Kurdish party seeks to broaden appeal in Turkey polls

Ankara (AFP) - With a youthful and dynamic candidate, Turkey's main Kurdish political force is seeking to broaden its appeal in presidential polls where the votes of the Kurdish minority are set to play a crucial role.

Selahattin Demirtas, a 41-year-old lawyer put forward by the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), is hoping to win support not just from the 15 million strong Kurdish minority in Sunday's polls but also ethnic Turks.

With his wide telegenic grin, Demirtas cultivates an image like a western European politician that in this campaign extended to meeting voters while riding a bicycle.

A passionate musician, he can sing without causing embarrassment and also is also frequently filmed playing the saz, a Turkish folk lute.

His emphasis on a multi-cultural Turkey, women's equality and -- in an extremely unusual move for a Turkish politician -- gay rights has made his candidacy appealing to secular left-wing Turks of any ethnicity.

Demirtas is still expected to trail third behind Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is supported by many Kurds for its cautious granting of greater rights to their community.

Yet whether Demirtas breaks into double figures could be crucial in determining whether Erdogan requires a run-off against his main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu on August 24.

Should the poll go to a second round, Kurdish votes will be even more highly valued.

-'Turkey at a crossroads'-

Calling for a "new life" in his election manifesto, Demirtas presented a radical agenda and said his candidacy was not just for a new president but a "proposal for rebuilding our union on an equal footing."

"I did not become a candidate in order to preside over an authoritarian, bureaucratic, anti-democratic, sexist state. The president we hope for is one who will be with the people on the streets," he said.

"Turkey is at a crossroads. Either we will choose to further consolidate the authoritarian state or we will pave the way for a fundamental change by taking radical democratic measures to realise the desires of all the oppressed."

Ilhan Kaya, academic at Istanbul's Yildiz Teknik University, said Demirtas was adopting a different political profile to the other two candidates.

"Demirtas is putting emphasis on freedoms and pluralism, while Erdogan bases his election campaign on power. He has become the voice of those who demand justice instead of power," he told AFP.

The Kurds' votes are scattered between Demirtas's HDP party, and Erdogan's AKP party, which gave the Kurds limited extra rights including education in Kurdish in private schools, and launched peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2012 with an ultimate goal of ending the three-decade insurgency.

While their homeland is in the southeast of Turkey, there are Kurdish communities throughout the country and in particular in Istanbul.

Demirtas also has to contend with the multi-faceted nature of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, including the PKK, its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the Kandil Mountain in Iraq -- the base of the armed group blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and its Western allies.

Asked if he would meet Ocalan on his prison island off Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, Demirtas responded diplomatically.

"I don't think I would make such a visit as the president of the Turkish republic."

-'Eyes on 2015 polls'-

Kaya said Demirtas was trying to build on an inclusive language to attract votes not only from Kurds but also from the Turks in order to prove he can clear the 10-percent election threshold required to secure seats in the Turkish parliament in next year's parliamentary polls.

"Demirtas is sharply challenging the prime minister and is not shy at all to go after corruption allegations targeting the prime minister," said Kaya.

"He is rather aggressive but within the boundaries of correct manners and etiquette."

A fine public speaker, Demirtas is hammering home his message of inclusivity as he seeks to make an impact in the elections.

At an Istanbul rally last weekend, a rare mass show of Kurdish nationalism in the city, Demirtas said: "If all the poor, gays, women, the workers can hold each other's hands, continue to believe in each other and continue to multiply, no dictator can stand against us."

And he concludes each rally with a display of humour.

"You will stamp Evet (Yes) for the most pro-peace and the most pro-fraternity, the most pro-people, the most handsome, the youngest (candidate)."