After a brief period of silence and trauma, the aftershocks of the election are starting to echo throughout Turkish society along with the exposure of its casualties. One such casualty is Selahattin Demirtaş, an outspoken Kurdish politician who has been imprisoned since 2016 and is widely regarded as Erdoğan’s sole challenger in the past decade—a match for him in charisma, courage, and wit.
On 28 May, on the night of his electoral victory, Erdoğan targeted Selahattin Demirtaş in his speech, while his followers chanted “Death to Selo” (a nickname for Demirtaş).
Last week, in an interview with Artı Gerçek, Demirtaş was unusually and openly critical of his party, the HDP, for what he saw as misconduct in the election campaign. In the interview Demirtaş implied that the HDP should have nominated its own candidate instead of directly supporting the main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. He said his calls for nomination was left with no response and rejected without reason.
This 50 year old politician is a prominent figure among the thousands of political prisoners in Turkey. He has two daughters and a wife, who has recently broken her silence and spoken to Murat Sabuncu, a reporter and columnist with T24. In the interview, Ms Demirtaş criticizes Emine Erdoğan, the wife of the President, for remaining silent when her husband calls Demirtaş a “murderer.” She also has severe criticism for the HDP—and the opposition in general—for remaining silent in the face of calls for “death to Selo.”
On the night of 28 May, Tayyip Erdoğan, who was re-elected as President of the Republic, said that your husband would not be released from prison. At the same time, the people who came to listen to him chanted slogans such as “Death sentence for Selo.” Where did you first hear this and how did you feel when you heard it? You have two daughters, how did they react to this situation?
I couldn’t believe it when I first heard it. I was shocked that Erdoğan called Selahattin a “murderer” in his first speech after winning the election.
Now, imagine that you have been in power for 21 years, you will be in power for five more years, and you continue to give instructions to the judiciary, and incite the public to hatred and enmity against someone you have kept in prison for seven years.
A day later, I decided to watch the video. And this time I was upset about something completely different. Imagine that your husband is elected once again to be President of the Republic. In addressing that public, he calls someone who is still under arrest a “murderer,” tens of thousands of people want the person he is targeting to be killed, and you [as the first lady] watch this with great pleasure. As a mother, as a woman, it felt horrible for me.
But did anyone, especially from the opposition, politicians, did they call for support, political solidarity, or for women’s solidarity?
We had a few friends who called for support. But not a single politician or person from the opposition parties, not one of them called, no one even sent a message.
You may wonder if there was a politician who uttered a single word against that horrible call, let alone calling me, but I am sorry to say that there was not even that. I thought all politicians should have reacted. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu was silent, the HDP’s co-chairs were silent, parties in our alliance were silent. No one reacted, and unfortunately this was all normalized.
As a daughter you witnessed your father being taken away, as a wife and mother you witnessed your husband being taken away, while your daughters were at home. Many Kurdish women have such memories of their relatives. There are Kurdish women politicians still in prison…
When I was only five years old, my father was taken away under torture in front of my eyes, and put in prison. Perhaps all the stones of my current struggle and determination were laid when I was only five years old. And I wanted to prevent other children from going through what I went through.
But unfortunately, despite all the struggles we have been waging for years, we have not been successful enough. Our daughters and other children have gone through and are still going through more than what I went through.
My father remained in prison for two years, my daughters’ father, Selahattin, has been in prison for seven years. And much worse things are happening. At the moment, unfortunately, hundreds of children are staying with their mothers in prisons. Thousands of women are in prison for political reasons.
In other words, I think those who have been conducting politics need to think deeply. It is even too late. It is 2023 and the President is instigating people to demand execution in the squares. So, what can I say?
Is there any despair about coexistence in this society?
Not at all. Because thousands of people may be shouting for execution in the squares, but many more want to live humanely and freely, in equality, peace and tranquility.
In the last period of the election campaign, you actively participated in rallies with the HDP as an individual. You worked in the field as a volunteer. How was it for you?
It was like this: two of our friends from the Women’s Assembly visited me at home and asked me to participate in the work and I gladly accepted. Afterwards, with their suggestions, we prepared a program and I started fieldwork.
It was indeed a different experience for me. Most of all, the love, interest, enthusiasm, and determination of young people and women was very nice. From time to time I was touched, I realized once again that whatever we do for our people is not enough. On the one hand, it was a great morale boost for both me and Selahattin.
But, I would like to point out that we did all the work with our own means, we had no demands from the party. I did this as a duty, because I wanted to fulfill my responsibility, like every other party member. But during the work I learnt that there were party officials who were uncomfortable with this, and to tell you the truth, I am sorry.
