Will Turkey Ban the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party?

EPC | 11 Apr 2021

A Turkish prosecutor filed a case with the constitutional court on March 17, 2021 demanding the closure of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), accusing it of colluding with the banned Kurdish militant movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated a terrorist organization in Turkey.

HDP had attempted "to destroy the inseparable unity of the Turkish state and the nation through the actions and statements of its members." The party is also accused of “not standing by Turkey and its interests on any domestic or international issue.”

This case has caused a debate among political parties and movements in Turkey, especially that it comes in a difficult period of time in which the country is going through at the domestic and external levels. This step follows an escalation by the Turkish government against HDP and its members since Nov. 2016. This is indicative of a clear desire by the ruling alliance in Turkey to re-engineer the political life in the country to dismantle the alliance of the opposition, which HDP is one of its pillars. It is also a preemptive step before the upcoming parliamentary elections. This raises many questions about the future awaiting HDP in Turkey and the implications of its potential ban on the political landscape in the country.

The current political polarization in Turkey

The Turkish political landscape is going through a sharp political polarization. The features of this polarization have been taken shape since the general elections of June 24, 2018. Turkey’s political landscape was divided into two major alliances: the ruling alliance, or the People’s Alliance, which is essentially made of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the opposition alliance, or the Nation Alliance, which essentially consists of four opposition parties, namely the Republican People's Party (CHP), the Good Party (IYI), the Felicity Party (SP), and HDP.

These divisions were enhanced during local elections of March 31, 2019 in which the ruling alliance lost major municipalities - Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in addition to other small municipalities. This has led to political and economic instability in the country, accompanied by internal divisions among AKP leadership. New political parties were established by former AKP leaders who seem closer to the opposition alliance such as the Future Party led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) led by former Minister of Economy Ali Babacan.

Political, economic and security developments in Turkey have started to negatively impact AKP popularity and its ruling alliance. In contrast, the popularity of opposition factions has increased. This has forced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to propose new amendments to Turkey’s constitution and election system, which shows the large extent of complications in Turkey’s political landscape.

Although the Turkish president was against the idea of banning HDP, despite the insistence of his ally MHP in this regard, Erdogan has finally asked a Turkish prosecutor - whom he has appointed only a few months ago – to file a case against the party. This step shows the extent of AKP struggle to stay in power in light of growing opposition to its rule, the ongoing economic crisis, divisions in AKP ranks, failures in managing the Coronavirus crisis, and the growing tension with the US and with the European Union in the Eastern Mediterranean.

That said, the attempt to ban HDP might be the last tool to strike against the opposition and secure victory in next elections. In a poll conducted by the Turkish Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies “Avrasya” last October, only 32.5 percent of voters said they would support the AKP if elections were held immediately, an all-time low, while support for the CHP had increased to 28 percent,1 which puts the ruling alliance in face of an uphill battle in the next national elections.

Parties, motivations behind efforts to ban HDP

Calls to ban HDP have sharply increased in the wake of the botched Turkish military operation in February 2021 in Northern Iraq, in which 13 Turkish prisoners - who were held by PKK in the Gara mountains - were killed in addition to 3 Turkish officers taking part in the operation meant to free them. This incident has produced huge political repercussions inside Turkey2 such as a demand by Erdogan’s ally, Devlet Bahçeli, Chairman of MHP, to make serious efforts to ban HDP.

The Constitutional Court has ruled on March 31, 2021 to send back the case filed by the prosecutor's office to ban HDP due to procedural omissions. However, there is a clear resolve to send the case back to the Constitutional Court once again. This was evident in statements by Bahçeli after the court’s ruling and his threats to shut down both the court and HDP.

In addition, Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, which is close to the ruling alliance, pointed out that the Constitutional Court’s ruling to send back the case against HDP to the prosecutor's office does not mean rejection of the case to ban the party. The newspaper added that it is expected that the prosecutor’s office will complete the procedural faults in the case and send it back to the court, especially including evidence that shows the relationship between HDP members and the criminal actions in the indictment to resolve the issue.3

It is worth mentioning that parties that stand behind efforts to ban HDP include AKP led by Erdogan, MHP led by Bahçeli, the Patriotic Party led by Doğu Perinçek, and the Great Unity Party led by Mustafa Destici. Besides the motives included in the indictment presented by the Turkish prosecution in the case to ban HDP, the real motives of these parties can be summarized in the following:

