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Erdoğan’s escalating crackdown on Kurds amid looming elections

Bünyamin Tekin

“Why did we get involved in this if it had no benefit for us?” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly asked as he watched opinion polls leading up to the June 2015 general election. The polls indicated that the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was increasing its voter share, negatively impacting Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

By “this,” Erdoğan was referring to settlement efforts between his AKP government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leadership to resolve Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish issue, a term prevalent in the country’s public discourse that encompasses the struggle for equal rights and recognition by the country’s Kurdish population. Since 1984, the conflict between Turkey and PKK has resulted in over 40,000 deaths.

Talks began in 2012, leading to a near-silencing of arms for three years and culminating in the Dolmabahçe Agreement in February 2015. The agreement outlined a 10-item priority list for resolving the Kurdish issue. Despite the ongoing talks, then-HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş fiercely opposed Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and aimed to prevent him from consolidating executive powers.

The June 2015 elections saw the AKP lose its parliamentary majority, prompting Erdoğan to declare an end to the settlement process. The Dolmabahçe agreement was no more.

The president turned to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as an ally. Together, they increased the crackdown on Kurds, which has persisted for nearly eight years.

Demirtaş and other HDP lawmakers were imprisoned after a failed coup in 2016. He remains behind bars as of 2023, despite European Court of Human Rights rulings ordering his release.

Erdoğan occasionally reached out to Kurds when he needed their support. However, the 2019 local elections demonstrated that he would need to make significant concessions to regain their support, as symbolic overtures proved insufficient.

As another election approaches, Erdoğan faces a critical moment due to an economic crisis and inflation.

While his main election rival, Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is reaching out to Kurds, the president seems to have decided to escalate his crackdown.

On Tuesday Turkey detained 126 people across 21 provinces in a “counterterrorism” operation, targeting individuals it says “are suspected of supporting the PKK.” The detainees include HDP politicians, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists.

As the second-largest opposition party in parliament, the HDP is considered a kingmaker in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14. Critics argue that the recent operation was politically motivated to intimidate voters before the elections.

Journalist Amed Dicle claimed on Monday that AKP emissaries were sent to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan but were rebuffed. Sending messages from prison, Demirtaş quoted Dicle’s claims on Twitter, stating, “What do you think Erdoğan wanted by sending a delegation to İmralı [the island where Öcalan is held]? When he couldn’t get what he wanted, he started accusing us of collaborating with ‘terrorism’ again. I leave it to you to decide about this hypocrisy.”

Erdoğan’s transactional mentality, reminiscent of a certain former US president, may have come to a dead end as he appears to have exhausted his options. Ultimately, it seems he is left with only a stick, as the carrot has vanished.

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