Jailed pro-Kurdish presidential candidate: Fair elections in Turkey impossible

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The pro-Kurdish Peoples's Democratic Party's (HDP) former leader Selahattin Demirtas and current Turkish presidential candidate, sits in prison in Edirne on May 4, 2018. The HDP announced the nomination of Demirtas for the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey, scheduled for June 24, 2018. Demirtas, who has been behind bars since November 2016, is in prison accused of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels and is facing a 142-year sentence on charges of leading a terror organization. It's unclear if Turkey's electoral board will approve Demirtas's candidacy. / AFP PHOTO / HDP / HANDOUT

Selahattin Demirtaş, presidential candidate for Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who is challenging President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from behind prison bars, said a fair vote in next month’s election was impossible under an ongoing state of emergency declared after a failed coup in 2016, Reuters reported.

In his first interview with international media since being named as a candidate by the HDP on Friday, Demirtaş told Reuters opposition parties would face huge obstacles in campaigning for votes.

“Demonstrations are banned, talking is banned, criticizing the government is banned, even defending peace is considered terror propaganda,” he said. “Hundreds of opposition journalists are arrested, dozens of TV and radio channels are closed.

“It is impossible for there to be fair elections in such an environment,” Demirtaş said in a hand-written response to questions submitted by Reuters to his lawyers.

Demirtaş and the HDP face even greater challenges than other opposition parties in running against Erdoğan. The party’s former co-leader has been in jail for a year and a half on terrorism charges and faces up to 142 years in prison if convicted.

A human rights lawyer by training, Demirtaş is one of Turkey’s best-known politicians, winning votes beyond his core Kurdish constituency in the 2015 election to turn the HDP into the second-largest opposition party in parliament.

Prosecutors charge that Demirtaş and hundreds of other detained HDP members are tied to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish Southeast. The HDP denies the charges and Demirtaş said he was unjustly jailed.

“There is no legal obstacle to my candidacy because I have not been convicted,” he told Reuters, adding that it would be “a scandal and a crime” if the courts blocked him from running by convicting him.

While the HDP commands only about 10 to 12 percent support, Demirtaş is likely to draw significant backing against Erdoğan and other candidates while also boosting the prospects of his party entering parliament.

Turkish authorities imposed the state of emergency after a failed military coup in July 2016 in which 249 people were killed and thousands injured. Since then more than 160,000 people have been detained and nearly the same number of civil servants have been dismissed, the United Nations said in March.

Rights groups and some Western allies say Erdoğan has used the putsch as an excuse to quash dissent. The HDP says as many as 5,000 of its members have been detained. On Saturday, it said the passport of co-leader Sezai Temelli was confiscated at an Istanbul airport while on his way to Germany for election campaigning.

The government says the post-coup measures are necessary to confront the security challenges Turkey faces.

When he called the snap June 24 vote last month, nearly a year and a half earlier than scheduled, Erdoğan said it would allow Turkey to move more swiftly to the powerful executive presidency he has long coveted.

On Friday the HDP lived streamed its nomination of Demirtaş on social media while mainstream broadcasters ignored it.

Demirtaş said Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for 15 years, called the early election over fears of waning support and said Kurdish voters would not vote for “a racist party.”

“The AKP government is losing its support rapidly. The economy is also being dragged into a crisis. The government plans to control the state before hitting rock bottom,” he said.

“The people in Turkey are fed up with the AKP and want to get rid of them, and the AKP surely knows this,” he said.

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