Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed presidential candidate of the Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), made his campaign speech on the state broadcaster TRT on June 17 from prison, marking a first in Turkey and the world's political history.
Wearing a dark suit, Demirtaş appeared for the first time in front of the cameras after nearly 20 months, denouncing what he called the government’s “repressive regime” ahead of the very early presidential election set to be held on June 24.
Demirtaş, co-founder and former co-chair of the HDP, appeared on TRT in a pre-recorded speech from prison in the northwestern province of Edirne, after Turkish authorities barred him from going to the broadcaster’s headquarters in the capital Ankara.
“The only reason why I am here is because the AKP is scared of me,” Demirtaş said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s longtime ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In the run up to the election campaign, TRT has been criticized for giving full coverage for Erdoğan’s speeches, which tend to happen several times a day, while ignoring other party candidates, in particular Demirtaş and İYİ (Good) Party leader Meral Akşener.
The 45-year-old, who was chosen by his party to challenge Erdoğan in the June 24 electionsand is often dubbed as a charismatic leader, is accused of being a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies including the U.S.
“What we are passing through is only the trailer of a one-man regime,” Demirtaş said.
“The scary part of the movie is yet to start.”
He told the electorate that they would decide with their vote whether or not to be in favor of freedom.
“I have no doubt that you will be on the side of freedom ... We will get hold of our country from the edge of a cliff,” he said.
Demirtaş claimed he would be acquitted of all charges as soon as possible, adding that he was not the only victim of “lawlessness.”
“You are victims of this oppression in your daily life,” he said.
If convicted the presidential candidate of the party, which received above 11 percent of nationwide votes in 2015, risks up to 142 years in jail.
The HDP put up a giant screen in the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir where hundreds gathered to watch his speech.
“I was touched by his speech,” a supporter, Berkin Gülen, told Agence France-Presse.
“We miss him. I hope God will open a door for him and he will be free.”
“The opposition has one single candidate who is Selahattin Demirtaş He is our hope,” another supporter, Cengiz Akkoş, was quoted as saying.
Several thousand supporters also gathered at Istanbul’s Bakırköy district on the European side of the city to watch the appeal, holding aloft flags and masks of the politician’s face.
Erdoğan has in recent days mounted attacks against Demirtaş, accusing him of being a “terrorist” responsible for the deaths of dozens by calling protests in Turkey’s southeast during the siege of the Syrian city of Kobane in October 2014 that turned violent.
Until his jailing, Demirtaş was seen as the only politician in Turkey to match the rhetorical skills and charisma comparable to Erdoğan.
But in recent weeks Muharrem İnce of the social democrat and secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP has proved tough opposition for the president, who could get a firmer grip over the state following the April 2017 referendum which allowed for a historic installation of a presidential system in Turkey.
Erdoğan, along with opposition candidates İnce and Meral Aksener of the İYİ Party, has refused to appear on the TRT broadcast. He also refused to appear in a TV debate with İnce, saying that he would not allow the opposition front-runner “to make ratings off of him.”
On June 24, tens of millions of registered citizens will hit the polls around Turkey in a bid to cast their votes in both the presidential and parliamentary elections — which is a first for the country.