  1. Reengineering Turkey’s political life in a way that serves the chances of the ruling alliance in the upcoming elections. They aim to prevent the Kurdish party from taking part in these elections because this would give the ruling alliance more votes in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.
  2. Dismantling the opposition alliance led by CHP, especially by distancing the nationalist-oriented IYI Party from this alliance.
  3. Driving Kurdish voters to boycott elections, which serves the interests of the ruling alliance because the latter was not able to win a decisive majority since the 2015 parliamentary elections due to Kurdish votes that used to go to the opposition alliance.
  4. An attempt by MHP to make AKP adopt its position and prevent the establishment of alternative alliances by adopting a more radical stands against adversaries.4
  5. An attempt by the Turkish President to secure the support of MHP in his bid to run for a second term in 2023 elections despite a constitutional and legal dispute over such an attempt by Erdogan. There is a legal opinion that says Erdogan would finish two presidential terms by 2023, which prevents him from running once again unless a majority in the parliament (which the ruling alliance enjoys) to dissolve the parliament and go for early elections at least 6 months before election date in June 2023.
  6. Enhancing internal disputes within HDP by pushing Kurdish leaders close to the ruling alliance and its political positions to take control of the party’s leadership by banning the current leadership of HDP. New HDP leaders have started to criticize the stands of the party leadership and support the positions of the ruling alliance such as Diyarbakir MP Ahmet Altan and Ayhan Bilgen, the former mayor of Kars.

   It is worth mentioning that over the past two years, especially since March 31, 2019 elections, the Turkish government has cracked down on the party, dismissing 50 HDP mayors from office, and detaining more than 7,000 of its members on terrorism charges. Turkey’s parliament moved to end immunity and membership of a number of HDP representatives because of statements they made 6 years ago in which they rejected an operation by Turkish army in the southeast of the country against Kurdish militants taking refuge in Diyarbakir. HDP has 55 seats in the 600-member parliament.5

Challenges facing Turkey’s moves to ban the party

Following are some of the prominent challenges that hinder the ruling alliance’s pursuit to ban HDP:

  1. There are some legal and constitutional challenges that hinder any attempt to ban political parties in Turkey, particularly constitutional amendments introduced by Turkey’s ruling AKP in 2010, and specifically those related to the powers of the judiciary regarding the ban of political parties.6 Those changes to the constitution were enacted to prevent the recurrence of the attempt made by the army to ban AKP itself in 2007, which was then known as E- memorandum that was submitted to the constitutional court by the General Staff calling for the banning of AKP on charges of threatening the country’s secular system. The party, however, won the case in the constitutional court by a single vote.
  2. The challenge posed by the relationship between AKP and its alliance partner, MHP. While the latter obviously adopts a tough stance regarding the ban of the pro-Kurdish party, some of AKP members seem to be reluctant to openly support such move and suffice with their implicit support through President Erdogan. As such, the failure to support the decision of banning the HDP will probably make the future of the ruling alliance uncertain. 
  3. The challenge posed by the relationship between AKP and opposition forces as the latter started to portray the current efforts to ban HDP as an attempt by the ruling alliance to distract people from the real problems facing Turkey notably aggravating economic challenges.
  4. The challenge posed by the relationship between Turkey and foreign powers, particularly with the European Union and the United States. Both powers have already warned Ankara that the attempt to ban HDP will “further undermine” democracy in Turkey.
  5. The challenge posed by the relationship between Turkey and human rights organizations that apparently rejected this move. That was evident two days after top Turkish prosecutor filed a case with the constitutional court to close the pro-Kurdish party, and when Turkey's biggest Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chairman Ozturk Turkdogan was arrested by police.7

The attempt to ban HDP is indicative of the size of challenge facing the ruling alliance in Turkey, given the fact that this is the ninth time in which the government has tried to ban a political party representing the ethnic Kurds in the country since 7 July 1990. It is also indicative of the failure of the political system in Turkey to come up with a final formula to manage relations with Kurds. All previous formulas have ended by a quick return of Turkey’s political system to the military tool or political ban. However, what characterizes the last attempt by the government to deal with the Kurds is the fact that it is broader in terms of incentives and goals.

Potential repercussions on Turkey’s domestic policy

It is likely that the attempt to ban HDP will lead to significant consequences for Turkey’s political landscape which can be summed up as follows:

  1. The potential employment of the judiciary as a tool to purge opponents in the country, particularly with the fact that the constitutional court based on the constitutional amendments of 2017- which is considered to be the top judiciary body in Turkey- now is composed of 15 members, 3 of which are appointed by the parliament and the remaining 12 members are appointed by President Erdogan. This is an indicator of the mounting challenge facing opposition groups with the possibility of the President expanding his powers in the future in this regard.
  2. The decision to ban HDP came in conjunction with the government’s pursuit to enact new regulations that set a specific period of time during which members of the banned party are totally prohibited from engaging in political action or even forming new political parties. This in itself is a new move that can hinder political activity in Turkey in the future.
  3. The government’s attempt to close the pro-Kurdish party gave rise to concerns among opposition forces that this policy may target and ban other political parties on Turkey’s political scene. This is particularly true as Turkey’s ruling AKP has started to open a number of corruption files in which some opposition leaders are involved including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
  4. There is a growing rejection of AKP and its leader President Erdogan in the Southeast of Turkey after the region was an electoral stronghold for the ruling party during Presidential elections in 2010. Therefore, the move to ban HDP can undermine political stability and security in that region. To support this point, I have already pointed out that the celebrations of Nowruz by some ethnic Kurds in the southeast on 21 March 2012 have turned into an electoral rally challenging the government’s pursuit to ban HDP.
  5. The ruling alliance’s approach towards opposition forces in Turkey, particularly towards HDP highlights the state’s exclusivist policy inside Turkey which has become increasingly apparent since the failed military coup on 15 July, 2016. It has started by widening crackdown on the military and the judiciary and today is extended to political opponents. This approach is expected to escalate in the near future.
  6. The rise of Turkish extremist nationalism as a governing principle to confront opposition forces. That trend was obvious in AKP 7th Ordinary Grand Congress on 25 March 2012, which witnessed the ruling party turning from a “conservative Islamic” party into a “Turkish Islamic” one raising the flags of the extremist nationalistic movement. Consequently, this may suggest that Turkey’s political scene may see new shifts in the future in terms of the orientations and conduct of political parties. 

