BACKGROUND: Ethnic nationalism is built into the Turkish constitution, hobbling hopes for greater democratization. Occasional concessions have been made for some cultural rights, but forced assimilation of Kurds – who may make up a fifth of Turkey’s population – and of other ethnic minorities remains the unyielding national project. Millions of Kurds have been uprooted from their ancestral villages and thousands massacred or disappeared.
Even during Turkey’s more democratic periods, opposition parties have frequently been banned, and politicians have regularly been stripped of their political immunity so that they can be tried and imprisoned. An exceptionally high vote threshold provides an additional hurdle in the way of the election of minority parties. A party is able to be much more effective than a cluster of individual MPs, but for a party to be allotted any seats at all it must win at least 10 percent of the national vote.
The first elected political party to focus on Kurdish rights was the People’s Labor Party (HEP), founded in 1990. Twenty-two members became MPs in 1991, but by 1993 HEP was banned. Since that time, four further Kurdish parties have been closed down, and each time a new party has risen from the ashes. In 1999, pro-Kurdish parties started winning municipal elections in the Kurdish majority southeast, but they fell well short of the threshold in general elections. Up until 2015, their MPs could only get elected under other party banners (as had happened in 1991) or as independents. However, in the June 2015 general election, the HDP managed to bring together a wider coalition of interests and take a qualitative and quantitative leap forward, with over 13 percent of the vote and 80 MPs.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s approach to the Kurdish question is more opportunistic than doctrinaire. The result is the same sort of contradictory policies and messaging that have characterized his approach to foreign affairs.
From 2013-15, Erdoğan tried to woo the Kurds by carrying out peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But, at the same time, he responded to the emergence of Kurdish-led autonomy in northern Syria by reinforcing anti-Kurdish chauvinism. As Erdoğan saw it, the Syrian Kurds were cutting across his plans for control in Syria and were setting a dangerous precedent for the Kurds in Turkey.
The HDP’s success in the June 2015 election deprived Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its majority. Even before the vote, Erdoğan had observed that, due to the peace process, he was losing support both to the HDP and to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Reversing course, he denied the existence of the Kurdish Question, and later denied knowledge of the initial peace agreement that had been made. He embraced old policies of military suppression, meeting every act of Kurdish resistance with disproportionate force and collective punishment, and turning Kurdish towns and neighborhoods into war zones. The June election had taken place in an atmosphere of escalating violence against the HDP. Erdoğan used the hung result as an excuse to rerun the elections in November. This time the AKP turned to strident nationalism to win back votes from both the HDP and the MHP, and the violence was even worse.
Physical violence was complemented by judicial action. In May 2016, with the support of the main opposition, “center-left” Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Turkish parliament approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for the en bloc removal of parliamentary immunity for MPs under criminal investigation. Forty affected HDP MPs challenged this in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled, last month, that the amendment had violated their freedom of expression.
In July 2016, a failed coup was received by Erdoğan, in his own words, as a ‘gift from God’. It gave him the excuse to bring in emergency legislation that has targeted not only the Gülenists who were alleged to be behind the coup, but also the Kurdish movement. HDP MPs, including the party’s co-chairs, were arrested, and emergency legislation has been used to depose elected HDP mayors, under various ‘terrorism’ charges, and replace them with government-appointed trustees. Every week brings further detentions of party members, and those caught up in the justice system enter a morass of long pretrial detention, multiple additional charges, and secret witnesses.
Turkey’s use of increasingly elastic terrorism laws is based on its categorization of the PKK as a terrorist organization and its insistence that every action in support of Kurdish freedoms proves PKK links. The inclusion of the PKK on US and European terrorist lists is used to give an added layer of spurious legitimacy to these claims. The Turkish government refuses to draw a distinction between the HDP, which acts within the political sphere, and the PKK. During the peace negotiations, the government used the HDP as a go-between in its communications with the PKK. Now those government-sponsored meetings are used as “evidence” of HDP-PKK complicity.
Both the HDP and the PKK have made clear their organizational separation. The HDP is inspired by the ideas of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, but the route by which it would implement those ideas is completely different. The HDP also argues that the PKK should not be considered a terrorist organization – but the Belgian courts made this argument, too, and no one has suggested that the judges are terrorists. The PKK came into existence because the closing down of all legal routes to change convinced many Kurds that their only hope of a dignified life was to take up arms. It can be argued that the current oppression of the HDP, far from damaging the PKK, acts as a recruiting sergeant.
