The outcome of Turkey’s elections on Sunday could depend on a jailed presidential candidate’s sway over voters more than 1,200 km (750 miles) away in the country’s largely Kurdish southeast.
In prison since 2016 and now on trial on terrorism-related charges, Selahattin Demirtas is the driving force behind the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) bid to win the 10 percent of votes that parties need to enter parliament.
With virtually no media coverage of him or his party, Demirtas has got his message out through social media, party colleagues and his wife Basak, who regularly visits him in Edirne Prison near the northwest border with Greece and Bulgaria.
While he has no formal role leading the party from jail, there is no legal obstacle to him running for president.
“They think they cut him off from the outside world but they can’t see the thousands of Demirtases here,” HDP co-leader Pervin Buldan told a cheering crowd waving green, white and purple party flags in the southeastern town of Silvan.
Demirtas appeared for the first time on television in 20 months on Sunday night when he made a scheduled 10-minute election address allotted to all candidates on state TV. Thousands cheered and applauded as they watched the speech on giant screens at an HDP rally in Istanbul.
President Tayyip Erdogan dubs Demirtas “the terrorist in Edirne” and his party an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group. Demirtas and the HDP deny links to the PKK.
“They tried to come between us with the terror group by turning you against each other on the streets with threats, looting and extortion,” Erdogan told a rally in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast.
Several recent polls have suggested Erdogan’s ruling AK Party could lose its parliamentary majority on June 24, which would put a brake on his ability to exercise the powers of the new executive presidency.
Polls on average put support for the HDP around 10 percent nationwide.
If the HDP fails to make the cut-off, dozens of seats will go to the AK Party, the second most popular in the region, which would almost certainly guarantee a parliamentary majority.
HDP voters could also be influential in determining whether Erdogan wins the presidential vote, which requires a simple majority and which polls suggest could go to a second round.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict with the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union. After a 2-1/2 year peace process collapsed in 2015, the southeast suffered through some of the most intense conflict since the insurgency began in 1984.
Erdogan says the government’s hardline response has made the region the most peaceful it has been for 40 years. He said in Diyarbakir the AKP had solved the Kurdish problem, citing reforms in areas of cultural rights, education and language.
Such comments are fiercely rejected in Silvan, 80 km (50 miles) east in a farming area, where the HDP won 88 and 89 percent of the vote in two elections in 2015. (Reuters)