What will Turkey’s nationalist actors do with the HDP and the ‘Kurdish Issue’?

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Alin Ozinian

Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of Turkey’s extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), called for the closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on Dec. 17, urging the passage of legislation to facilitate the move.

“The HDP should be permanently shut down. We must pass a constitutional amendment or amend the Political Parties Law or the Turkish Penal Code [TCK] to stop this ‘bleeding wound’,” Bahçeli said, adding, “A party that references ethnic division and terror should not be allowed to exist.”

Bahçeli, also a key ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has repeatedly called for outlawing the pro-Kurdish party in recent days. “The HDP is a terror problem, a home for separatism and a sinister weapon aimed at destroying our democratic security ,” Bahçeli tweeted on Dec. 11.

Targeting the third largest party in parliament, which is already the victim of a widespread crackdown by the government, Bahçeli said, “Turkish politics has no more capacity to tolerate the HDP.” It is important to note that he was responding to a recent call for amnesty for political prisoners on Human Rights Day.

Turkish Minute spoke with Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at the University of Athens, who believes Turkish public opinion, for the most part, is anti-Kurdish – just as it’s anti-Christian, anti-Alevi, anti-everyone who is not Sunni Turk. “The public has historically been ready to hear and accept anti-Kurdish propaganda. As for the HDP, the party is under significant pressure, and I’m not sure whether its constituency understands its insistence on remaining in the Turkish parliament. Staying in parliament  is totally pointless,” said Aktar.

HDP spokeswoman Günay Kubilay accused the ultranationalist MHP-AKP alliance led by Erdoğan of perpetrating a political massacre on the party, noting that 16,490 HDP members — including party leaders, parliamentarians and prominent party officials — have been arrested. “They are holding the HDP members hostage,” Kubilay said.

The People’s Alliance is an electoral alliance established in February 2018 between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition MHP. The aim of the alliance was the re-election of President Erdoğan, and it gained support from other small political parties, such as the Grand Unity Party (BBP) and the Patriotic Party (VATAN).

“As for Turkey per se, at the end of the day, the MHP is the junior partner in the ‘coalition’ and has the last word. The regime, nevertheless, is keen on keeping the conservative Kurdish vote. This is probably why we hear, here and there, conciliatory declarations addressing this group but never the Kurdish political movement,” said Aktar.

However, ultranationalist leader Bahçeli’s statements came after the HDP refused to be a part of joint declaration that condemned the US imposition of sanctions on Turkey’s defense procurement agency over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Although the declaration gained the support of other Turkish political parties, the HDP stated that “Erdoğan’s attitude towards the US is inconsistent and unsustainable. Washington warned the government repeatedly, and now, the AKP should accept the results.”

Turkish Minute spoke with Yektan Türkyılmaz, a research fellow at the Forum for Transregional Studies in Berlin, who says there is not a significant difference between the AKP and the MHP when it comes to Kurdish policy. “I don’t think this ‘dogfighting’ over the Kurdish issue between the two sides is about their approach to the Kurds or how to handle the problem. It’s a power game between the two major actors. They both agree that any political power that supports Kurds’ rights should not be allowed to participate in Turkish political life. In practice, the two parties are acting in the same pragmatic way,” he said.

In 2018 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) urged Turkey to quickly conclude the legal case of the former head of the pro-Kurdish opposition, saying his pre-trial detention had gone on longer than could be justified.

Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chairman of the HDP, was arrested in November 2016 on terrorism-related charges because of a speech he gave in 2013. Erdoğan and his allies accuse the HDP of having ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the HDP denies any direct links. Demirtaş remains in prison facing several more terrorism-related charges, mostly for other speeches he gave, that could see him sentenced to up to 142 years in prison if found guilty.

In September President Erdoğan made public that his government would move forward with reforms to the country’s judicial system, “We are making preparations for new reforms to strengthen democracy. We are preparing a comprehensive human rights action plan. We are committed to ensuring a simple and effective operation in civil proceedings,” Erdoğan said at a ceremony for the opening of the new judicial year.

However, on Dec. 9 Erdoğan said he believed the planned judicial reforms would not protect Demirtaş. “It is not for me to intervene in the business of the judiciary, but we are not going to protect the so-called rights of a terrorist like Selahattin Demirtaş,” he said.

Demirtaş’s lawyers and human rights activists in Turkey are demanding the politician’s immediate release, saying, “Every second Demirtaş remains jailed is a restriction on freedom.”

Dr. Türkyılmaz is concerned that these allegations and calls by the People’s Alliance put Kurds at great risk. “We can’t just take these statements as rhetorical words. Maybe they are rhetorical, but we should keep in mind that rhetoric often creates its own reality,” he said.

