On 4 November 2016, two leaders of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were arrested. This development is part of a downward spiral in the overall political climate of Turkey, especially since the coup attempt in July.
Police in Turkey raided the houses of, and arrested the co-leaders of the HDP, one of the main players in Turkish politics over the past few years. The two leaders are Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag and both have been leading the party since 2014.
What is the significance of these arrests?
Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has gone through a severe “Turkification” process wherein elements of the society foreign to the “Turkish” identity have been suppressed, through both direct and indirect means. The Kurds, who constitute by far the largest ethnic minority in the country, have represented the only significant minority voice that has been able to resist this social engineering project.
The HDP, regarded as a “pro-Kurdish” party, has been the most vocal advocate for the rights of all minorities in Turkey, however the party has been brandished by the Turkish state as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the armed group that has been in violent conflict with the state for a number of decades.
Voices within the HDP, representing the vast majority of ethnic minorities in Turkey, were given support by 10% of the country in the 2015 general elections. These votes for the HDP were mainly cast by those living in the south-east of the country, predominantly populated by the Kurds. The current and direct repression of the party is essentially an attack on the political representation of that part of the country and on all others who have waited decades to vote for a party outside of the mainstream.
The recent internal context behind the arrests
The ruling AKP has been unabashedly taking advantage of its state powers since the failed coup attempt of July 2016 to make drastic changes to the positions of authority and structures of power throughout the country. The arrests in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt were not only concentrated on academics, as was the main focus of Western media at the attempt, but large numbers of members of the army and police were also detained and put under investigation.
These efforts on behalf of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, are focused on foiling the “Gulenist plot”, whereas the arrests of Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli are very much connected to the “Kurdish issue” in Turkey. The Turkish state is not a stranger to making arrests against HDP members and sympathisers of minority rights and the “Kurdish cause”. Just this year, the deputy head of the HDP was arrested in January on terror charges and the Istanbul office of the HDP was raided by police.
In addition, on 25 October 2016, the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, were detained. As is now customary in Turkey, arrests are being made under the pretence that suspected detainees have “links with terrorist organisations”. This is the case with Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, who have been accused of showing support for the PKK, which has been designated as a “terrorist organisation” by Turkey, the US and the EU.
The recent geopolitical context
The overall political and geopolitical context within and around Turkey has been chaotic for some time. Aside from the internal issues that face the Turkish state (the failed coup attempt and conflict against the PKK), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIS) has perpetrated a number of bombings in the country and Turkey has seen a massive influx of refugees from Syria.
Turkey recently begun to play a very active role in the fight against ISIS within Iraq. Turkish troops have been on the ground in Iraq in the battle against ISIS in and around Mosul. The presence of the Turkish army in Iraq has increased tensions between the governments of Turkey and Iraq as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, expressed his discontent at the manner in which the Turkish state has involved itself and intervened in Iraqi affairs, which may go beyond the military realm and turn political. President Erdogan has nonetheless affirmed his belief that Turkey has a “historical responsibility in the region”.
The instability in and around Turkey has provided the Turkish state more legitimacy in adopting repressive measures internally, in order to provide a sense of stability for the AKP and its power structures within the country. Whether the Turkish state has deliberately caused some of this instability, especially with regards to the coup attempt, in order to legitimise its repressive actions is a point of contention.
Where is this downward slope going?
Turkey has often found itself in political quagmires over the past century or so, both due to internal conflicts and regional instability. Nevertheless, it may be argued that the surrounding region, mainly in reference to the situation in Syria and Iraq, has never been so volatile, with wars raging between state forces and a variety of non-state factions. This state of affairs has led to calls for territories to break away from weakened central governments (e.g. the move for an independent Kurdish state to break away from Iraq).
The fear of Kurdish independence movements in and around Turkey has struck the Turkish state with fear and has motivated it to take action against Kurdish political forces within the country. Since Kurdish political forces have gained a substantial degree of power over the past few years, a sudden reduction of Kurdish political power is likely to cause a backlash amongst a large part of the population in Turkey.
A blast in Diyarbakir, the city with the largest Kurdish population, has already rocked the country as an initial reaction to the arrests. The irreconcilable nature of political forces inside Turkey and the involvement of the state in volatile external issues, that have already spilled into Turkey, is a recipe for disaster.