Turkish election not fair, says jailed presidential hopeful

FILE - In this handout photo provided by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) on Friday, May 4, 2018, former co-leader of the party Selahattin Demirtas sits in prison in Turkey. Turkey’s jailed pro-Kurdish politician and presidential hopeful says elections in Turkey have never been fair, but next month’s presidential and parliamentary ballots will be even more unjust than ever. Speaking from his prison cell, Selahattin Demirtas, told The Associated Press Friday, May 11 he was still confident his Peoples’ Democratic Party would surpass its previous electoral gains. (HDP via AP, file)

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's jailed pro-Kurdish politician and presidential hopeful says elections in Turkey have never been fair, but next month's presidential and parliamentary ballots will be even more unjust than ever.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government vehemently denies that the election is being held in an unfair environment, however.

Responding to written questions from his prison cell, Selahattin Demirtas, told The Associated Press that he was still confident that his Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, would surpass its previous electoral gains and give Erdogan "the necessary response at the ballot box."

Last month, Erdogan called the election for June 24, more than a year earlier than planned, giving opposition parties scant time to mount weighty campaigns.

With Turkey's media largely under government control, opposition parties face an uphill battle to make their voices heard. The election is also being held under a state of emergency that has led to some 50,000 arrests, including those of opposition journalists, and the closure of media outlets.

The HDP faces the added challenge of having its main candidate — Demirtas, a 45-year-old former human rights lawyer — and thousands of other party officials in prison.

"These elections will take place in an unfair environment never seen before," Demirtas said in response to AP questions submitted to him. "While Erdogan limitlessly uses all state opportunities to his lead his own campaign, I am being held in a cell as a political hostage."

The June 24 election is hugely important, as it will transform Turkey's governing system to an executive presidency, ushering in a constitutional change that was narrowly approved in a referendum last year. The post of prime minister will be abolished, concentrating even more power in the hands of the president.

"Thousands of my friends, the women, the young will voluntarily lead my campaign in my name," Demirtas said from his prison in Edirne, northwest Turkey. "We will campaign without losing our morale or our motivation."

Erdogan's supporters dismiss Demirtas' claims.

"The nonsense that the elections will not be fair and free is simply a move to cast a shadow on the upcoming elections," wrote Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to Erdogan, in Daily Sabah newspaper. "It is either the work of ignorant writers or part of a perception campaign to bring our democracy into disrepute."

Demirtas was arrested in 2016 for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants. He faces a 142-year sentence on charges of leading a terror organization, engaging in terror propaganda and other crimes.

Eight other HDP lawmakers and nearly 4,700 HDP members are imprisoned.

Demirtas ran against Erdogan in the country's first direct presidential election in 2014, garnering 9.7 percent of the vote. He also led the left-leaning party to parliament in two general elections during 2015, enlarging his party's appeal beyond Turkey's mainly-Kurdish populated regions.

If elected, Demirtas said his priority would be to enact a new constitution for Turkey, underscoring personal freedoms, the independence of the courts and a return to parliamentary democracy.

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