By The Washington Kurdish Institute
Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supported by the coalition government consisting of what remains of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have been using all means at their disposal to gradually increase the intensity of their crackdown on Turkey’s second largest opposition party, progressive, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), for years. These efforts, pursued in parallel with campaigns of military aggression and occupation of Kurdish areas outside of Turkey’s borders, have now culminated in official efforts to close the HDP once and for all. This anti-democratic move comes as no surprise to even the most casual observer of Turkey, a country that, despite claiming to be a democracy, has been known as a graveyard of political parties for decades. All political parties that have tried to use Turkey’s political institutions to give a voice to the indigenous Kurdish people have learned the limits of freedom of expression in the country, facing intimidation, brutality, and persecution. Since 1990, five major Kurdish parties have been officially banned – the People’s Labour Party (HEP), Freedom and Democracy Party (ÖZDEP), the Democracy Party (DEP), People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), and The Democratic Society Party (DTP). The Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), succeeded HADEP after its closure in 2003, merged with another movement to form the DTP, and dissolved itself after calls for its closure. The DTP itself was banned in 2009. All parties that dare to give a voice to the Kurds face the unsubstantiated allegation of having ties with, or even being directed by, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was founded in 1978 in response to the Turkish state’s atrocities against the Kurdish people and has been fighting for Kurdish rights in the country for decades. The PKK is currently labeled as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US, though Belgium’s Court of Cassation, the nation’s supreme court, last year confirmed a decision by the Brussels Court of Appeals that the PKK should not be classified as a terrorist organization.
Today, the HDP is facing the same accusations of connections to the PKK, a time-tested technique used by Turkish leaders long before Erdogan to promote nationalist sentiment, distract the public from the severe economic, military, and political crisis the country experienced under his regime, and neutralize a formidable opposition force in parliament. Over the last week, the Turkish lira plummeted once again after Erdogan fired the head of the central bank, causing further panic in Turkey’s sinking economy. Erdogan has a track record of meddling in the financial area to benefit himself and his family, long who are accused of mass corruption. Erdogan previously appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak as Minister of Finance to enact his vision. On top of countless domestic accusations of corruption, Erdogan’s government also faced scrutiny from the US Justice Department and international courts after breaking the sanctions imposed on Iran and Venezuela and granting those countries’ autocratic regimes access to international markets. Turkey faces high unemployment and poor living conditions, especially in the Kurdish region, which has been plundered by the Turkish state since the country’s founding.
Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish military policies expansionist ambitions have led Turkey into quagmires across the region. Neighboring Syria was initially an attractive venue for Turkish military adventurism as it provided a way for Erdogan to pursue two major goals: (1) ethnic cleansing of Kurds and (2) support for jihadist militant groups (e.g., al-Qaida offshoots and other similar organizations). Erdogan and the AKP seemed to expect a swift victory in Syria – In 2012, Erdogan boasted that he would soon pray at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. However, a decade after the outbreak of unrest in Syria, Turkey is now stock occupying various parts of the country and overseeing the activities of various violent jihadist militia groups, some of whom periodically fight bloody street battles with others, and bargaining with the Assad regime’s major foreign supporter, Russia, to preserve Turkish influence in Syria. Turkey’s military aggression elsewhere, from Libya to Iraq to the Caucasus and beyond, has been costly to Turkey and acted as a destabilizing force globally.
Politically, Erdogan rules with an iron fist and clamps down on all dissent, a desperate attempt to hide the fact that the country is divided more than ever, as dissent grows. A number of the co-founders of Erdogan’s AKP have publicly split with him, and Erdogan maintains his grip on power by taking advantage of the privileges of his relatively new executive presidency and working hand in hand with the MHP, a party based on hate for non-Turks and the promotion of fascism. The little democracy that may once have been present in Turkey (in between military coups) is now only a memory.
