Where will you be when Turkey murders democracy? – a letter to all democrats
With democracy under attack across the globe, the long brutal asphyxiation of the only party that opposes Turkish ethnic nationalism can slip under the political radar. But it is of vital importance to over eighty million people who live in the country, to the future of the wider middle east, and to democracy itself. Every unopposed attack on democracy in one part of the world provides succor to its attackers elsewhere. This letter is a call to all politicians who claim to care about democracy. It asks them give their support to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in what is becoming an increasingly desperate struggle to salvage any remnant of democratic process in Turkey and any hope of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish Question.
If you live in Turkey, or are a Kurd, every day is bringing bitter news, but yesterday was especially harsh. Yesterday’s attack began when the Turkish Parliament agreed to remove HDP MP Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu from his elected position and allow him to be imprisoned. His official ‘crime’ consisted of sharing a tweet calling for peace, but, as a dedicated campaigner for human rights, he has long been in the government’s sights (see here). Then, not long afterwards, as Gergerlioğlu and fellow HDP MPs began a sit-in protest in the Parliament to resist his imprisonment, news came that the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation has filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court to ban the HDP altogether, and to prevent 687 HDP members from taking part in political activity for five years. As there is no longer any meaningful separation between the government and the judiciary, prospects are not good.
While the banning of pro-Kurdish parties has a long history in Turkey, this should have been a sensitive issue for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as they faced an attempted closure case themselves in 2008, but an HDP ban has long been a demand of their ultra-right allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The virulence of the attack on the HDP is a product not of government strength, but of weakness. In the last local elections, the AKP lost control of the major cities, and economic difficulties (predating but boosted by the pandemic) have created uncertainty and high inflation and lost them popular support. Simply, they cannot count on winning elections by fair democratic means, and so are resorting to foul.
A total ban would be the culmination of years of increasingly oppressive attacks on the HDP, especially since they broke the 10% election threshold to deny the AKP a majority in the June 2015 General Election. Today, thousands of HDP members are behind bars, including MPs, mayors and the former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. When Demirtaş’s case was looked at by the European Court of Human Rights in December they ruled for his immediate release, but Turkey, though bound to obey the court as a member of the Council of Europe, refused to comply. Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, along with 106 other leading members of the HDP, are facing court cases for calling people to protest against the ISIS siege of Kobanê in 2014 and against the Turkish government’s refusal to act against ISIS or allow Kurds to cross the border into Syria to support the defence. The demonstrations were brutally attacked by Turkish state security forces leaving tens of people dead, and, in the twisted logic of Turkey’s politicised ‘justice’ system, some of these HDP leaders are also being accused of their murder, as well as the usual charges of attacking the state and terrorism, and could be looking at a life sentence without parole. President Erdoğan’s recent announcement of a Human Rights Action Plan insults the intelligence of anyone he hopes to persuade.
The HDP are the conscience of Turkey. Their elected members represent millions of voters. They have provided the only parliamentary opposition to Turkey’s wars of aggression, and they carry the hopes of all those oppressed by the current system, especially women and ethnic minorities. Notably, they also carry the hopes for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish Question. The Turkish government refuses to draw a distinction between the HDP, which acts within the norms of parliamentary democracy, and the PKK guerillas, who they regard as a mortal enemy, but in closing off all possibility for the Kurds to achieve their rights through democratic and peaceful means they are effectively acting as recruiters for the PKK. Although the PKK themselves have repeatedly shown their willingness to work out a peaceful solution, this requires a corresponding willingness to negotiate on the government’s side, and this government only understands the language of war.
The Turkish government has been able to act so brazenly because up until now it has suffered very few consequences for its breaches of internationally accepted norms, but they are not invulnerable. Erdoğan has toned down his anti-European rhetoric and made announcements about human rights because international relations can make a real difference to him, especially relations with Turkey’s major trading partners, and especially now that Turkey’s economy is distinctly wobbly. While some European politicians seem to be waking up to what is happening, and the US government has declared that they are ‘monitoring’ Turkey’s actions, we are still a long way from the anger and action that these events deserve.
The HDP have called for international support, and everyone who speaks out can help build the momentum needed to turn words into action, and to make it that much harder for governments such as Boris Johnson’s Tories to disregard Turkish politics when pursuing trade or other deals.
An attack on democracy somewhere is an attack on democracy everywhere.
The picture shows Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (centre) and fellow HDP MPs protesting his exclusion from parliament (Mezopotamya News Agency)