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Is Erdoğan preparing for a snap election after starting a new war on Kurds?

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When Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost his governing majority in the June 2015 elections for the first time since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, he reignited a war against the Kurds in the country.

He ended a peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that waged a three-decade-long war in southeastern Turkey, and the Turkish state.

His move came after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) passed the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament under the co-leadership of Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ.

The pro-Kurdish party received massive support in the elections from the voters, including leftist and liberal Turks living in the west. Becoming the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament, the HDP even overtook the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

With the political support of the MHP, Erdoğan and his AKP blockaded several cities in southeastern Turkey and imposed a curfew on the region.

The ruling party and its ally the MHP accused the HDP of supporting the PKK and demonized Kurdish politicians in mass media propaganda.

The operation came one month before a snap election in November 2015 that returned to Erdoğan almost 9 percent of the votes he had lost four months earlier, garnering 49.8 percent of the vote with the help of a nationalist wave among the public simultaneous with the police operation.

Almost a year later, following an abortive coup in 2016, Erdoğan put Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, the former co-chairs of the HDP, behind bars.

They are still in prison on terrorism charges, despite a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that found Turkey guilty of violating the politicians’ rights.

Thus, according to some critics, Turkey’s strongman has cleared from his path a strong and popular opposition leader to ensure his survival as ruler until the 2023 elections.

However, Turkey welcomed the new year with debates over a possible snap election at a time when the Turkish economy is suffering from inflation and the AKP-MHP alliance is bleeding out, with support below 40 percent, according to a recent survey.

Even if Erdoğan had on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of early elections, it would be no surprise if he sought a snap election before 2023, considering his loss of support. According to some politicians and analysts, he might need to consolidate his power with a fresh election before it’s too late.

Leader of the nationalist opposition IYI (Good) Party Meral Akşener claimed in January that the AKP was preparing for early elections that might take place in June 2021.

Ali Babacan, a former Erdoğan minister and leader of the new opposition DEVA party, said during an online meeting organized by the UK-based Democratic Progress Institute that Erdoğan could consider going for an early election in a bid to extend his presidency.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Erdoğan, as the one-man ruler of the country, could announce a snap election at any time.

“Supposedly, only parliament can make a decision to hold early elections; however, since there is a one-man rule in Turkey, if Erdoğan says, ‘We are going to early elections,’ AKP and MHP lawmakers will vote for it [in parliament].”

Some analysts say he will pursue the early election option only if he believes it would ensure his party’s majority in parliament. To do that, he might need another nationalist wave in the country to stay in power as he did in 2015.

There are signs of the creation of such an atmosphere, especially after Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar paid a two-day visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan earlier this month, meeting with senior Iraqi and Kurdish officials.

Turkey is closely following developments in Iraq’s Sinjar district, the Turkish defense minister said, stressing that Ankara is ready to support clearing PKK militants from the region.

Turkey may conduct a joint counterterrorism operation with Iraq to clear the PKK out of Sinjar, President Erdoğan said on Friday.

“But we cannot openly announce the date for such an operation,” he added.

Turkey launched a military operation in 2019 to eliminate the People’s Protection Units (YPG,) a US-backed group fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from northern Syria east of the Euphrates to “secure its borders.”

Turkey’s military intervention in Syria targeting the YPG, a group that Ankara accuses of being an extension of the PKK, was about domestic policy, according to James Jeffrey, the State Department’s former special representative for Syria.

Speaking to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Turkish service on Tuesday, Jeffrey said, “We need to wait and see if Turkey will start a military operation in Sinjar.”

Ankara is seemingly intensifying its military operations against the Kurdish insurgent group in the country, too.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu vowed on Wednesday to launch extensive operations targeting the insurgent group.

“Our operations are continuing; we will find them [in their caves] and destroy them,” he said.

While police operations also continue targeting the HDP and its members, banning the pro-Kurdish party is also on the table. President Erdoğan’s top deputies and allies called for a ban after a raid on the HDP’s offices on Wednesday.

Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun published a video allegedly showing pictures in an HDP office in Istanbul of Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the PKK. He tweeted that the video “showed fresh proof” of the HDP’s ties to the militant group.

The HDP denies any links to terrorism. Erdoğan’s government intensified operations on the party after its support for the main opposition during the local elections of 2019 was crucial in defeating the AKP in big cities.

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli also urged judicial authorities to ban the HDP over links to the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

“Opposing the closure of the HDP means undermining justice and the fight against terrorism,” Bahçeli said on Tuesday.

Turkey has banned several pro-Kurdish parties in past decades; however, Kurdish politicians have always come up with a new one. Kurds make up some 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 83 million.

Turkey has removed 146 mayors from Kurdish parties in four years, according to an HDP report. Several HDP mayors and politicians have been arrested on terrorism charges.

Nationalist opposition leader Akşener criticized the government for talking about but not acting on the closure of the HDP, which signals that her party might support banning the pro-Kurdish party.

“They keep whining that ‘the HDP should be shut down,’ but they don’t take any steps to do that,” she said on Wednesday.

Ayhan Bilgen, a former HDP co-mayor who has been in jail since October along with 16 other party officials, told BBC Türkçe that operations targeting HDP members are aimed at laying the legal groundwork to prevent the party from participating in elections.

According to Ali Bayramoğlu, a veteran writer on the Kurdish issue, the opposition parties, including the IYI Party, should abandon their anti-Kurdish rhetoric and ally themselves with the HDP for a democratic solution.

We don’t know yet if Erdoğan is looking for an opportunity to announce a snap election this year, but it’s clear that his AKP and nationalist allies have put a lot of effort into coming up with a series of new police and military operations on Kurds, both domestically and abroad.

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