Some people even tried to label our work like ‘social media phenomena, pop star campaigning’ as if we had committed a crime. This is not ethically or politically correct, and I cannot accept this.
What do the May 2023 elections mean for the Demirtaş family?
What it means for every family in Turkey is no different for us. We had the goal of a country with justice, peace and tranquility, a better future, but it didn’t happen this time. I am very sad, but I am also very upbeat because I keep my hope, even though my hope is still in prison.
“I told my party that I was ready to run for the presidency, but I was rejected without any justification,” Selahattin Demirtaş told Artı Gerçek. But the HDP’s spokesperson Ebru Günay said: “His presidential candidacy was not handled by our committees due to his legal status; he had a proposal for a woman presidential candidate.” There are two different statements here. What is your comment?
I know very well Selahattin’s approach to many issues and what he says, because we are not only a married couple, but also comrades. There was not only a statement from the HDP, not only the one you mentioned, the statement of Mrs Ebru Günay. A party official also said “Demirtaş has not applied for presidential candidacy.” There is a contradiction between these two statements.
So I would like to clarify some issues. This is very important, if the time sequence of some things is not well known, there will be confusion.
Selahattin proposed his candidacy to the party in June 2022 when the party’s co-chairs visited him. Then he conveyed it once again through his lawyer Doğan Erbaş, a member of the executive board. I am sure that he conveyed it at least three times because it was an important decision, and he had shared it with me.
Not a single word was given back to Selahattin about his candidacy. I would even ask Selahattin from time to time: what happened, did he get an answer?
Obviously, our [Kurdish] people wanted and expected Selahattin to be the candidate. That’s why Selahattin wanted it to be announced that he could not be a candidate for legal reasons, so that there would not be the slightest controversy about the candidate we would nominate. I know that he said this when Ms Meral Beştaş (a deputy of the HDP) visited him. It was at the end of January. As I said, it is necessary to know what happened and when.
They say he can’t legally be a candidate?
Selahattin is not someone who doesn’t know his legal status. He is a lawyer. It was debatable whether he could legally be a candidate or not, but there was no certainty. Selahattin proposed his candidacy for the following reason: Even if the High Electoral Council had not approved his candidacy, he wanted that judicial stage to be over and done with so that there would be strong support for another HDP candidate. In other words, Selahattin was not looking at the issue from a legal perspective, but from a political perspective, and he proposed his candidacy for this purpose.
I know Selahattin very well. When he explains things, his aim is never to accuse the party or to put it under suspicion. He takes responsibility together with the party, he has already stated this. But it is not possible when someone insistently says that Selahattin imposed the HDP not to field a candidate.
What do you hope and expect for the future in Turkey, especially in politics?
I really want us to live in a democratic country where the law is applied with universal values. I want the promises of politicians to be peace, fraternity, and prosperity.
What do you think about your husband leaving active politics?
It is at his own discretion. But Selahattin didn’t quit the HDP or the struggle. He only left active politics. There are other areas of struggle besides active politics.
What are they?
There is civil society, legal work, arts, literature. The struggle is not limited to party politics.
“Turkey needs a great embrace in the 100th anniversary of the Republic,” Erdoğan said at the inauguration ceremony. Who do you think this embrace should be with?
It should be with everyone, without discrimination. And this should be done not with rhetoric but with practice. The people have many problems, there is a big economic crisis. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of democracy. There is no justice, no law. If the President of the Republic claims to embrace everyone, I think the rules of law, which are clearly written in the Constitution, must first be implemented.
Sincere and serious steps should be taken on the Kurdish problem, taking lessons from past experiences. I think everyone should support this and focus on making the Kurdish problem nonexistent.
Your husband has been in prison for about seven years and you have been traveling back and forth from your home in Diyarbakır to Edirne every week. Did you go to see him this week? What was the first thing you said to each other? How did you find his morale?
Of course I went to see him, of course I did. I’ve been to all the visits so far, with two exceptions.
He was in good spirits. I told him that he looked good and he told me the same thing. I think we were mostly wondering how each other were, because we had been through so many bad things in the last week. Selahattin looked really good.
We didn’t talk about politics. He told me the story of a Kurdish song, Sinanê Kîrîv. Then he sang the song. He sang it very well. I was impressed. I realized that I had missed Selahattin’s singing. I had listened to this song before, but I didn’t know the story. After I learnt the story, the song started to sound much more beautiful and meaningful to me.
This interview was originally published by T24. It has been translated and reprinted by FTP.