Saturday, May 21

Turkey: the rise and fall of the Kurdish party that threatened Erdogan | Turkey

It has been a lonely year for Adalet Fidan, mayor of Silopi, in southeastern Kurdish Turkey, and not just because of the pandemic.

In 2019, when she was elected, Fidan was among a strong cohort of 65 candidates from the left-wing pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) to win seats in national local elections. Now, after a sustained purge of HDP officials by the government, she is one of only five HDP mayors left in office, the rest fired or jailed and replaced by government appointees.

“It is a lot of pressure and responsibility. Every day I wake up and I worry that it will happen to me too: I think, ‘Today is my turn,’ “he said.

“The law does not mean anything here. I could be kicked out of my job or sent to jail on fabricated terrorism charges or false witnesses. Anything could happen.”

Turkey’s judicial system has been used as a weapon throughout the country’s turbulent history to advance or hinder different political agendas, but as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated his grip on power, critics say state repression against the opposition is unprecedented. For HDP, the party that has posed the most significant threat to Erdogan’s power, the retaliation has been brutal.

The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“I have been a lawyer since the military coup of 1980 and I have not seen such ruthless behavior as the current AKP [Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party] government in all those years, ”said Hasip Kaplan, a prominent Kurdish lawyer, politician and author from Şırnak.

“At the time of the previous coups, we could at least defend our clients in court. Today, there is a government seeking control of independent bar associations, inexperienced judges appointed to the higher courts. These are difficult days. “

Not long ago, the future of HDP still looked bright. Formed from an alliance of leftists and Kurdish nationalists in 2012, the party is often compared to the Green Party movements and European democratic socialist parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. A parallel is also drawn with Sinn Féin, due to its historical association with the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In just a few years, the HDP delivered on its promise to appeal to a broad spectrum of Turkish society, rather than just a Kurdish voter base, rising to prominence during the Gezi Park protests against the increasingly authoritarian leadership of the AKP. to become the third largest political party in the country.

In the 2015 national elections, the HDP dealt a severe blow to the AKP by winning enough seats to break the 10% electoral threshold that has traditionally kept small parties and Kurdish politicians out of parliament, in the process destroying most of the ruling party. However, the euphoria was short-lived.

To undo the HDP’s success, the government withdrew from peace talks with the PKK, plunging most of southeastern Kurdish Turkey into renewed violence, and began arresting HDP politicians and supporters for alleged links to the group. militant. When the elections were rerun at the end of the year, they yielded a result much more to Erdogan’s liking.

The charismatic former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş was arrested the following year and faces a sentence of up to 142 years in prison despite an order from the European human rights court that Turkey must release him.

Effectively blacklisted by Turkish media, for the past five years the HDP has struggled to maintain momentum in an increasingly hostile environment. According to Kaplan, around 16,000 party members have been arrested or detained, many of them under the conditions of the state of emergency declared after the failed 2016 coup.

For Ayhan Bilgen, who served as HDP mayor of the north-eastern city of Kars until September, the police knocking on the door one morning came as no surprise. He was cheered by supporters who had gathered in front of his home when they put him in a police car, and he has since been arrested, charged with terrorism-related offenses for his alleged role in instigating ethnic protests that turned violent. in 2014.

Selahattin demirtaş
Europe’s highest human rights court has asked Turkey to release pro-Kurdish HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş. Photograph: Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

The unwillingness of the state to deal with the Kurdish issue only strengthens the resolve of people fighting for representation, Bilgen wrote from prison. “The steps that pave the way to real democracy are difficult. But for Turkey it is crucial to overcome this political deadlock, ”he said through his lawyer.

There are still glimpses of hope. Voters defied the president’s will during a repeat of the Istanbul mayoral elections last summer when the HDP informally gave its support to the largest opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), awarding its candidate a definitive victory. .

The result was celebrated not only because it showed that even after 16 years, Erdogan’s control over Turkey is not complete, but because it marked the first time that the nationalist, liberal and pro-Kurdish elements of Turkey’s opposition have managed to work together. effectively.

Since then, the HDP has suffered the brunt of mounting repression. Erdogan seems to think that instead of banning the party entirely, keeping it within the legitimate political spectrum may help him thwart the opposition’s attempts at a united front – a cross-border offensive against Syrian PKK affiliates in October last year, for For example, it was supported by the CHP, enraging HDP MPs who voted against it.

The newly formed Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which registered in the unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir earlier this month, is believed to be funded by pro-government sources in an effort to siphon off conservative Kurdish votes.

“The government’s tactic of not banning the HDP is still sensible, but I think instinct will override tactical thinking at some point,” said Selim Koru, an analyst at the Turkish economic policy think tank Tepav.

“It is almost impossible to carry out competitive elections in Turkey … and if the HDP shows signs of putting up a real fight, the government will act to prevent it.”

Turkey will not hold general elections until 2023; Despite the country’s economic woes, exacerbated by the pandemic, Erdogan continues to do strong polls, and a recent Metropoll poll found that 29% of Kurds would vote for the ruling AKP, compared to 32% for the HDP.

However, there remains a stubborn bloc of about 10% of Turks, mostly Kurds, who will stick with the HDP, posing a looming problem for the AKP in the future as the party’s margins begin to shrink. slowly. The HDP may be inactive, but it is not.

“We always knew that this job would be difficult. But we also know that we have the people behind us, ”said Fidan, one of the last HDP mayors who is still in office. “That gives us the courage to keep fighting.”

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