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Amid growing crackdown, pro-Kurdish party calls for new elections in Turkey

Facing ongoing pressure, Turkey’s Kurdish-majority HDP has called for early elections after 24 elected mayors have been removed from office.
Pervin Buldan, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), speaks before starting a two-day hunger strike in support of jailed Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Guven's own hunger strike against the isolation of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in prison, at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC17525CE770

Following initial deliberations about withdrawing from parliament in protest over sustained state pressure, Turkey’s second-largest opposition party called for early elections during a meeting with its constituents Wednesday.

Officials from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) reached the decision after dozens of party members and supporters have been sacked, detained or jailed in recent months. Since the municipal elections in March, 24 of the party’s mayors have been removed from office on terror-related charges and replaced by state-appointed trustees.

In response, party officials released a declaration calling on opposition parties to support its call for early elections “to rescue [the] people of Turkey from the tyranny” of the ruling government alliance between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said the move was “a rhetorical reminder” for the government that the HDP remains the leading party in the Kurdish-majority southeast and could get its sacked candidates re-elected in a new vote.

“The HDP statement also can be seen as a warning that the removal of mayors and appointment of kayyums [trustees] will only deepen local resentment of the government,” Makovsky told Al-Monitor. “In reality, as HDP surely knows, there is currently no prospect of early elections. Only the presidency and parliament — the latter requiring a 60% vote under the new executive system — can call for new elections, and Erdogan controls both.”

There was no immediate response from the Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People's Party, but some members of the nationalist Iyi Party did support early elections, according to a report from Arti Gercek.

Though broader reactions remain to be seen, the call comes after the Interior Ministry began replacing HDP officials earlier this year with district governors. On Aug. 19, the removals began with the mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van, who the ministry said were “linked with terrorist organizations and have been found to support terrorist organizations.”

Since then, 24 mayors and 14 co-mayors have been removed from office on similar accusations. Speaking after Wednesday’s declaration, Hisyar Ozsoy, deputy co-chair of foreign affairs for the HDP, said the continued removal of elected officials would deepen ongoing political and economic issues in Turkey.

“We need to draw a line,” Ozsoy told Al-Monitor. “We know if the process continues like this, none of the problems the country is facing now will be solved.”

In the March 31 municipal elections, the HDP won 65 municipalities, and the party holds about 10% of the seats in the Turkish Parliament. Yet months after assuming office, party officials have been increasingly accused of sympathizing or fostering links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group at war with the Turkish state and designated a terrorist organization by Ankara, the European Union and the United States.

Prior to this year’s elections, the HDP also faced pressure with 94 of 99 local governments managed under HDP coalition parties replaced by state-appointed trustees between Sept. 2016 and Feb. 2018, according to the HDP. The party’s former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have been in prison since November 2016.

During Wednesday’s press event, HDP officials also released a detailed report in which members claim the democratic will of their Kurdish-majority voters was being denied.

Reflecting on the call for early elections, Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations who researches authoritarian regimes at Bilkent University in Ankara, said the declaration was likely a “symbolic” response, as a new vote would be unlikely without support from the AKP-MHP bloc.

“It’s a smart move because the HDP is really fighting to stay within legal politics,” Esen told Al-Monitor. “It forces the AKP to make some tough choices. The HDP is not going to take a more radical course, which means the AKP won’t have an excuse to use more repressive policies against the HDP.”

Though Erdogan’s approval ratings benefited from an initial boost following an Oct. 9 operation to eradicate PKK-linked forces in northeast Syria, reports indicate the uptick in support may wane as time passes, further decreasing the chance of early elections in Turkey.

“I don’t really see any real, major shift in the direction of the AKP after this operation because I think Turkish voters are still very much concentrated on economic issues and as long as the economy doesn’t pick up, I don’t think the government will be able to gain extra votes,” Esen added.

Makovsky said there was no reason to believe the government would alter its current course. The HDP was the only parliamentary party to oppose the widely popular Syria incursion and the party remains at risk of falling below a 10% election threshold to enter parliament.

If the HDP were to fail to pass that threshold, Makovsky noted, the AKP, often the runner-up in HDP strongholds, would acquire its seats, possibly regaining the parliamentary majority it lost in 2018.

“The AKP-MHP alliance is determined to smash the Kurdish consciousness that HDP largely represents and, as much as possible, to create chaos and disarray in the party so as to render it a non-factor in the national elections that ultimately will come, at least by 2023,” Makovsky told Al-Monitor.

He added, “And, of course, attacking the HDP rallies the AKP-MHP nationalist base, which needs little convincing that the HDP is 'terrorist.' We should expect the replacement of HDP mayors by kayyums to continue.”