On various occasions, Erdogan has succeeded in diverting citizens’ attention from Turkey’s various crises by focusing on the Kurds, though the HDP has proven to be quite formidable despite his best efforts. Indeed, the HDP gave a voice not only to Kurds but also to many other citizens of Turkey who were alarmed by Erdogan’s dictatorial ambitions, and represented the most dedicated and outspoken force for gender equality in the country at a time when women’s basic rights were under increasing attack from Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan has always seen Kurds as the enemy and has recognized the HDP as a major threat to his throne, especially after the party managed to gather so many ethnic and religious groups under the party’s umbrella. As it gained local and international prominence, the HDP was a model of the political and social diversity of Turkey. Furthermore, the HDP proved itself as a party of action and a competent political player, mobilizing voters in Istanbul and Ankara to elect opposition candidates in the 2019 local elections.
After a recent failed military incursion into the Kurdish region of Iraq, Erdogan took renewed aim at the HDP. Ironically, Erdogan himself is the leader of a party that was nearly closed by Turkey’s highest court, the same court is now handling HDP’s case, in the past. Indeed, Erdogan himself officially engaged with the HDP during the solution process of 2013-2015, a process engineered by PKK founder and leader, Abdullah Ocalan, aimed at reaching a just political solution to the Kurdish issue and achieving an end to the bloodshed. This solution process, which was ultimately abandoned by Erdogan and the Turkish state, acknowledged Ocalan as the representative of the Kurdish people in Turkey. As part of this process, the HDP officially coordinated with Ocalan to bring the Kurdish issue to the agenda of Turkey’s parliament.
At present, in parallel with official threats against the HDP, Erdogan and the Turkish state are taking aim at Ocalan, increasing his isolation and spreading disinformation concerning his situation as part of the psychological component of their war on the Kurdish people. Ocalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999, has been kept in almost complete isolation. Earlier this month, Turkish social media accounts spread rumors of his death and, despite the demands of Ocalan’s lawyers and Kurdish leaders and organizations worldwide, no contact with Ocalan has been permitted other than a phone call between Ocalan and his brother on March 25 which was cut short by authorities. This was the first communication between Ocalan and the outside world in almost a year. The isolation of Ocalan and shadowy threats to his life are intensifying as the HDP faces closure – the leader of the solution process is being threatened and punished, as is the party that worked with him to try to bring peace. Erdogan and the Turkish state confirmed that Ocalan and the HDP represented a path to a solution, and now seek to block the path fully and completely.
The Turkish state’s efforts to ensure that the solution process of 2013-2015 remains a distant memory will not deter the Kurdish people from demanding their rights, it will just force them to chose other paths in doing so. The PKK, to this day, calls for peace in Turkey but Erdogan and the AKP-MHP alliance reject all such calls, and continues to enjoy a great deal of support and effectively resist waves of assaults by Turkey’s well financed, modern armed forces. Additionally, the millions of HDP voters and supporters who yearn for peace and demand justice will not simply disappear if the party is banned as expected. Erdogan is making it more and more difficult for a new generation of Kurds in Turkey to choose a peaceful route. Another generation will grow up witnessing Turkish state brutality and persecution, with Erdogan increasingly and more forcefully shunning any peaceful approach to the Kurdish issue and violently opposing all demands for democratization in Turkey.
The Kurdish dilemma is to find a path to achieve peace and freedom. If they pursue armed struggle, they are labeled as terrorists, though when they chose peaceful political means like forming a political party to represent them in parliament, they face closure, government repression, and, again, being labeled as terrorists. In all cases, the Kurdish population continues to suffer persecution by the Turkish state while the international communities limit themselves to mild statements of condemnation. Nonetheless, the size of the Kurdish population and their strategic location makes the Kurdish issue an international issue and not merely a regional one: it is one of the most significant conflicts in the Middle East and one of the world’s most protracted armed conflicts, but has never received the attention that it deserves on the global stage. Erdogan’s latest moves against Ocalan and the HDP to silence the Kurds in every way possible will only ensure that the conflict continues in the shadows at great cost to innocent people, including Kurds, Turks, and many others.