democratic system and justice, with this mind set it will be possible to draft all other legislative components to ensure that the rights of everyone are respected. I have to add that previously I have made reference to the system proposed in Turkey with the current system in Canada.
3. You have been critical of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)approach to the Kurdish question, stating explicitly that the AKP is excluding the Kurdish voice in these deliberations. Your thoughts on this issue?
The AKP have put forward a couple steps in this area until 2007, we do not deny this. However, they did not make the profound changes necessary to resolve this matter. They made small steps and wanted the Kurds to be satisfied. After 2007 they changed their policy towards Kurds completely. After 2010 the Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) declared that there is no more Kurdish question in Turkey, there is only a terrorist question. At this point he became more negative in this sense. Beginning from that time, the AKP’s policy towards our political party has been difficult and they attack us on every front. Of course we criticize the AKP for this policy.
4. In September 2010 you were arrested by the Turkish government for suspected links to the PKK. Why do you believe you were arrested?
You perhaps have the wrong information, I have never been arrested. I have been a member of parliament since 2007 and I have immunity. However, I have been given a ten month prison term, but have never been taken into custody for that matter. It was because of a speech that I gave. However, it has been postponed for five years.
(So, you believe you were targeted because of this speech?)
Yes in that speech I proposed to the government that they should negotiate with Mr. Ocalan to resolve the Kurdish conflict. So, it has been perceived as that. First of all I called him Mr. Ocalan, not just by his name, but mister. This was one of the charges laid against me. Secondly, I told the government that they have to talk to Mr. Ocalan to resolve the Kurdish conflict. For these two things I have been given a ten month sentence. This is considered a terrorist act in Turkey, if you are an individual who does this you are seen as a person who collaborates with terrorist and promotes terrorism. In the past ten years there has been 200,000 charges laid on people who have done the same as me. I have 80 charges on me and I have the least in my political party. These charges have only been charged against me while I have been a member of parliament. Before, when I was a human rights lawyer, I had charges laid against me and active cases, totaling up to 250, some of them have been dropped, but many stay active. Many are waiting until I lose my immunity. Therefore, we consider these charges to be baseless, against my people and myself, they are politically motivated. During the administration of the current government, in past three years, there have been thousands of cases against members in my party.
(When you were first elected to parliament in 2007 you were a representative of the now defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP), which was dissolved by the Constitutional Court at the end of 2009 due to supposed links to the PKK. Why do you feel that the DTP was dissolved, was it for the same issues as you just discussed?)
We have always said that we don’t have organic links to the PKK, we say this not because we are afraid (of the government), but because this is a fact. We are a different entity. The PKK is a different organization; it is a military organization that is based in the Qandil Mountains. They have a different decision making system and different leadership. Our political party is a legal party, with a headquarters in Ankara, with a different decision making body. We have a different leadership, there is no link between these decision making bodies. However, the people that sympathize with us are the same people who sympathize with the PKK.
5. The BDP was involved in crucial negotiations with the Turkish government to end a 68 day hunger strike by 700 Kurdish inmates and prominent Kurdish politicians. Can you tell our readers the reason why the hunger strike took place and about BDP’s role in resolving this issue?
Those people who went on a hungry strike had two basic demands. The first was the use of the Kurdish language in the public sphere, including in education and in defence of their cases in the court of law. The second was that the solitary confinement placed on Ocalan be lifted and that conditions be set to allow him to negotiate with the government regarding the Kurdish conflict.
We have talked with the government on these two basic demands, to end the conflict. Something became clear during this process, that the policies of the AKP government towards these two basic demands are wrong and not complete. The whole word has watched, unless these two basic demands are meet the Kurdish conflict will not be resolved any time soon. This also put the government in a difficult position and it is under pressure now and understands that it has to go forward with some sort of solution.
From this perspective, when we look at the hungry strikes they may have been a very risky move, however the result has been profound and it has achieved some success.
(Do you think that this highlights the need for a Kurdish party in Turkish parliament?)
In the current situation we do not have the right to be in Turkish parliament with our own identity. When we take the oath for parliament we take it on the great Turkish people. We hope that everyone will exist with their identity within the parliament, whether Turkish, Kurds, Armenian or Alevi.
(Putting aside the identity issue in parliament, do you think the practical ability of the BDP in parliament to act as a moderate voice on the Kurdish issue in Turkey in beneficial, as highlighted by the hunger strikes?)
Of course, although there is great pressure put on us, our existence in the Turkish parliament is important. We believe that we should remain in there and be a voice for the Kurdish people.
6. Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers? Also, when are you going to come out with a music album? (Mr. Demirtas has a video here, playing a traditional instrument and singing.)
I want to thank your readers and I hope that whoever reads this interview will look at this topic objectively and understand this matter more thoroughly. I hope that when we are able to resolve all of these issues that I may be involved in music, probably not with an album, but maybe as a street performer.