Amid pandemic, HDP faces last year before likely closure by Turkish authorities

An HDP congress in Diyarbakir, Turkey's Kurdish capital, 2021.
An HDP congress in Diyarbakir, Turkey's Kurdish capital, 2021. Author: HDP
Amid a pandemic still not willing to fade away, the end of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is imminent: the Turkish government is initiating proceedings to get rid of it in a context in which party members have been unable to take to the streets to protest. Covid restrictions have obviously been used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has not hesitated to ban mobilizations that go against his interests.

Ekrem and Erdem play it down. They know their demands will be forgotten and they do not believe that the pandemic has worsened the circumstances of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) even if they have not being able to take to the streets to make themselves heard: before covid hit the streets, the HDP already had to deal with allegations of PKK links —the PKK is classed as a terrorist organization in Turkey— and the party’s protests were systematically silenced. The Turkish media, according to both activists, are complicit with such silence: “They are nationalists. They will never show a pro-Kurdish protest, nor will they visit a Kurdish area. And if they say anything related to the issue, they will receive pressure, threats, or will be jailed,” they explain.

But Ekrem and Erdem, who are in the ranks of HDP-aligned Socialist Refoundation Party, never get tired of taking to the streets, despite the bans. They did so on 1 May when Erdoğan decided to block all the streets in the country over fears of the Workers’ Day protests, even if the pandemic was then contagious in merely one district of Istanbul during the Bogaziçi student riots. And they will do so “as long as the word ‘Kurdistan’ is forbidden,” explains Erdem. But they also renounce to heroism: “Many friends of us have been arrested, or are pending trial. It’s part of what we do, it can’t be any other way. When you pose a threat, you are arrested. Therefore, we know we are doing the right thing.” Thousands of party members and supporters are already in jail, as well as dozens of mayors dismissed from their local councils. Beyond the party’s closure, those figures show how the representation of the ideas of 12% of the Turkish population is weakened. Nevertheless, the situation is not new.

A Turkish ‘tradition’

The Peoples’ Democratic Party, or rather the voters it represents, has never been free from the inquisitorial actions of the Turkish government, whatever its leader was. In fact, Erdoğan himself, who will sooner than later guillotine the pro-Kurdish party, will not be the only executioner of a party that has appeared and been banned on several occasions since the 1990s. Its members, aware that they represent one of the largest parties in the country, know that it has never ceased to be there. As HDP Bingöl MP Hişyar Özsoy points out, “the party will never disappear.” And history proves him right.

The People’s Labour Party (HEP) kicked off a history of disagreements between the Turkish Constitutional Court and the pro-Kurdish parties. In fact, the HEP came to have 22 seats in parliament, in alliance with the Social Democratic Party (SHP). However, in 1993 it was banned. Shortly before, aware that the party would be erased from the map, its MPs themselves founded the Freedom and Democracy Party, which a few months later ended likewise. Another party was then established, the Democracy Party (DEP), which only lasted for six months. Before the party was outlawed, six DEP members lost their parliamentary immunity and were sentenced to 15 years in prison over PKK ties. Then, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) appeared; in the 1995 legislative election it obtained more than one million votes, but only 4% of all Turkey, so it could not make it into parliament, since the Turkish electoral system stipulates that only parties having obtained more than 10% of the votes can be allocated seats.

HADEP, although it was also short-lived, managed to last for a few years. In 1999, it won dozens of mayorships in local elections. But in 2003 it ran up against the same court, which also decided to disqualify 46 of its members from all political activity. Months before, prior to the 2002 election —in which Erdoğan led the AKP to victory and was subsequently elected prime minister—, the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP) was created, which despite almost tripling the votes of its predecessor, did not reach the 10% threshold and was left with no seats. Faced with yet another process in the Constitutional Court, the party merged with the Democratic Society Movement to establish the Democratic Society Party (DTP). This was the party from which Selahattin Demirtas, now jailed under the accusation of PKK links, emerged. The DTP won up to 100 mayorships in 2009, but was banned too that same year. Before that, they had already established the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which secured 36 seats in parliament.

Although the BDP was not closed down, its members joined in 2014 the current Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the political body of the Peoples’ Democratic Congress, which dozens of leftist, pro-Kurdish, and even Islamist groupings are part of. Even though, it is estimated that in a few months they will be confronted with the same court. And no one wonders if that will happen or not, but rather when: the case is already under the Constitutional Court’s scrutiny, where two thirds of the chamber are needed to issue a party ban.

Imminent closure

Some think that the vote will be a mere formality: “It is difficult to predict whether the Constitutional Court will vote in favour of closing the HDP as loyalty to justice or as obedience to Erdoğan. But it should be kept in mind that those who vote in that court have been appointed by Erdoğan himself. It’s hard to know if they are just based on pleasing him, but top judges in every country have political preferences, and they are usually aligned with whoever has put them in that post,” explains Güneş Murat Tezcür, director of the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida.

When will closure happen? “I believe they will close the party, but will do so at a time when the opposition’s ability to reorganize itself is minimised. The HDP’s closure is likely, but when? It will be based on Erdoğan’s calculations to make a bigger impact,” explains Hogward Eissenstat, a professor of Middle Eastern History at St. Lawrence University in the United States. Although the next election is scheduled for 2023, many believe it will be called at an earlier date due to an unraveling economy, skyrocketing inflation, and currency devaluation —the lira has fallen by more than 50% in recent months.

