Erdoğan’s Final Assault on HDP: Victory or Boomerang?
Mariano Giustino 30 March 2021

On March 17th a dark page in Turkey’s history of human rights was written due to two disquieting events: a request to close down the HDP, now being assessed by the Constitutional Court, and the depriving of the parliamentary seat of Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, one of the most important human rights activists in the country and already the victim of persecution after the 2016 attempted coup.

It seems like a modern version of the ancient dream there was at the dawn of the republic of a “Turkey without Kurds”. In reality this concept should be extended to all minorities.


Wel-rooted temptation

The first republican Constitution dated 1924 (Teşkilat-i Esasiye Kanunu) established that citizens were ‘Turkish’ with no distinction of religion or race “considering the commonality of the homeland” (Article 88).

In truth, the religious factor was to continue to be an essential aspect of the issue involving minorities in the entire Near East. Minorities, especially those excluded from the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24th, 1923), found themselves therefore banned and denied, obliged to hide their own un-Turkified identity, their own language in schools, in the media and, more in general, in state institutions.

Generally speaking, all minorities were subject to homogenising policies imposed from above by the dominant Turkish-speaking group, and all Anatolian populations were obliged to adopt the language, the culture, the religion, etc.

In this sense, school books are still nowadays written so as to present negative stereotypes as far as minorities are concerned, in a manner that is powerfully discriminatory.

There is a tendency to abolish differences in the name of a strong Turkishisation and Sunnization with the watchwords of Tekçılık, and hence Tek Devlet (one single state); Tek Vatan (one single homeland); Tek Millet (one single nation); Tek Bayrak (one single flag).

These are the four main cornerstones that inspire Turkish nationalism and that have been adopted by President Erdoğan, who started his political career as a conservative with an Islamist identity, but who over recent years, with the objective of winning the approval of the MHP’s nationalist Right, has begun to use powerfully nationalist rhetoric.

The president has done nothing but re-adapt these slogans to underline something different. It is no coincidence that these four key expressions of Turkish nationalism are represented by his use of the Rabia salute (a four-fingered hand gesture adopted by Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was bloodily repressed in the July 3rd 2013 coup in Egypt).

And so when he says ‘Millet’, which means nation, he really means the ‘ummah’, hence the Islamic community in its entirety. Therefore, even if he does not say this explicitly, his rhetoric is permeated with Islamic elements. For this reason, this mixture of nationalism and Islamism represents a highly divisive problem since the Turkish Constitution, even in its very first articles, speaks of secularism and the rule of law.


Autobiographical traces

Why does Erdoğan accept the risk of going down in history as the head of a government that closes political parties just like the Kemalist and coupist ones did throughout Republican history with Islamist parties?

Why does he allow opponents to go to jail and be banned from political life for at least five years as he was?

The head of state came to power in 2002 promising to put an end to such undemocratic practices.

Erdoğan’s rise in Turkish politics began in 1994 when he was elected mayor of İstanbul, but a major turning point was his imprisonment for reciting lines from a poem by Ziya Gökalp at a rally in Siirt in 1997. Gökalp was a great early 20th century nationalist poet, the main ideologue of the Young Turks movement and early Kemalism.

The poem read by Erdoğan, entitled Aşker Duası (A soldier’s prayer), had been written during the Balkan Wars to praise Ottoman soldiers at the front.

To be fair, Erdoğan added lines to Gökalp’s poem with strong Islamist overtones that were not present in the Turkish poet’s original work. The offending lines read: ‘Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers’. Erdoğan was found guilty of “inciting religious hatred” and sentenced to ten months in prison, later reduced to four. His conviction did not damage Erdoğan’s reputation, as his accusers had hoped. On the contrary, it strengthened his image as a ‘man of the people’, persecuted by the Kemalist ruling class with specious accusations.

Erdoğan was therefore removed from his position as mayor and his deputy replaced him temporarily.

In prison, he was known as “Şiir okuyan adam” (“The man who reads poetry”) and this paved the way for the founding of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its rise to power.

More recently Erdoğan’s party was subject to an attempt to close it down, when, on 14 March 14th, 2008, the Supreme Court of Appeal asked the High Court to close down the AKP.


Too Right

This Erdoğan now belongs to another time.

Nowadays the Turkish leader is seeing his support dwindling month after month and, as is well known, since 2018 does not have an absolute majority in Parliament and therefore needs his precious far-right ally to whom he has offered the head of the HDP on a silver platter. This is a condition, in fact, imposed on the Turkish president by the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Bahçeli now seems to be Turkey’s “shadow leader” after having “trapped” Erdoğan in a corner with business-political power groups that are corrupt and close to right-wing-nationalist extremist ideologues such as the Grey Wolves, with ideological bases in the Panturan, xenophobic and anti-Western extreme right.

The Turkish leader appears to be increasingly in disarray, experiencing problems caused above all by the serious economic crisis that Turkey is experiencing.

Worn down and weakened by eighteen years in power, he is now also grappling with internal feuds within his own party, which has already experienced two rifts caused by the departure of historic and founding leaders and no longer seems able to conceive and dictate its own agenda and strategies.

This is why he relies not only on the MHP but also on the small anti-NATO party, Vatan Partisi (The Patriotic Party) as well as sectors of extreme nationalism, hence on Islamists and Eurasists who look to Russia and China. These are all movements that, albeit marginal in electoral terms, have a significant influence on Turkish society since, after the 2016 attempted coup, they have returned to occupy important positions in the Armed Forces in particular and control vital elements in the country’s institutions.

