Turkey’s chief prosecutor submitted an expanded indictment on Monday in Ankara’s second attempt within three months to ban Turkey’s third-largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). By targeting the HDP and stoking anti-Kurdish sentiment, Ankara hopes to divert public attention away from a Turkish mobster’s ongoing confessions that have implicated senior Turkish officials in extrajudicial executions, drug trafficking, and weapons transfers to jihadists.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ultranationalist coalition partner Devlet Bahceli, who wields outsized influence within the country’s security and law enforcement agencies, is the driving force behind attempts to ban any form of pro-Kurdish political activity, including the HDP. In January, Bahceli issued a strongly worded demand for the chief public prosecutor of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals to ban the HDP, a move the HDP criticized as a violation of the constitutional provision that “[n]o organ, authority, office or individual may give orders or instructions to courts or judges.”
Two months later, the chief public prosecutor filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court, demanding the shuttering of the HDP. On March 31, the Constitutional Court, over which Erdogan still has not succeeded in establishing full control, sent back the indictment, highlighting procedural shortcomings.
On May 2, an ultranationalist mobster started uploading a series of YouTube confessions that expose senior Turkish officials’ complicity in a wide range of international criminal activity, including extrajudicial executions, drug trafficking, and weapons transfers to jihadists. This scandal forced a shaken Erdogan-Bahceli alliance to double down on efforts to shutter the HDP to distract the outraged Turkish public.
The scapegoating of pro-Kurdish political parties to cover up government mismanagement and corruption predates Erdogan’s rise to power. The HDP is the latest reincarnation of a long line of pro-Kurdish parties in Turkey that had to reinvent themselves following court-ordered bans. Since 1990, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish politicians have established seven other parties, namely HEP (1990), ÖZDEP (1992), DEP (1993), HADEP (1994), DEHAP (1997), DTP (2005), and BDP (2008), which all became targets of lawsuits by Turkish prosecutors and crackdowns by the country’s staunchly anti-Kurdish law enforcement system.
The HDP, founded in 2012, drew Erdogan’s ire in June 2015, when it became the first pro-Kurdish party in Turkish history to cross the electoral threshold of 10 percent – which remains the world’s highest – required to gain seats in the Turkish parliament, thereby denying Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party a majority for the first time in almost 13 years.
In November 2016, Turkish authorities arrested HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, who became a target after he ran against Erdogan in Turkey’s 2014 presidential election and pledged the next year that the HDP would work to thwart Erdogan’s ambitions for expanded presidential powers. Demirtas, who again ran as a presidential candidate in 2018, this time from his cell, remains in prison despite a binding decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in December 2020 mandating his release. The Biden administration, in one of its first Turkey-related statements from the State Department after taking office, expressed concern about Turkey’s treatment of Demirtas and noted the ECHR ruling for his release.
President Joe Biden, who will have his first in-person meeting with Erdogan on Monday on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, should warn the Turkish president that shuttering Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, imprisoning its officials, and disenfranchising nearly 6 million voters would have disastrous consequences for the country and the region. Biden’s willingness to call out Erdogan’s power grab will put the U.S. president’s pledge to confront authoritarianism to the test.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.