ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan denounced on Tuesday one of his main rivals for elections on June 24 for visiting a pro-Kurdish candidate who is in jail on terrorism charges.
Erdogan accused Muharrem Ince, who has energized the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) since becoming its presidential candidate, of trying to “steal” votes among Turkey’s Kurdish community.
Addressing supporters in the northwestern Sakarya province, Erdogan also turned on Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), calling him a terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of Kurdish civilians during unrest three years ago.
Demirtas denies the charges while human rights groups have described them as trumped up and an attempt to stifle dissent in Turkey.
Turkey’s most successful modern politician, Erdogan is strong favorite to win re-election to a newly empowered executive presidency, although his Islamist-rooted AK Party is in a close race with the opposition for parliamentary polls the same day.
The president went on the attack over Ince’s visit last month to Demirtas, who has been in jail for a year and a half pending trial.
“Those visiting him aren’t doing this for freedom, they think they can steal votes from there. You won’t be able to. My people will teach a lesson on June 24 to the person who visits such a terrorist,” he told an election rally.
Demirtas, who has won votes beyond his Kurdish core constituency in recent elections, faces 142 years in jail on terrorism charges as well as four years for insulting Erdogan in a different case.
Erdogan accused him over the deaths of civilians in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir in 2015. These occurred during protests against a siege by Islamic State fighters of Kobani, a Kurdish town just over the border in Syria.
“The person who caused the death of 53 of my citizens, my Kurdish brothers, in Diyarbakir is a presidential candidate in this country,” he said.
“A terrorist cannot be a presidential candidate,” he said. “The fact that this person, who caused the deaths of 53 people, is a presidential candidate is not proof of his innocence.”
Demirtas’s HDP denies accusations of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group which has fought government forces in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The PKK is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and Europe.
Ince, 54, a combative parliamentarian and former physics teacher, has accused Erdogan of driving Turkey “to the cliff” through ideological politics and a determination to control the central bank at a time when the Turkish lira has been plunging.
However, he faces competition from former interior minister Meral Aksener as the leading opposition candidate.
The victor in this month’s election, held under a state of emergency imposed after a failed coup in 2016, will exercise sweeping new executive powers after Turks narrowly approved a constitutional overhaul in a referendum last year. The changes come into effect after the June 24 vote.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; editing by David Stamp