Procedures to ban the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) in Turkey are now moving quickly. At the beginning of March, the Court of Cassation (Turkey’s highest court of appeals) began an inquiry into the HDP, focusing on the actions of HDP parliamentary deputies during the 2014 protests against ISIS’s [Daesh's] siege of Kobanî. Then, on 17 March, the Chief Public Prosecutor submitted an indictment against the HDP, calling for the party to be banned and for 687 HDP politicians to be banned from public office.
The government has accused the HDP of acting in concert with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and threatening Turkish national integrity by championing Kurdish democratic rights. Parties for the representation of a particular ethnic group are banned in Turkey, and despite having a broad left-wing political programme of social freedoms and support for the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, the HDP is commonly perceived as a Kurdish organisation, particularly by the Turkish right wing.
The party has faced serious state repression since its foundation in 2012. Many elected HDP politicians have been removed from office and arrested, and many local representatives have been replaced by government-appointed trustees. On the same day as the indictment against the HDP was submitted, the HDP parliamentary deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu had his parliamentary position revoked, due to his legal conviction for tweeting an article in support of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process. He refused to leave the parliament building, instead carried out a "Justice Watch", and was arrested on Sunday morning but released later that day. Justifiably, the HDP have accused the Turkish judiciary of acting on behalf of the government to “[play] on the opposition as the stick of the political power holders.”
It is important to note that this development has come after prolonged calls for a HDP ban from Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is in coalition with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The MHP and its associated militia, the Grey Wolves, have a long history of carrying out violence against ethnic minorities in Turkey, particularly the Kurds. When Bahçeli called for the government to close down the HDP in December 2020, the idea was dismissed by a senior AKP official. Paradoxically, a ban on the HDP might actually weaken the MHP’s position in the immediate term, as the AKP would be less reliant on their parliamentary support.
The Turkish state’s campaign against its Kurdish population is not just one of political repression and military conflict, but also of cultural erasure. The early Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had a heavy emphasis on secularism, yet often determined cultural and ethnic difference through religion, so made no acknowledgement of a separate Kurdish identity. The Kemalist state also attempted to forcibly assimilate Kurds at the same time as it denied their existence.
The latest instance of this is a new government-prepared textbook about Diyarbakır, an overwhelmingly Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeast. This new textbook refers to the language spoken in Diyarbakır as "Baku Turkish", claiming it is simply a dialect of Turkish influenced by the Azerbaijani language. This is a well-established tactic of the Turkish assimilationist project, claiming that any expressions of Kurdish identity are merely regional eccentricities of Turks in the southeast of the country.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party in Turkey, has come out against the proposed HDP ban, defending the party on the basis of multiparty democracy. Some CHP officials have met with Gergerlioğlu and the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu gave a speech against banning political parties. However, Gergerlioğlu has criticised the CHP for not giving more support.
The reason the CHP has not gone further is that it cannot do so without coming to terms with its own relationship to "Turkishness" and the treatment of the Kurds. The CHP is a peculiar organisation: it began life as Atatürk’s political vehicle and governed the country under one-party rule until the end of the Second World War, an authoritarian party of Turkish nationalism. Nowadays, and particularly since the centre-left leadership of Bülent Ecevit in the 1970s, it contains a fraught mix of staunch nationalism and social democracy. In recent years the CHP has improved its relationship with the HDP, but it is fundamentally committed to tough state action regarding the "Kurdish question".
The CHP supported, with caveats, the Turkish invasion of YPG-controlled northern Syria in 2019, and in 2013 criticised the government for its attempts at peace talks with the PKK. Additionally, the CHP has formed the anti-Erdoğan "National Alliance" with the İYİ Party, a breakaway organisation from the MHP which exists only due to its criticisms of the MHP support for Erdoğan and his anti-democratic reforms, rather than offering any critique of the MHP’s violent racism.
The proposed HDP ban also comes as the European Union has softened its attitude towards Erdoğan. Planned sanctions based on Turkey’s “unauthorised drilling activities” in the Mediterranean have now been shelved, at least partially by the instigation of the Biden administration.
A number of European politicians, including the European Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell have spoken out against the proposed ban, and the upcoming European Council meeting this week will address EU-Turkey relations. However, it is likely that the primary interest will be in Greek and Cypriot grievances against Turkey. Despite potential condemnation, it is difficult to see any concrete action being carried out in the event of the HDP’s closure, unless it is added to a laundry list of Turkey’s indiscretions.
Despite its lacklustre consternation, the European Union is neither an effective nor consistent critic of the Turkish government. It relies on the Turkish government as its outsourced border force, keeping Syrian refugees out of "Fortress Europe". A dangerous precedent was set last year when Germany sentenced to jail ten members of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist (TKP/ML), which is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey but not by Germany.
Setting aside any assessment of the TKP/ML, it is worrying that involvement in an organisation proscribed by the Turkish government has now been deemed a criminal offence in Germany. If the HDP is banned, will German state carry out Erdoğan’s dirty work against its members? Neither the CHP nor bourgeois governments in Europe can be relied upon to stand up fully for democracy and against anti-Kurdish repression in Turkey.