Why now? The timing of the closure case against the HDP

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Cevheri Güven

For the last two years, the shutdown of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been anticipated. The question was when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would set the executive-controlled judiciary in motion towards that end.

In the summer of 2020 Erdoğan appointed Bekir Şahin, the fourth candidate on the list of nominees, as the chief prosecutor for the Supreme Court of Appeals, which was interpreted as his preparation for a case against the pro-Kurdish party. Şahin is a graduate of one of Turkey’s religious imam-hatip high schools, just like Erdoğan himself.

In addition to Şahin, Erdoğan also appointed Mehmet Akarca, a fellow townsman of first lady Emine Erdoğan and the uncle of his favorite businessman, Ethem Sancak, as president of the Supreme Court of Appeals.

With the redesign of the top appeals court, the countdown for the HDP had begun. The announcement came a day before the convention of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdoğan’s ruling partner. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP who for months had been calling for a shutdown of the HDP, went into the convention with Erdoğan’s “gift.” He ran uncontested and he was re-elected as the chairman.

In a written statement on Jan. 11 Bahçeli had demanded that the Supreme Court of Appeals swiftly launch a closure case against the HDP, vowing to file an application to that end on behalf of the MHP if the court had failed to do so.

The Homeland Party (VP), a fringe ultranationalist movement led by Doğu Perinçek, who supports Erdoğan’s crackdown on Kurdish politics, had also repeatedly called for shutting down the HDP in the past. The party has filed four applications over the past two years.

The week of conventions

While the VP’s complaints were put on hold, Erdoğan chose the period between March 18 and 24 that some have called the “week of party conventions.”

On March 18 the MHP held its convention. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is scheduled to hold its on March 24. The move to close the HDP was announced on March 17. Yet this was not Erdoğan’s only gift to the MHP.

On Wednesday morning the parliament expelled HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, who is known for his adamant and outspoken denunciation of human rights abuses, to the annoyance of the MHP as well as the nationalist networks that dominate the state and the police structures. Gergerlioğlu documented dozens of incidents of torture against alleged members of the Gülen movement, which the government blames for a coup attempt in July 2016, as well as Kurdish and leftist political activists in police custody.

Most recently Gergerlioğlu revealed the arbitrary strip-searches carried out on female political prisoners and detainees, which turned him into an open target.

Expectation for a cabinet reshuffle

Erdoğan is expected to introduce significant changes in the party administration and his cabinet during his party convention.

The case against the HDP is a perpetuation of a long-standing tradition of the Turkish state to engage in a show of force by cracking down on the Kurdish political movement. The closure case could be interpreted as Erdoğan’s message to the party convention that he still holds the reins of power in the state, as neither his outlandish promise to send a rocket to the surface of the moon as part of a space program nor his successive reform packages in 2021 has attracted the attention he was shooting for from the public or among his voter base.

A precursor of a snap election?

Another of Erdoğan’s goals with the case against the HDP is to mobilize the nationalist vote, which his alliance with the MHP has been losing to the breakaway Good (İyi) Party. Led by Meral Akşener, the party has been polling at around 14 percent and is arguably the party that could cause the most trouble for Erdoğan’s rule in the event of a snap election. Akşener herself had stated last June that she was expecting a snap election.

The HDP, with its voter base of about 10 percent, is key in a potential presidential election. Instead of shutting down the party entirely, Erdoğan could go for suppressing it with the closure case, keeping it distracted from motivating the Kurdish electorate for the polls.

Already in a financial bottleneck, the HDP could be paralyzed by being cut off from treasury aid in line with the chief prosecutor’s demand, which could render election campaigns practically impossible. Disillusionment of the party’s voters and a diminishment of their participation in elections could pave the way for Erdoğan’s re-election as president.

A cut in funds and a politics ban on some key figures instead of a total shutdown could also serve to relieve Erdoğan vis-à-vis the criticism from Brussels and Washington as the HDP’s closure would potentially add new strains to Turkey’s already troubled relations with its traditional Western allies.

In sum, it could be said that Erdoğan in the short term needs the case for shutdown rather than the shutdown itself.

Reciprocation from Bahçeli

The case against the HDP also appears to have eliminated some of the issues troubling the AKP’s alliance with the MHP. Bahçeli in his speech at the party convention emphasized his support for Erdoğan.

“Our choice for the 2023 presidential election is clear. The name is the venerable Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” Bahçeli said.

Bahçeli also expressed his continuing support for the presidential system of governance, which Turkey adopted through a referendum spearheaded by the AKP and the MHP in 2017, ruling out the idea of reverting to a strengthened parliamentary system that the opposition has been advocating for.

The case against the HDP

On Wednesday chief prosecutor Şahin asked the Constitutional Court to shut down the HDP, alleging that the politicians of the pro-Kurdish party with their remarks and acts were seeking to “destroy and annihilate the state’s indivisible integrity.”

The indictment also requested a ban from politics for some 600 party members, including current co-chairs Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar as well as jailed former co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. The prosecutor demanded the seizure of the party’s assets as well as a cutting off of treasury aid.

The indictment expressed the view that there was no distinction between the party and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group in Turkey, the US and the EU.

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