Turkey’s third largest party in the parliament faces the risk of being removed from the political scene as the general elections approach. The Constitutional Court is yet to decide on an ongoing case against the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) where prosecutors demand the closure of the party and the banning of almost 500 members.
The court refused to postpone the case until after the elections as the party had requested. Halfway through the electoral marathon, it brought a state of uncertainty for the left-wing party due to the possibility of being shut down before voting on 14 May. And a closure ruling would change the course of the elections dramatically, according to analysts, many of whom agree that the Kurdish votes would play a kingmaker role.
In the meantime, HDP announced that its candidates would run for parliament under the lists of the Green Left Party, a minor non-parliamentary party that has supported HDP in former elections. With this move, the party eliminated the risk of being excluded from the May elections in the event that the court rules for closure.
A closure case is nothing new for pro-Kurdish parties, since Turkey, starting with the Kurdish movement’s very first steps into the country’s political scene in the 1990s, has a long history of banning them.
HEP and the “oath crisis”
Ten years after the 1980’s military coup that banned all political parties and groups, as well as the use of the Kurdish language, the pro-Kurdish People’s Labour Party (HEP) was established. In 1991, some 21 HEP lawmakers, elected under the Social Democratic Populist Party’s (SHP) list to overcome the barrier of the electoral threshold, became the first parliamentary representatives of the Kurdish movement.
A couple of months prior to the elections, the party’s Diyarbakır (Amed) provincial chair Vedat Aydın’s dead body was found two days after armed men identifying themselves as police officers forced him into a car. Aydın’s murder could not be clarified to this day.
When Hatip Dicle, one of the HEP MPs, said before taking the parliamentary oath in November 1991 that “My friends and I read this text under the pressure of the constitution”, MPs of the centre-right parties of the time started to protest the Kurdish MPs.
But the incident that went down in the history of the country as the “oath crisis” broke out when Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish female parliamentarian in the Turkish assembly, spoke in Kurdish after she took her oath and said “I’m taking this oath for the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish people.”
The official ban on the Kurdish language in public and private life, a consequence of the military coup along with the ban for using the words “Kurds”, “Kurdistan” and “Kurdish”, was lifted in 1991. However, under the influence of Turkey’s almost century-old policies against the Kurdish language, those who spoke Kurdish in public were still commonly being labelled as ‘separatists’.
After the “oath crisis” that caused uproar in the Turkish parliament, the Court of Cassation launched an investigation against the HEP. The closure case started in July 1992 and ended in September 1993 with the ruling of shutting down the party.
DEP: Imprisonments, unidentified murders
The Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP), formed during the course of the HEP trials in October 1992, also faced a closure case right after its foundation. The Constitutional Court shut the ÖZDEP down on grounds of “provisions in its program against the indivisible integrity of the state with its land and nation”.
The ÖZDEP was succeeded by the Democracy Party (DEP). Before the closure lawsuit against the DEP in 1993, many of its executives were arrested subsequent to the party’s 1st Ordinary Congress, including Yaşar Kaya, the party’s chairman.
Mardin MP Mehmet Sincar and Batman provincial chair Metin Can were murdered by unknown assailants in the same year. Years later, in a trial in 2001, the defendants who were prosecuted for being members of Hizbullah would confess they had killed Sincar.
More than 60 HEP and DEP members were assassinated from 1991 to 1994. Political scientist Nicole F. Watts considers these murders, the majority of which remain unsolved, as results of official efforts to hinder the activities of pro-Kurdish parties.
In March 1994, the parliamentary immunity of DEP lawmakers was lifted and the court convicted the party’s MPs of treason and sent them to prison. The Constitutional Court finally ruled to close the DEP in June 1994.
HADEP: Winning municipalities through continuous raids
The People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) was founded in May 1994, while the closure case against DEP was still in court. HADEP was unable to enter the parliament in the 1999 elections due to the electoral threshold, despite its 1.5 million votes, however, it managed to win 37 mayoralties in southeastern Kurdish-majority provinces the same year, including Diyarbakır (Amed) Metropolitan Municipality.
In June 1996, Turkish police detained HADEP’s chairman and 50 members on the grounds that the Turkish flag was lowered at the 2nd Ordinary Congress of the party. Police also raided the provincial and district buildings, confiscated the party’s archives and detained more than 3,000 people in the raids. A political ban was imposed on the chairman of HADEP and several party members soon after.
The Constitutional Court unanimously decided to shut down the HADEP in March 2003.
DEHAP: Two trials in a row
Following the closure process of HADEP, party mayors switched to the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP). In the 2002 elections, when Turkey’s still-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, DEHAP too was unable to pass the electoral threshold with 6.3 percent of the votes.
The first closure case against DEHAP was filed by the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation in March 2003 on the grounds that “it participated in the elections before its organisation was completed“. After DEHAP’s declaration on the solution to the Kurdish conflict and democratisation in April 2003, the chief prosecutor filed a second lawsuit against the party, with an additional indictment saying that the party was affiliated with an illegal organisation.
In 2005, the DEHAP decided to dissolve and later joined the Democratic Society Party (DTP).
DTP: Overcoming electoral threshold
The DTP, which was founded in November 2005 and defines itself as a “democratic libertarian and egalitarian left”, was the first political party in Turkey to implement a co-chair system with a male and a female leader. DTP, which entered the 2007 elections with independent candidates in order to overcome the threshold barrier, won 20 seats in the Turkish National Assembly.
While the closure case filed against the DTP in November 2007 was ongoing, the party won 99 mayoralties in the March 2009 local elections. In April, over 1,000 DTP members were arrested and the Constitutional Court closed the party in the same year.
BDP: Efforts to end conflict
After the mayors and lawmakers of the DTP switched to the newly-founded Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the party formed a group in the parliament in 2009.
Same as its predecessor DTP, BDP participated in the 2011 elections with independent candidates and won 36 seats in the parliament. The party took an active role in the peace process that started with the aim to resolve the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as part of the long-running Kurdish-Turkish conflict.
The HDP, the final link in the chain of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish parties, emerged in 2012 when the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK), a union of several left-wing parties and groups, decided to form a more inclusive party that appeals to the wider public.
The BDP continued its local organisation work after its lawmakers switched to the newly-formed HDP and won 102 municipalities in the 2014 elections. In 2014, the name of the party was changed to the Democratic Regions Party (DBP).
HDP: Facing crackdown on Kurds
In 2015, after the HDP’s votes reached 13.1 percent in June elections, the highest in the history of pro-Kurdish parties, and the peace process collapsed in July, the Turkish government began a harsh crackdown on Kurdish politicians and launched a series of military operations.
Many Kurdish-majority cities had become the scene of 24-hour curfews declared by the AKP between 2015 and 2017. During the curfews and heavy clashes, the government appointed trustee mayors to 94 pro-Kurdish municipalities and arrested 95 mayors.
In the indictment of the closure case against the party, accepted in June 2021 by the Constitutional Court, it is emphasised that the HDP is the continuation of the other Kurdish parties that were closed in the past.