Erdoğan seems convinced together with his ally Bahçeli, that he will succeed it stopping this loss of consensus by cultivating electors from the extreme nationalist Right and the more radical Islamists, as well as by eliminating the more insidious opposition party from the political and electoral stage.


Outright political persecution

Should the HDP be closed down, it would be the eighth pro-Kurdish party to be banned for its alleged involvement in “terrorist” activities.

The power to close down a political party lies with the Constitutional Court, which must decide with a two-thirds majority.

Since it was created in 1963, the High Court has closed down 26 parties, but prior to its establishment, 18 political parties had already been closed by military courts and others on the basis of decisions made by the Council of Ministers and local courts.

But closing down the HDP and arresting its MPs and leaders could prove to be a suicidal move for the governing alliance as it attempts to free itself from the quicksand into which it is sinking due to a constant loss of consensus, caused mainly by an unprecedented economic crisis that the country has been experiencing since the AKP came to power.

Together with this request to have the HDP declared illegal, there has also been a demand to forbid its 687 members from exercising political activities and the police immediately raided their headquarters in cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Eskişehir and Adana.

This is an attempt to prevent HDP leaders who are still free from forming another political party. The People’s Alliance formed by the AKP and the MHP is in fact aware that the HDP already has another fully operation political party ready, which is the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) therefore ready to run in the elections.

The Kurds are accustomed to being outlawed and have always known that when their presence became troublesome for the regime, the latter would close their party as had already happened seven times.

So when they set up a political organisation, they simultaneously opened a reserve one too, because the law on political parties in Turkey requires that a political force must have open and registered offices in at least 41 provinces, hence in most of the country.

And banning from political life 687 leaders of this party is aimed precisely at preventing the possibility that there may be political exponents still free and ready to move to the new political movement.

We are faced here with real political persecution, because the HDP is an environmentalist Left-wing party, which pays particular attention to human, social and political rights and well as to ethnic and religious minorities, women’s and LGBTI rights.

It was created with the intention of extending its influence beyond the narrow confines of Kurdish-majority south-east Anatolia. Therefore, no longer just a regional movement but one able to gather consensus all over the country, uniting the Turkish Left that had been disappointed by the traditional parties.

Its Kurdish leader and founder, Selahattin Demirtaş, embarked on an operation of revolutionary importance, unimaginable in Turkey until a few years earlier, which was that of bringing the entire galaxy of the Kurdish and human rights movement into the arena of civil and peaceful political struggle.

Demirtaş is already paying a high price for this change and has been in prison since November 4th, 2016, locked up in the high security Edirne detention centre in an F type cell, in spite of the CEDU’s dogmatic sentence requesting his immediate release since his detention is based on clearly political reasons.

The Kurdish leader is now facing charges of ‘propaganda and membership of a terrorist organisation’ under the Turkish Penal Code’s (TCK) notorious anti-terrorism law, accused of ‘praising the PKK and its founder Abdullah Öcalan’ 93 times during his rallies.

Ever since it was founded in October 2012, the HDP has represented a high-risk factor for the AKP in achieving an absolute majority in parliament in elections held since then. As a result, the HDP has seen its leadership decimated with thirteen MPs arrested, more than a hundred mayors removed from power, many of whom have ended up behind bars together with over twenty thousand leaders and militants. A case has now also been brought against nine other HDP MPs, including co-chairwoman Pervin Buldan, who all risk losing their parliamentary immunity and ending up in prison.

The HDP’s current chairman, Mithat Sancar, has described repression against his party as a “political coup d’état”, similar to the one that took place on March 2nd, 1994, when Kurdish MPs elected as Social Democratic Party (SHP) representatives lost their parliamentary status and were arrested. These MPs included Leyla Zana – winner of the 1995 Sakharov Prize – for having sworn an oath in parliament in Kurdish, and Ahmet Türk, a charismatic figure in the Kurdish movement. The police at the time had entered parliament and arrested them.

A political coup, as Sancar says, like the one dated November 4th, 2016, when the HDP’s co-chairpeople and MPs were arrested.


A risky strategy

In spite of that, however, it could be difficult for Erdoğan to emerge as the winner should early elections be held.

This time, in fact, the criminalisation and repression of the HDP’s political representatives is not gaining support beyond the narrow circle of the governing alliance.

While a large majority of Bahçeli’s anti-Kurdish party supports the abolition of the HDP, there is widespread dissent in Erdoğan’s AKP and, outside this camp, where this practice borrowed from past regimes is almost unanimously condemned.

In addition to the largest opposition party, they are also opposed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu; Meral Akşener, his ally with the İYİ Parti (The Good Party), the leader of the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi), led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu; the leader of the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), formed by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan; and the leader of the small Islamist party, Saadet Partisi, created by Temel Karamollaoğlu.

The former head of state Abdullah Gül, founder of the AKP together with Erdoğan, but who has now left the part and is the man who inspired DEVA also opposes this move.

If the HDP were to be shut down, it could create a scenario similar to the one witnessed in the March 31st, 2019, local elections when Erdoğan’s party suffered a stinging defeat in all the country’s major urban centres thanks in part to a clever and effective electoral alliance between the CHP and the İYİ Party. This saw the HDP practice “desistance” by refraining from presenting its own candidates in major urban centres, diverting all its voters to the People’s Republican Party. To Erdoğan’s disillusion, such desistance may well turn out to be a trump card if also implemented in Southeast Anatolia.


Cover Photo: Supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) cheer during a gathering to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year – Istanbul, March 20, 2021 (Yasin AKGUL / AFP).

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