Therefore, calculations must be accurate if opposition parties are to seek Erdoğan’s ouster from power. In this regard, no one doubts that the only one that can overshadow the ruling AKP will be the candidate put forward by social-democratic CHP. Now that many are counting the hours left to pro-Kurdish HDP, the CHP knows it can attract some of those votes. “The CHP does not have much power to attract the pro-Kurdish vote; the 2019 local election in Istanbul was an exception to that. But it should be noted that the CHP in the last two years has made a rapprochement with the pro-Kurdish camp. The CHP will only receive Kurdish votes in case the HDP is shut down, and it will only happen because there is a desire for a change of government. But it must be said that Kurds will never hold the secular party in high esteem,” Tezcür explains.

Signs depicting Erdogan's face after a presidential visit to Diyarbakir, 2021. / Photo: David Forniès

Still, the HDP has remained loyal to the opposition in many respects. During his recent trial over the 2014 Kobane protests, Demirtaş held up a sign that read “Where are the $128 million?”, a phrase widely used by the CHP to claim the dollars sold by state banks to bolster the Turkish lira. Similarly, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu is under investigation for having met with HDP mayors in previous years.

In what will surely be the pro-Kurdish party’s last year before another one is established, problems are piling up for the HDP, but analysts even look further. Will the HDP’s closure be the first ban of many? “[HDP] leader Selahattin Demirtas is already in prison. This is a full-fledged ban. Besides, allegations against the HDP are always the same: terrorism, terrorism, and terrorism. But what I believe is that the AKP is desperate. There is no way they can fix the economic issue, and they think that banning other parties is the best way for Erdoğan to keep power. The HDP is the easiest target. But my question is no longer just whether they will shut down the HDP, but: will they go further?”, asks Tezcur.

Who has the right to protest?

In the face of the imminent dissolution of the party, the cries of some members who wanted to take to the streets, but were forbidden to do so, have been muffled. While in some cases the pandemic could pose a real danger to public health, in others it was the perfect excuse to silence voices —but only those critical: about 100,000 people from all over the country traveled to Istanbul, 24 July 2020, to welcome the new Hagia Sophia mosque. New, because for the past 86 years it had held the title of “museum” in order to maintain its religious duality as a building that has passed through the hands of Christians and Muslims. It was Erdoğan’s big day as he sought to emulate Mehmet II, the sultan who decided to turn this 537 church into a Mecca for Muslims in 1453. For Erdoğan, that day was to have as large an audience as possible. Thus, in temperatures of almost 40 degrees celsius, thousands of the faithful flocked to see their president chant the Quran and witness the new conquest.

But not everybody is allowed to protest in Turkey: left-wing, feminist, and pro-Kurdish groups have usually everything to lose. When the number of covid cases was in the thousands, the Constitutional Court admitted to procedure the case of the HDP’s closure. On that occasion, the governor of Istanbul, who reports directly to the government, banned demonstrations. Even so, some 30 people gathered in a square in the Besiktas district to read a statement which went unnoticed by most of the pedestrians coming back from work. Prohibitions for some and permissiveness for others resonated: Erdoğan’s followers could hold big celebrations, while opponents were deprived of criticizing, whether in the street or on social networks. This is not new: ever since Gezi protests rocked the government in 2013, Erdoğan has sought to put out sparks with full buckets of water. Opposition movements —internally divided and judged by all Turkish courts when the occasion arises— have been well weakened by Erdoğan’s repressive policies, according to Human Rights Watch: going out to protest is a high-risk sport is Turkey.

Pandemic stops what Erdoğan was not been able to

They are not part of the pro-Kurdish party, nor do they have political aspirations, but they carry one question as a banner, and know that no one will answer it: “What did you do with our children?”, they all ask. The Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneleri) have been taking to the streets for 26 years to demand the whereabouts of their disappeared children during the Turkish state’s dirty war against pro-Kurdish and left-wing movements in the 1980s and 1990s. While at first they did so in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square, a central location close to the iconic Taksim Square, now police repression and covid have relegated them to social networks, through which they read a statement every Saturday.

Even if these mothers had been allowed to protest every Saturday in the same place for 23 years, the police repressed them in 2018 with tear gas, an action —it should be noted— aimed at women who are now in their 70s and 80s. Many now face prosecution. A week later, they again protested, and were forced to do so in a small street, where no one would hear them. Nothing changed: some 30 octogenarian mothers silently held up photographs of beardless young men —some just over 18 years old when they disappeared. All this under the gaze of a hundred obedient, shielded police officers ready to charge. After 2018, they never did it again. But the scene was repeated every Saturday, religiously, until the coronavirus arrived and the mothers had to hold their protest at home. They were not allowed to protest either, and they never obeyed the order to stay at home. But covid, considering their ages, did force them. It was a great move for Erdoğan, who as prime minister had met them in 2011 and promised to investigate what had happened to their children. In addition to failing to deliver, many of them now have to sit in front of a judge.

An untenable situation

Some 4,000 party members are in prison and 59 HDP mayors have been expelled from local councils. On the other hand, the party has had to defend itself against verbal and physical violence from detractors and, among other things, its leader is jailed too. Europe’s warnings to try to stop what the European Parliament calls “political persecution” have been to no avail: Erdoğan remains a tough nut to crack for the left-wing party.

But despite the hurdles posed by an iron leader and a never-ending pandemic, the spirit of opposition is more evident than ever in the Eurasian country. They don’t have an easy job, says Erdem: “The state’s structure has become much more aggressive. And I think this is very much connected to the country’s economy. When the economy goes down, the state becomes more aggressive against those who support the HDP.” But Ekrem and Erdem try to take the heat out of it: that’s what has fallen to us, they say. That’s why they will remain on the streets, albeit with some fear: “You never know what day they will knock on your door or you won’t go home.”

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