Potential scenarios

We can suggest the following scenarios for the future of HDP in Turkey’s political landscape:

First scenario:  HDP is not banned but partially punished. This scenario envisages that the pro-Kurdish party is to be partially punished but not totally excluded from Turkey’s political scene. According to this scenario, the ban will be only on the party’s members and figures accused of terrorist crimes, not on everybody. Some AKP leaders have already suggested this choice to compromise with their alliance partner, MHP, on the one hand, and avoid losing the votes of religious ethnic Kurds in the Southeast of the country, on the other. Moreover, in line with paragraph 1 of the 69th article of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, the constitutional court that will handle the ban case can decide to deprive HDP of the state’s assistance partially or totally instead of totally and permanently banning the party. All in all, however, this choice was not largely raised in the official discourse of the ruling alliance. Furthermore, President Erdogan seems to be in full support of the official attitude of his alliance partner, MHP, that advocates a total ban on HDP.

Second scenario: HDP is banned and totally closed. This scenario envisages that HDP will be totally banned as this choice seems to be more probable than the previous one. This is surely due to the strong determination has already been shown by the ruling alliance, particularly MHP that acts as a lever through which President Erdogan can support his policies. Additionally, the banning process comes within the context of a clear strategy the ruling alliance has started to draw on for the sake of reengineering Turkish politics. This perhaps makes the ban on HDP as an urgent need to preserve the parliamentary majority of the ruling alliance in any future elections.

Third scenario: HDP disbands itself. This scenario envisages that HDP disbands itself as a precaution against any legal move may be taken by the government against it. Among the strong signs of this potential scenario are the frequent meetings that have been held by HDP leadership since the end of Nowruz holiday to define a necessary strategy to follow in case the party is banned. Moreover, these meetings aimed to assess alternative options including forming a new political party, moving to one of existing parties, disbanding the party, and running for next elections by party members as independent candidates. However, HDP leaders are concerned that the disband of the party can be simply interpreted as a clear confession to the charges filed against the party. Additionally, paragraph 3 of the 69th article of the Constitution of Turkey prohibits the formation of any new political party by the members of any banned party.

Conclusions

Turkey’s political environment appears to be extremely complicated as several internal and foreign political issues have proved very difficult to solve. This, in turn, has had a negative impact on economic and societal domains in Turkey today. What makes the already complicated situation even more difficult is the high level of political polarization in the country between the ruling alliance and the opposition alliance. The attempt to ban HDP came to clearly manifest this reality through the employment of the judiciary by the ruling alliance as a tool to confront opposition forces.

Under such circumstances, HDP is facing a difficult situation with the insistence of the ruling alliance to exclude it from Turkey’s political scene, or partially contain it. This move is designed to achieve several objectives, notably dismantling opposition forces, dividing Kurdish votes in the Southeast of Turkey, and creating a legitimate project for sustaining military operations against PKK. This is an indicator that political escalation against HDP and opposition forces will characterize the moves of the ruling alliance in the coming period.

As such, it can be said that the ban on pro-Kurdish HDP has become now a central issue for those in power in the country. What really matters to the ruling alliance is its ability to stay in power for another 4-year term or even more.

Endnotes

[1] Liz Cookman, Erdogan’s Last-Ditch Power Play, Foreign Policy, 9 Mar 2021. https://bit.ly/39CuRgC

[2] ”The failure of Turkish Gara military operation in Northern Iraq: Positions and consequences”, Emirates Policy Center, 14 March, 2021. https://bit.ly/3rJmAh2

[3] Abdulkadir Selvi, Anayasa Mahkemesi’nin HDP kararı ne anlama geliyor, Hurriyet, 1 Nisan 2021. https://bit.ly/31GzfqC

[4] Will the Turkish government seek to ban HDP? DW Arabic, 27 March 2021. https://bit.ly/2OeRvo3

[5] Ragip Soylu, Turkey: Chief prosecutor files lawsuit to close pro-Kurdish HDP party, Middle East Eye, 17 Mar 2021. https://bit.ly/3wis320

[6] Look chapter 4 on political rights and obligations in Turkey’s constitution for the year 1982 and its amendements in 2011, p 26-27. https://bit.ly/39WRUTR

[7] Turkey....scores of HDP leaders  along with Turkey's biggest Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chairman are arrested, DW Arabic, 19 March 2021. https://bit.ly/3dqjXfc

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