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Will Turkey’s third largest party survive closure case?

The fate of Turkey’s main Kurdish political movement remains in limbo even though the Constitutional Court last week rejected an indictment seeking the closure of the party.
women wave hdp flags at newroz

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish political movement and the third-largest force in its parliament, is determined to fight a controversial bid to outlaw the party, boosted by the Constitutional Court’s provisional rejection of the charge sheet last week.

The closure case against the HDP is the culmination of a long-running crackdown on the party. Scores of senior party members, including former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, have landed in jail, while others have lost parliamentary seats on often thinly evidenced terrorism-related charges.

The chief prosecutor of the Appeals Court launched his bid to outlaw the HDP on March 17, hours after Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a vocal human rights campaigner, became the latest HDP deputy to be stripped of his seat. 

The prosecutor accused the HDP of separatism and collaboration with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an armed campaign against Ankara since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group. But the indictment — more than 600 pages long, excluding bulky appendices — appeared to have been hastily written. The first 500 pages were devoted to judicial investigations and lawsuits against HDP leaders, but some of them, it turned out, had been thrown out or resulted in acquittals. A deceased politician was on the list of party members for whom the prosecutor sought political bans.

In its most controversial aspect, however, the indictment criminalized the two-year peace process between Ankara and the Kurds that collapsed in 2015. The talks involved jailed PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leadership based in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, government officials and HDP members who acted mostly as intermediaries. Drawing on the minutes of meetings between HDP members and Ocalan, the indictment framed the efforts of HDP members as criminal acts, for which the party should be outlawed even though the peace initiative was launched and backed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Ahmet Faruk Unsal, a former AKP lawmaker who has fallen out with the party, was a witness to how the peace process transpired. “Looking at the indictment, the only thing one could tell the HDP is, ‘Well done, you have followed the state’s road map for the settlement process,’” he told Al-Monitor. Unsal said the indictment amounts to criminalizing a legitimate project to resolve the Kurdish issue. “The AKP had strongly upheld the settlement process. Drawing up an indictment by criminalizing a project that was carried out within a legal framework is disrespect to the AKP as well,” he said.

For HDP parliamentary whip Meral Danis Bestas, “The AKP should be the other defendant in this case if the activities referenced in the indictment constitute a crime.” Bestas told Al-Monitor that the AKP had even a sponsored a special law to back up the settlement process, known officially as the Law Ending Terror and Strengthening Societal Integration.

Moreover, the HDP members’ meetings with Ocalan on the high-security prison island of Imrali took place with special permissions from the Justice Ministry. The then-undersecretary of public security attended some of the meetings. “It was the state that organized and asked for those meetings. The HDP had the role of a facilitator. It was there in the name of settlement. We would do the same today, if required,” Bestas said.

The Constitutional Court returned the indictment to the prosecutor March 31 due to what the media initially described as procedural omissions. The court has yet to make an official statement on why it rejected the indictment, but according to Gokcer Tahincioglu, a veteran journalist specializing on judicial affairs, the court not only found technical deficiencies, but also concluded that the prosecutor had failed to lay out what HDP actions made the party a “focal point” of separatist activities threatening Turkey’s unity, as the constitution stipulates.

Referring to other closure cases in the past, including a failed bid to outlaw the AKP in 2008, Tahincioglu said that prosecutors would explicitly list the actions that made the parties a “focal point” of activities against the constitution. “The ‘focal point’ condition is the sole criterium to ban a political party in Turkey. So, the Constitutional Court ruled that [the prosecution] had failed to explain which evidence in the HDP indictment relates to the party becoming a focal point. The prosecution will now try to draw such a link,” Tahincioglu told Al-Monitor. Once the indictment is rewritten and accepted, the Constitutional Court would take up the case and decide whether sufficient evidence exists to outlaw the party, he said.

Whether the HDP would be eventually banned is hard to predict in an atmosphere where the judicial system is increasingly becoming a political tool. For HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar, poorly evidenced charges cannot be downplayed. “Such hollow indictments are the product of a judicial mindset that says, ‘I’m going to punish you even if you have done nothing.’ And this is much more frightening for the opposition,” he said in a recent conversation with Al-Monitor. 

Like many others, Unsal believes the move to shutter the HDP was greenlit by the AKP as a gesture to its de facto ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose support for the government has become all the more crucial amid a bruising economic crisis that is eroding the AKP’s popular support. The MHP had repeatedly called for the banning of the HDP and the closure case came just on the eve of the party’s annual convention. 

“It is hard to say how the closure case will wind up. So many things that people saw as improbable have come to happen in Turkey. One person alone could decide on the issue and that’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” said Unsal, who is now a member of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party.

In what is atypical for him, Erdogan has shied away from the debate on whether the HDP should be banned. For Unsal, who had a close working relationship with Erdogan during his years with the AKP, the president’s reticence is not without a reason. “On many critical issues, Erdogan makes decisions based on public opinion polls. They conduct public opinion polls almost on any issue and, not surprisingly, they conducted one on [banning the HDP]. According to the results, 35% of the AKP voter base disapproves of such a move. The same goes for party members — a certain segment of the AKP is irked by this situation,” he said.

The misgivings on the AKP camp stem from the party’s own history of run-ins with the courts. The AKP narrowly escaped being outlawed for violating the country’s secular system in 2008, while a number of its Islamist predecessors were banned on the same grounds over the years, including the Welfare Party, in which Erdogan’s political career began. 

The Kurds, too, are no stranger to bans. Eyyup Demir, the author of a book on Kurdish parties in Turkey, told Al-Monitor that 11 political parties have sprung from the Kurdish movement since the first one, the People’s Labor Party, was founded in June 1990. “In the 31 years since then, five parties created by the Kurds have been outlawed,” Demir said, stressing that the Kurds never gave up and replaced banned parties with new ones.

He continued, “The HDP is keeping up this struggle today. One has to realize that outlawing parties cannot be a solution as long as their popular bases exist. Every time a party is closed a new party will be established to replace it. The loss will not go beyond a party name.”

Bestas, for her part, said the HDP leadership was determined to not lose the party. “Our road map is to keep the party alive, preserve it and make it bigger,” she said.

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