North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Banning the pro-Kurdish HDP in Turkey is a move towards fascism

The government’s attempt to ban Turkey’s third-largest political party is the latest attack against voices of change in the country

Ozlem Goner Arthur Pye
21 April 2021, 12.01am
HDP Election banners in Istanbul, Turkey in 2015
John Wreford / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 17 March, a top prosecutor filed a case with Turkey’s Constitutional Court demanding the closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), as well as a five-year political ban on more than 600 party members. Around the same time, HDP parliamentarian and prominent human rights advocate Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu was forcibly removed from parliament, and later detained.

These proceedings came just weeks after Turkey’s failed military operations in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in February and the arrest of more than 700 members and supporters of the HDP in a single day (14 February) on dubious charges of “terrorism”.

The HDP is the country’s third-largest party, receiving six million votes in the last general election in 2018. It has faced mounting repression ever since it first won seats in parliament in 2015, preventing President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from maintaining a single-party majority.

Since 2016, more than 10,000 HDP parliamentarians, elected officials and party members have been imprisoned, and some 6,000 are still in prison today. Arrests have become so frequent, and so widespread, that the party has “lost its ability to keep count” the HDP press office told openDemocracy.

In July 2015, following the electoral success of the HDP, as well as the military success of the Kurdish forces against ISIS in northern Syria, Turkey halted its peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In November of the same year, Turkish authorities claimed that several neighbourhoods and towns in the Kurdish region had come under the control of the PKK. It declared 127 areas special security zones closed to civilian access, and then launched a full-scale military operation against the civilians in these areas. According to NGOs and local sources, thousands of people were killed and over a million people’s rights to life, education, travel and health were violated during this period.

In May 2016, the Turkish Parliament voted to remove parliamentary immunity from more than 150 MPs then under investigation for criminal offences, including 55 from HDP. This vote came after a sharp increase in applications by prosecutors to investigate HDP members of parliament. Later that year, the party’s co-leaders, Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş, were imprisoned on charges of “leading a terrorist organisation”. They remain in prison to this day, along with dozens of other former and current parliamentarians.

The imprisonment of HDP personnel was followed by an attack on locally elected officials. In September 2016, Decree no. 674 allowed provincial governors – who are not elected by the people, but appointed by the interior minister and the president – to take direct control of municipalities suspected of supporting “terrorism”. As a result, democratically elected mayors who played important roles in representing their local population’s needs and political will were suspended, removed and replaced by state-appointed officials called kayyums.

More than 100 mayors elected in 2014 and 2019 were imprisoned on charges of “terrorism” and replaced by kayyums. The first action of many of these kayyums was to remove the Kurdish name of the town from the municipal government sign. This was followed by the closure – without explanation – of municipally funded community facilities, including women’s centres offering support to victims of domestic violence, crèches and cultural centres.

Turkey’s history of state terror

The assault on the HDP is only the latest iteration of a decades-long campaign of violence and persecution against the Kurdish freedom movement, and progressive movements in Turkey in general. The government’s efforts to criminalise the HDP and the popular opposition amount to a move from authoritarianism to fascism.

For decades, the Turkish state has used the existence of the PKK as a pretext for repression of the Kurdish community as a whole, and of anyone who supports their struggle for basic rights within Turkey.

While the PKK undeniably represents the militant wing of the Kurdish movement, it should not be forgotten that its insurgency against the Turkish military started in 1984, following the 1980 military coup that harshly criminalised all democratic forms of opposition, including Leftist and Kurdish organisations, student groups and labour unions.

As a result of the coup, many of the founders and early sympathisers of the PKK were imprisoned in the infamous Diyarbarkir Prison in south-eastern Turkey, and experienced long sentences and dehumanising forms of torture.

The government’s efforts to criminalise the HDP and the popular opposition is a move from authoritarianism to fascism

The Turkish state criminalised the whole Kurdish region after the coup, even banning the Kurdish language. These measures intensified with the PKK insurgency, and in 1987 a state of emergency was declared, which the government used to exert extreme powers over civilian life in the region. Military and paramilitary forces dramatically increased, checkpoints were established around towns and villages, and people were deprived of their most basic rights.

Repression and torture in villages, murders, imprisonment, torture in police headquarters, military checkpoints, food embargoes, forced evacuations and burnings of villages and forests became common practices against the Kurdish population of Turkey in the 1990s. This state terror against civilians and the forced displacement of two million Kurdish residents made the insurgency inevitable, because any other method of struggle for Kurdish civil and political rights was not possible within the borders of Turkey at that time.

Everyone is a terrorist

During the 1990s, Turkey used charges of “terrorism” as a tactic to criminalise the legitimate struggle of an entire people to win self-determination and human rights from a state that would not even acknowledge their existence. Human rights lawyers, activists and journalists were particularly targeted; some were tortured to death, others were imprisoned on charges of being a “front” for the “terrorist” PKK.

The same discourse is used against the HDP today. It should be understood not as a factual accusation, but as a public message that anyone who supports the rights of the Kurdish people will be treated as an enemy of the state.

Such tactics have been used by the Turkish state against Kurdish progressives and the parties that represent them since the founding in 1990 of the HDP’s first predecessor party, the People’s Labour Party (HEP), which was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court in 1993.

Since then, seven consequent pro-Kurdish parties have been banned under the same label of “terrorism”. The HDP is the eighth party to face false accusations and demands that it should be permanently banned.

With many of HDP’s parliamentarians, local mayors, officials and party members already imprisoned, and with its power hijacked by kayyum governance in most of the Kurdish region, the situation resembles the state of emergency rule of the 1990s.

Criminalising Kurdish, Leftist and feminist opposition

President Erdoğan and the AKP are particularly threatened by the HDP, not only because of its electoral success, but because of its association with the Kurdish freedom movement, the growing alliance between Kurds and the Turkish Left and counterculture, and the inspiring achievement of democratic autonomy in Rojava/northern Syria. Taken together, these developments represent a threat to Erdoğan’s ultra-nationalist agenda and his ruling party’s grip on power.

Since 2016, the AKP has moved to consolidate its power through a formal alliance with the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), as well as its monopolisation of the media and repression of popular movements – not only the Kurdish freedom movement, but also movements of women, students, workers and the LGBTQ community – who together make up much of the HDP’s popular base.

The HDP’s feminist co-leader system and its steadfast advocacy for the rights of women are a particular threat to the AKP's chauvinist far-Right agenda. On 20 March, just days after the proceedings against the HDP, Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (an international treaty for the protection of women).

In this context, the attempt to ban the HDP clearly represents an attack on the last hope for a popular democratic front against fascism in Turkey, and for a return to peace negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state.

Far from recognising the agency of the Kurdish freedom movement and setting the conditions for a rightful peace (including freedom for the long-imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan), Turkey’s attempt to criminalise a legal political party elected by the votes of more than six million people shuts down any hopes for democratisation.

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