Erdogan is seeking to crush Turkey’s number three political party. Here’s why

The move has been criticised by leaders in the US and Europe

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Thursday 18 March 2021 17:35 GMT
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Protest on floor of Turkey's parliament after member of Kurdish party purged

Turkey has intensified efforts to wipe out the nation’s third largest political party, prompting sharp international reaction from the White House and European leaders critical of the legal and parliamentary moves.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s parliament, dominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right junior coalition partner, voted to remove the immunity of Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu during a chaotic session marred by chanting and shouting matches. The vote paves the way for his removal.

Meanwhile the chief prosecutor in the capital, Ankara, launched a case aimed at banning HDP outright on a charge of seeking to “destroy and eliminate the indivisible integrity of the Turkish state.”

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement calling the moves “troubling” and said any attempt to destroy the HDP “would unduly subvert the will of Turkish voters, further undermine democracy in Turkey, and deny millions of Turkish citizens their chosen representation.”

The assault on the HDP comes as Mr Erdogan’s government has promised a series of democratic reforms meant to ease relations with the European Union, Turkey’s premier trading partner. But the potential expulsion of the lawmaker,  for social media posts he made five years ago, and the move to ban the HDP will be seen in the west as Turkey moving in the opposite direction.

While the European Union has yet to make a statement, Sweden’s foreign minister Ann Linde said Stockholm was “deeply concerned” about the latest development. Sweden hosts a large ethnic Kurdish minority. Greece’s leftist opposition leader Alexis Tsipras also voiced support for the HDP.

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The US-based group Freedom House said “the latest moves against the party constitute a direct challenge to the very foundations of participatory democracy” in Turkey.

Turkey’s troubled lira, recently bolstered by a return to orthodox macroeconomic policy and the departure of Mr Erdogan’s son-in-law as finance minister, slipped 4 per cent against the dollar amid what analysts described as fears about the rule of law in the country.

The escalation against the HDP comes at a fraught moment in Turkish politics. Mr Erdogan’s AKP is losing ground among Turks in opinion polls, dogged by allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement and seemingly out of touch with younger voters ahead of elections in 2023. Mr Erdogan has had to lean further on the support of far-right Devlet Bahceli’s National Movement Party (MHP), which has long demanded the shutting down of the HDP.

“Erdogan is not going to win based on most polls,” said Abdulla Hawez, an independent London-based researcher and analyst focused on Turkish and Kurdish politics. “He’s trying to find ways to circumvent these odds against him. One is by banning or substantially weakening the HDP.”

By leaving left-leaning politically Kurds homeless, Mr Erdogan may gamble that he’ll be able to up his vote share by the single-digit percentage points he’ll need to win the presidency and keep control of parliament.

The HDP won nearly 6 million votes and 67 seats out of 600 seats in parliament in a 2018 national vote, drawing support from cosmopolitan liberal and leftist Turks as well as Kurds in the major cities and in the country’s southeast.

But the party has long been a thorn in the side of Mr Erdogan for its ability to draw support from pious ethnic Kurds who are potential government supporters, its outspoken opposition to the ruling establishment and its alleged ties to the Kurdish separatist fighters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a banned terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU. The HDP denies it has links to the PKK.

In addition to banning the HDP, the prosecutor aims to bar more than 600 members of the party from any political activity, a draconian move that exceeds any of the many attacks on Kurdish political movements in recent decades.

“Erdogan is clearly doubling down on staying in power through nationalism and authoritarianism instead of an attempt to revive his popularity through liberalism or a pivot back toward democracy,” said Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

Mr Erdogan may also calculate that the move would force other opposition parties, including the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP) and two offshoots of his AKP, to either support the move and risk alienating Kurds or oppose it and risk alienating staunchly nationalist Turks. So far most opposition parties have been critical of the offensive, which has received widespread attention in print and broadcast media. “Whatever stance the CHP takes, it will clearly cost them votes,” said Mr Danforth.

Turkish officials defended the decision to prosecute the party and urged outsiders to respect the country’s judiciary. Turkey’s prosecutor claims the HDP is a subsidiary of the PKK and has been recruiting members for it.

“It is an indisputable fact that HDP has organic ties to PKK—which Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist entity,” Fahrettin Altun, Mr Erdogan’s director of communications wrote on Twitter. “HDP’s senior leaders and spokespeople, through their words and deeds, have repeatedly and consistently proved that they are the PKK’s political wing.”

More than a few observers noted that some years ago it was the then opposition AKP that was in danger of being shut down by hardcore nationalist prosecutors. Back then, “democracy won,” wrote former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt in a Tweet. “Now it’s under threat again by the efforts to close down the HDP party.”

Mithat Sancar, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), speaks during a news conference at the party headquarters in Ankara

Successive Turkish governments have used the country’s court system to wipe out at least six pro-Kurdish parties since 1993, including several that had won and held seats in national and local votes. HDP officials remained defiant. “I am in the hearts of my nation,” Gergerlioglu said on the floor of parliament as he was stripped of his immunity. “I am not going anywhere.”

His supporters could be heard chanting “coup plotter AKP” to protest the vote.

“HDP is more than a few buildings,” the party’s spokespersons said in a statement on Thursday. “We assure you that the historical struggles and political traditions upon which the HDP was established in the first place will continue to deeply impact Turkish and Kurdish politics toward a genuine democratic transformation of the country, even if the HDP may not be able to survive this onslaught as a political entity.”

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