According to Türkyılmaz, people should not underestimate the danger created by the Turkish government. “As a genocide scholar, I say that recent statements by the MHP and Erdoğan are the bottom line of the denial regarding Kurds and their rights. In fact, these are alarming signs, not only for politicians and the Turkish public but also for the world. We do not have substantive evidence, so I don’t want to say this is a step towards genocide, but on the other hand, bearing in mind the bloody record of late Ottoman and modern Turkish history, we all should be on alert,” he added.

Immediately after Bahçeli’s hate-filled tweets, MHP Deputy Chairman Semih Yalçın made a similar statement, saying: “The HDP and the PKK are enemies of the people, nature and humanity. They are a horde of political pests that must be eradicated as a whole.”

Responding to these statements the HDP said that despite the attitude of the opposition leaders, they would bring democracy to Turkey. “Those who rely on the government and take shelter in the shade of the presidential palace [of Erdoğan] are the real enemies of the country. … If you would shut your mouths instead of shutting down the HDP, you would be doing a great service for the future of the people,” the HDP tweeted.

“Nobody has the power to close the HDP,” said HDP Co-Chair Pervin Buldan. Social media users also launched #HDPHalktir (the HDP is the people) in solidarity with the pro-Kurdish party.

Erdal Er, a Kurdish journalist who specializes in Kurdish political issues, thinks hate speech towards Kurds and the violation of Kurds’ rights is a deep-rooted tradition of Turkish state policy. According to Er, the MHP is not the only actor that is waiting for the closure of the HDP. To the contrary it is a “shared dream” of various Turkish political groups — and moreover a government project.

“Turkey is not a safe country for people who come from different ethnic and faith groups, not only today but also in the past. The violation of human rights and the annihilation of people started with the Armenian genocide in 1915 and continues with the Kurds. Turkey’s strong desire to destroy the HDP is the result of these monolithic and ultranationalist policies,” Er told Turkish Minute.

In response to the question of whether or not the Erdoğan government can close the HDP, Professor Aktar said: “Anything is possible depending on the tactics of the regime in order to retain power at all costs. If the regime feels it will gain prestige from the closure of the party, then it will go for it. It also depends how much the MHP insists on that outcome as a condition of its partnership with the AKP.”

On the other hand Er thinks that despite all the pressure, Erdoğan and his allies cannot weaken the resolve of HDP supporters and the party’s organized network. “As long as the Kurds and HDP supporters do not abandon their struggle and demand for democracy, justice and freedom, the pro-Erdogan alliance  will not achieve its goals,” he said.

Er believes the MHP and AKP seem to disagree on the closure of the HDP. “Erdogan always makes calculations, he looks at his ‘profit and loss’ and decides accordingly. I think Erdoğan wants the HDP to become dysfunctional rather than closing it down. Demirtaş and his friends are in prison for this reason,” said Er.

MHP chairman Bahçeli described the HDP as a “structure of hatred and betrayal” that is hidden behind democracy, freedom and human rights.

“The statement by Devlet Bahçeli clearly indicates that there is a split, even a rift, in the ‘coalition.’ Bahçeli actually wants to send a message to the AKP by using the HDP. He is apparently attacking the HDP and Demirtaş, but in our opinion this is a sign of an internal conflict,” said HDP Co-chair Buldan  .

Professor Aktar points out that the Erdoğan government has one single policy concerning the Kurds, be they in Turkey or outside the country. “Since the end of the ‘peace process’ in late 2014, the regime has denied all forms of self-governance [e.g., Kurdish mayors in Turkey] in order to exist and sustain itself; has viewed Kurds as sub-human; and has denied the existence of the Kurdish identity.”

The HDP won 65 municipalities in the March 2019 local elections, but a large majority of the HDP’s officials have been ousted from office by the government, with trustees appointed in their place. The party commonly experiences raids on their offices, and dozens of officials and supporters are regularly detained.

Er admits that the government, if not completely but largely, has succeeded in “criminalizing” the HDP. “Erdoğan does not solve the problems but manages the existing problems by leaving them unsolved. We cannot ignore the fact that he always wants ‘enemies’ around him. The HDP’s presence helps him and gives him room to maneuver in a way that appeals to nationalist voters.”

In November Erdoğan vowed to undertake a series of legal reforms in the face of growing political and economic crises in Turkey, raising hopes that prominent political prisoners including former HDP leader Demirtaş, journalist and writer Ahmet Altan and human rights activist Osman Kavala would be released.

Dr. Türkyılmaz thinks the discussions regarding the HDP are not simply efforts to change the political agenda but rather signs of a deepening regime crisis.

“The Kurdish question was and still is a good indicator for us to test the stability of the government. Today, they really don’t know what to do with Kurds and the Kurdish question; one day they speak about reform and the next they want to kill them all. I do believe the government’s efforts at criminalization have been headed off by the HDP. Kurdish politicians’ experience and versatility will help them overcome such a crisis in Turkey. Moreover, we should keep in mind that the HDP will prevail because there is strong grassroots support that keeps the movement alive,” Türkyılmaz said.

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