IMPLICATIONS: The HDP closure case draws heavily on the ongoing Kobanê Case, which seeks life imprisonment without parole for 108 people. These include leading members of the HDP who were on the party’s Central Executive Board in October 2014, when the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobanê, just across the border in Syria, was under siege from ISIS. The Turkish government was doing nothing to stop the ISIS attack, and, although it had allowed people from all over the world to use Turkey as a gateway to join ISIS, it was preventing Kurds in Turkey from joining the defense of Kobanê.
The HDP Executive Board called, via Twitter, for people to come out in support of Kobanê and against the Turkish government’s refusal to help. Thousands heeded that call, and were met by armed security forces together with right-wing Islamist and nationalist counter-protesters, ensuring a peaceful demonstration turned into a bloodbath that left around fifty dead. Although the majority of the dead were supporters of the HDP, the government has put the blame on the HDP Executive Board, whose members are being tried for mass murder as well for the inevitable terrorism charges. These events form a central part of the Turkish government’s main case against the HDP’s former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş. In its ruling for Demirtaş’ immediate release, the European Court of Human Rights was clear that the tweets were not a call for violence.
The first indictment calling for the HDP’s closure was submitted in June 2021 and was so carelessly compiled that the Turkish Constitutional Court sent it back for redrafting. This carelessness is indicative of how little weight is given to legal process. The revised indictment was accepted on July 9. As well as demanding the closure of the HDP, it calls for 451 people to be banned from party politics for five years. Specific charges are made against 69 of these, but it is unclear how the rest were chosen. The court could decide simply to withhold the money given to political parties (as was done to the AKP in 2008). It could choose to ban just some of the listed individuals; but it cannot ban any of them from politics without also banning the party. For those leading figures who also face separate legal cases, the ban would be superfluous. One thing is clear – the decision of the court will be made on political grounds.
With a large proportion of the population facing severe economic difficulties, Erdoğan is desperate to rally his dwindling support. The AKP government has relied on an alliance with the far-right MHP, and calls to close the HDP originated with the MHP’s provocative leader, Devlet Bahçeli. The AKP initially seemed reluctant to take this route. Its own predecessors had been banned for breaching the secularist constitution, and the AKP itself had narrowly escaped closure in 2008, after which the AKP government made party bans harder to implement. More pertinently, while the AKP wants to handicap the HDP, it also does not want to push former HDP voters into supporting the opposition. But the AKP is in a bind: neither does it want to appear weak and risk losing nationalist supporters to the MHP, or to the Good Party, Turkey’s other nationalist party, which is part of an opposition alliance with the CHP.
The CHP, meanwhile, is wary of making the ban into a major issue. Although the party describes itself as social democratic, it was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, with an ethno-nationalist ideology. It has its own history of Kurdish oppression, and supported the AKP’s previous attacks on the Kurds. The CHP is critical of the proposed HDP ban, and also of the government’s continued refusal to comply with the European Court’s ruling and release former HDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş. But it has recently supported the AKP and MHP in lifting the parliamentary immunity of yet another HDP MP, Semra Güzel, and opposition meetings on restoring democracy make no attempt to include the HDP. The CHP’s ambivalence is explained by its fear of alienating a public imbued with ethnic nationalism, as well as the party’s more stridently nationalist supporters. Also, a more conciliatory approach to the Kurdish issue could jeopardize the CHP’s alliance with the Good Party.
CONCLUSIONS: The HDP sees itself “not just as a party but also as an idea”. It is an idea that enjoys a huge and growing support among Turkey’s Kurdish electorate and beyond, and it won’t disappear. Practically, the party is discussing other ways of continuing in electoral politics, and their supporters remain defiant, as demonstrated by their congresses and protests. But the closure case against the HDP suggests that the Turkish state has turned its back on the possibility of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, leaving another generation of Kurds to conclude that they have no prospect of winning their rights through legal means.
The HDP has received international support, but hardly in proportion to what is at stake. The risk of alienating an important NATO ally suffocates prospects for action, and war in Ukraine will make NATO even more determined to keep Turkey on side. The war is also concentrating international attention on Russia, while bringing even greater financial hardship to Turkey’s population, and so more temptation for the Turkish government to divert the resultant anger into its own aggressive nationalism. Turkey’s Western partners may be unconcerned about what happens within Turkey, but they do want stability, and that is impossible so long as democracy is denied.
Sarah Glynn is a writer concentrating on the Kurdish issue.