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Turkey's pro-Kurdish party HDP faces threat of closure after top court ruling

The decision, which comes less than four months before the country’s fateful elections, raises the prospect of the pro-Kurdish party's running on other parties' tickets or as independent candidates.
Co-leader of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) Mithat Sancar (C).

Turkey’s highest court turned down on Thursday the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) request to postpone until the crucial elections in May court proceedings of a case seeking its disbandment, in a move further complicating the country’s tangled electoral outlook.

The request to reschedule the court proceedings until after the presidential and parliamentary elections expected to be held on May 14 was unanimously rejected by the Constitutional Court, the state broadcaster TRT reported.

HDP was founded in 2012 and entered the Turkish parliament in 2015 elections in which the AKP lost its majority to form the government. The party emerged as the country’s second largest opposition party in the 2018 general elections by getting 11.7% of the votes.

The HDP has faced the threat of closure since the court accepted in 2021 an indictment seeking to shut down the party and ban more than 450 of its members from politics over their alleged ties with outlawed armed Kurdish militants. The court also rejected a two-month extension request by the party to argue against the court’s decision earlier this month to freeze the treasury funding allocated for the HDP.

HDP Spokeswoman Ebru Gunay described the decision as “the final nail in the coffin of law in Turkey.”  

“The decision of the Constitutional Court today is also indicative of the stance the court will adopt on the closure case,” she told journalists.

The case is widely seen as politically motivated as part of the government’s ongoing suppression of Kurdish politicians and activists. 

“As is the case with the entire judiciary, the Constitutional Court has been politicized,” prominent journalist and political commentator Kadri Gursel told Al-Monitor. “The majority of the members of the Constitutional Court have been appointed by the Erdogan government.”

“Banning or not banning the HDP will not be an outcome of the independent will of the Constitutional Court,” Gursel said.

The HDP’s some 6 million electorate will be the top kingmakers of the elections as polls suggest a tight race between the Justice and Development Party-led ruling alliance and the opposition bloc of six parties including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Good Party.  

“The public is no stranger to the banning of Kurdish parties in Turkey. But this time, if the HDP is banned, it will be the first time that a party is outlawed as part of a government’s election designs in a bid to stay in power,” Gursel opined.

The HDP is set to deliver its verbal defense before the court on March 14. Then the court’s rapporteur will submit his final report on the case to the 15-judge panel for the final ruling, according to Osman Can, former rapporteur judge for Turkey’s Constitutional Court. At least 10 of the judges would need to agree that the party colluded with outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in order for the HDP to be banned. PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and many Western capitals.

“Unless there are new documents and information that we do not know about but have been submitted to the court through the prosecution … it is not possible to ban the HDP with the current indictment,” Can told Al-Monitor, adding that the evidence and assessments in the indictment failed to meet the constitutional requirements to ban a party.

“Yet Turkey's Constitutional Court does not have a clean track record on party closures.”

Political parties will have to submit their presidential and parliamentary candidates in late March and mid-April according to a tentative election calendar, making it risky for the HDP to run in the elections and raising the prospect of the party's running on other parties' tickets or as independent candidates.

It remains unclear when the court will make its ruling.

Erdogan, whose party also faced the risk of closure in 2008 over its alleged activities against the secular state, said, “It should not be possible even to propose a disbandment of a political party” in 2015. Yet the same year peace talks between the PKK and the AKP collapsed with Erdogan’s ruling party drifting toward nationalism, culminating in their alliance with ultra-nationalists. 

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish parties of Turkey have gained experience in overcoming the curveballs thrown their way, including party closures and the draconian 10% election threshold, which was lowered to 7% last year.

Reminding that the HDP represents a political movement “whose parties have been closed many times before,” Gursel said the party would seek “hybrid solutions” against a potential political ban on the party and its members. 

The party could run in the elections either on the list of other parties or as independent candidates, Gursel added.

“The HDP is capable of retaliating against the government" he said. “It could support the opposition bloc’s candidates in some critical regions in order to punish the government.”

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