A jailed Kurdish leader said an attempt to ban his leftist party was part of Tayyip Erdogan's plans to foment "chaos" in Turkey's opposition ahead of elections this year, but said it would not save the president from defeat after two decades in power.
In comments to Reuters from Edirne jail in northwest Turkey, Selahattin Demirtas urged the country's main opposition bloc to cooperate with his pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) to win presidential and parliamentary elections expected in May.
However, the HDP's own future is far from assured: a prosecutor has sought to close the party for links to Kurdish militants, the culmination of a years-long crackdown against the third largest party in Turkey's parliament.
Demirtas, who is no longer party leader but remains a key political figure despite being in jail since 2016, said Erdogan and his nationalist alliance partner, Devlet Bahceli, were behind the legal push to shut the HDP.
Repeating Jan 17 story without changes
Presidential and parliamentary elections set for May
HDP seen playing key role but faces court ban
Despite six years in jail, Demirtas remains influential
Demirtas: will not be in active politics if leaves prison
"The aim of these two is to win the election by creating a vacuum and chaos in the opposition, weakening the HDP before the election," Demirtas said in written responses to questions conveyed to him via the HDP, describing the timing of the case as a "conscious political choice".
The government says Turkey's courts are independent and denies political interference. Asked about Demirtas's claims, Erdogan's office declined to comment, but a senior official said: "It's very interesting that he should mention chaos, considering the HDP's history. The surveys don't say 'Erdogan is losing' at all. These statements appear completely baseless."
Critics of Erdogan's government, including Human Rights Watch, say it uses the courts to muzzle political opponents including Istanbul's mayor, a potential presidential challenger sentenced to prison and a political ban last month.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled three years ago that Turkey must immediately release Demirtas, saying his imprisonment was cover for limiting pluralism and debate.
Turkey's constitutional court opened the case against the HDP in 2021, drawing strong criticism from Ankara's Western allies. This month the court narrowly voted to freeze the HDP's bank accounts as it weighs charges of ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group. The HDP denies the charges.
The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Ankara and its NATO allies, has waged an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984 in which over 40,000 people have been killed.
Demirtas was previously sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the president and is now being kept in jail facing a potential life sentence in an ongoing trial with more than 100 other HDP politicians accused of instigating 2014 protests in which dozens died. They deny the charges.
Aside from the jailing of Demirtas and other party leaders, many HDP members of parliament and mayors have been unseated and thousands of its members imprisoned.
If it is not banned, the HDP, whose core support is Kurdish, would likely play a role as kingmaker in the elections.
Opinion polls put the main opposition bloc on a par with Turkey's ruling alliance but needing HDP voters' support to defeat Erdogan, whose popularity has been hit by growing economic woes in recent years.
"Even if Erdogan puts pressure on voters, even if he tries to use tricks, he cannot avoid defeat," Demirtas said. "A large majority of people have lost their trust and belief in Erdogan, and it is impossible for him to regain it."
'WE ARE THE PEOPLE'
Ahead of the elections, Demirtas' Twitter account has issued daily political messages to its more than 2 million followers. A song he wrote was played at an HDP-led rally in Istanbul on Sunday, where thousands chanted his name and waved red, yellow and green party flags.
"We are not just an institution and a building. We are the people. You can't shut down the people," said participant Ferhat Encu, an ex-HDP lawmaker who was jailed with Demirtas in 2016.
Saruhan Oluc, one of the top HDP figures at the rally, said the party was braced for a possible ban but would not leave its voters without alternatives. He did not elaborate.
The HDP applied last week to postpone the court process until after the elections to safeguard democratic principles.
Demirtas said he thought the court would not close the HDP as it would not want to intervene in politics.
The HDP, allied with smaller leftist parties which joined Sunday's rally, has an uneasy relationship with the more Turkish nationalist elements of Turkey's main six-party opposition.
The party currently plans to propose its own presidential candidate, but Demirtas did not rule out backing a joint opposition candidate against Erdogan.
Asked about his own future if released from prison, Demirtas said he did not wish to return to frontline party politics: "I closed the page of active representative politics for myself a long time ago. I just keep fighting."