HDP arrests pose grave risks for Turkey’s future

HDP arrests pose grave risks for Turkey’s future
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The ongoing crackdown on Kurdish politicians in Turkey risks escalating and perpetuating Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds.

The night of November 3rd, the Turkish authorities arrested 11 members of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including co-presidents Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. All of those arrested were charged with terrorism due to allegedly supporting the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The imprisonment of the HDP leaders, the third largest party in parliament and the main political voice of the Kurdish minority, threatens to further exacerbate the already serious phase of instability that Turkey has been  going through since July.

While the HDP receives more national support than the BDP, both rely on attracting votes from Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast.

Turkish crackdown on Kurds

In fact, the emergency measures put in place since the failed coup on July 15th this year have provided decisive acceleration and a weak legal cover for the growing de-legitimization of Kurdish political parties. Sebahat Tuncel, co-chairman of the Democratic Party of Regions (the DBP, which is not represented in Parliament) was arrested along with HDP’s deputies. In the past months, dozens of mayors of cities located in the mainly Kurdish southeast, all members of the HDP and DBP, were arrested on similar charges and their municipalities were entrusted to officers appointed by the Government. In fact, Ankara has attempted to establish a link between the PKK and Imam Fethullah Gülen, considered the instigator of the coup. At the same time, the government views any public statement in favor of greater local autonomy of Kurdish politicians as an explicit support to the separatist cause.

It is worth highlighting, however, that the key step to allow the jailing of opposition politicians had already taken place in May (before the July coup attempt), when the Parliament approved the waiver of immunity for all those deputies on which were charges had been made at the time of the court proceedings. At the present moment, the HDP deputies who have been placed under supervision by the courts number 47 (out of a total of 59).

Kurdish peace process breakdown

Continued crackdowns could prove an existential threat to the HDP. Such an event would be of great significance, since it would be situated at the intersection of two powerful elements of tension that characterize the country today: the strong presidential system pursued by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the resumption of the conflict with the PKK. Both issues are intertwined with the Kurdish party.

On the one hand, the policies promoted by the Kurdish education, in particular the demands for greater autonomy and administrative decentralization, are totally antithetical to the accumulation of power in the figure of the President and the push for further centralization. On the other hand, HDP’s birth in August 2012, was coeval and connected to the start of the peace process between Ankara and the PKK, which later collapsed in July 2015.

At this point, with the breakdown of the peace process and  the resumption of the conflict, the HDP is in an increasingly precarious position. It should be stressed that since its foundation, the HDP managed to carve out a certain room for maneuver and to acquire a certain degree of their legitimacy as a mediator between the parties. However, as the dialogue with the PKK disappears from Ankara’s agenda, this mediator-role is increasingly devoid of meaning. The fact that Demirtaş’ repeated calls for a cease-fire have regularly fallen on deaf ears further suggests that the HDP is no longer able to recover its role of political interlocutor party.

The AKP has met little resistance in charging the HDP with pursuing the insurgency since the attempted coup. In fact, in a climate of general and widespread suspicion and exaltation of the nationalist sentiment, any complaint of excessive use of force by the Army advanced from the Kurdish party is simply branded as explicit support to the separatist terrorist organization.

Selahattin Demirtaş during Turkey’s 2015 elections.

A multifaceted conflict

The final dissolution of the HDP, even if it is not banned outright, could have extremely important repercussions on the developments of the conflict with the PKK.  In fact, the final de-legitimization of HDP by the Government and the arrest of its leaders simultaneously signals the final demise of a political path to resolving the Kurdish question and increases the risk of violence. The Kurdish question encompasses not only the conflict with the PKK, but also the more general recognition of the rights of the Kurdish minority as well as the prospect of an administrative reorganization of the entire region.

To this should be added that after the resumption of the conflict, there have been many Turkish citizens representatives of the middle class who judged the strategic choices of the PKK as mistakes, like that of engaging in a long period of urban warfare. This part of the population does not support the AKP, and may support the devolution of power to the regional and local level as a solution, similar to what occurred in 2012.

However, this choice of substantial equidistance between the government and the PKK can only come from a minority share of the population. For most of the inhabitants of the south-east, the loss of the HDP means the PKK is the only group that will air their grievances.

It is thus not surprising that just hours after the detentions began, eight people were killed in a car bomb outside a police building in Diyarbakır. This was blamed by authorities on PKK militants. It is thus likely that the HDP’s ouster will widen the recruitment pool of Kurdish militants. In particular, this step is likely to radicalize entire generations of young people who have never known a true peace time, as they were born after the founding of the PKK and the first clashes with the army.

In this regard, the role that the Movement of Patriotic Revolutionary Youth (YDG-H) could have in recruiting youths is particularly important. This movement that was born in recent years and represents a kind of youth wing of the PKK. In addition to having adequate arms and capable of supporting guerrilla action, the YDG-H has proven contacts with the chain of command of the PKK.

About Author

Stefano Sarsale

Stefano is an analyst that holds two master’s degrees in International Relations and Security and Terrorism. Specialized in the MENA and South-east Asia, he previously worked for the Centre for International Studies (Ce.S.I.) in Rome, the University of Kent's Conflict Analysis Research Centre (CARC), the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre (ESISC) in Brussels. He is also specialized in terrorism and conflict-related issued, on which he published a number of articles for the think tanks where he previously worked and the Analysis blog Europinione which he contributed to creating.