by Fayik Yağızay
There have been intense discussions regarding the possible closure of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey.
In media organisations close to the Turkish government, lecturers, professors, ‘experts’ and journalists have all shared the view that even more stringent measures should be added to the current pressures that are being exerted on the HDP to prevent it from engaging in politics. Whilst some emphasize that the party should be closed, others argue that punishment of the top executives would make it unable to function. Some suggest that the annual state grants given to all parties should not be given to the HDP and that this would make it incapable of continuing its political life. These discussions have intensified since the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which demanded the release of the former co-chair of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in prison since November 2016.
Even though over five thousand HDP members are in prison – including the party’s co-chairs, members of parliament, mayors and executive members of the board – and many others have had to go into exile, public opinion polls show that support for the HDP has not decreased in Turkey. On the contrary, it is rising! If a few top executives from other parties were prevented from engaging in politics, those parties would not be able to function. Remove President Erdoğan from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and there would be no more AKP. Prevent the 10-15 senior executives from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) from engaging in politics, and the CHP would be unable to continue its political life. But with more than five thousand of its executives and members in prison, the HDP only gets stronger.
For a party to get any representation in the Turkish Parliament, it must receive at least 10% of the overall vote. Discussions are going on over how to bring the HDP down below the 10% threshold. Repression does not only come from the government. Except for some small left-wing parties, opposition parties stay away from the HDP as if they were escaping from the plague. They are afraid of the wrath of the government, but they also have their own histories of anti-Kurdish prejudice. Some, like the government, are discussing dismantling the HDP.
Why is such an approach being shown to the HDP, which, despite all the pressures, has received six million votes and managed to send eighty deputies to parliament, which has become the primary party in many of the provinces where Kurds live, and which is now the third biggest party in the parliament? To find the answer, we need to look at the foundational philosophy of the Turkish Republic.
The Ottoman empire ruled across three continents, but, after its collapse, the Turkish elite managed to establish a state within Turkey’s current borders and were fearful of losing that as well. To try and prevent this, they created a system that was monolithic and assimilationist, and extremely nationalist and repressive and they followed a strategy of Turkifying all other ethnic groups. However, despite massacres, exile and bans on everything Kurdish, they failed to fully assimilate the large Kurdish population.
Despite the nominal transition to a multi-party system in 1946, there was nothing but nationalist politics apart from a brief interlude when the Turkish Labour Party won parliamentary seats in the late sixties, before being shut down. It would be more accurate to say that Turkey did not move to a full multi-party system until 1990 and the foundation of the People’s Labour Party (HEP), which was the ancestor of the HDP.
With the exception of some small leftist parties, Turkish political parties share the same mentality, particularly concerning the Kurds. Thus, the lifting of parliamentary immunity and the imprisonment of many HDP deputies, including the party’s co-chairs, was carried out with the support of the CHP. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu supported the abolition of parliamentary immunities through a constitutional amendment and said that he would not appeal to the constitutional court, even though this was unconstitutional.
When Turkey invaded northern Syria and occupied the region of Afrin, and then Serê Kanîye (Ras al-Ain) and Girê Spî (Tellabyad), displacing the largely Kurdish population and bringing in jihadists to replace them, Erdogan’s government was supported by all the nationalist parties, including the CHP, even though this planned demographic change constitutes a crime against humanity.
The HDP, along with other parties from the same tradition, brought in a system of co-presidency, which is not acknowledged in Turkish legislation. One of the co-chairs should be a man and the other should be woman. If one is a Kurd, the other should be from another ethnic group – for example, a Turk or an Arab. This system is implemented from top to bottom. In municipalities, it takes the form of co-mayorship. Through its gender quotas, the HDP has brought record numbers of women to parliament and municipalities. The HDP aims to have all ethnicities and beliefs living in Turkey represented in the parliament for the first time in history. Under the HDP banner, Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian, Alevi, Sunni and Yazidi representatives have been brought into parliament and given the opportunity to represent their own communities.
The HDP is criticised for practising “ethnic politics”. In fact, the HDP is the only party which does not practise ethnic politics, and, instead, has a policy of representing all peoples living in Turkey. When we look at all the other parties, we see that their politics is based on a dominant Turkish ethnicity.
Because the HDP has been defending the rights of the Kurdish people and seeking a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish Question – the most important issue in Turkish politics – it has become a target of the ethnic-nationalist state. The HDP is accused of separatism because it advocates changing the strict centralised system, which is the cause of many problems, so as to give more initiative to local authorities and because it defends education in the mother tongue. Even the party’s support for environmentalism and for the protection of historic heritage are posed as problematic and used as ‘evidence’ of criminal behaviour.
The HDP also adopts a different stance from Turkey’s other main parties with respect to foreign policy. Unlike the other parties, it uses the international arena to criticise anti-democratic practices carried out by the Turkish Government and it argues that Turkey should abide by the standards of the international organisations to which it is party. For example, in almost all sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly and of the Local and Regional Congress of the Council of Europe, HDP representatives criticise the anti-democratic practices in Turkey. As a result, some representatives have been put in prison and others have been banned from travelling abroad so as to prevent them from attending meetings organised by international institutions.
The HDP is in favour of Turkey’s membership of the EU, which would require Turkey to fulfil the Copenhagen Criteria for accession, including stipulations on democracy and human rights. It believes it will be easier to solve most existing problems within the framework of the European Criteria. The party agrees with the criticisms of Turkey raised in the reports prepared during the accession process but argues that the EU should not be satisfied merely to criticise undemocratic practices. It calls upon the EU to follow its criticisms with action.
In the June 2015 elections, the HDP entered parliament with 13.2% of the votes and 80 deputies, causing Erdoğan to lose the majority he needed to form a government. This was a turning point that ended a brief interlude of hope. Erdoğan ended the peace negotiations that had been ongoing since 2013 and launched a terrible period of violence. Having lost politically, Erdoğan resorted to violence and military strength.
The HDP is exposed to all these pressures because it is the party that provides the most opposition to the current Erdoğan regime and puts it under most pressure. Thanks to HDP tactics in the last local elections in 2019, when it called upon its supporters to vote for CHP candidates in key cities, Erdoğan lost in the major municipalities of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin and Antalya. The HDP has proven its decisive role in Turkish politics by ensuring that Erdoğan lost his power in the June 2015 elections and in most of the big cities in the 2019 local elections. Consequently, Erdoğan is pursuing a policy of revenge. However, on the evidence of current trends, if this type of politics continues, the HDP will go on growing and Erdoğan and his far-right nationalist partners will go on shrinking and losing.