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Turkey’s President Erdogan Tries to Politically Disarm Kurds

As his government’s peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) collapses, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has moved to disarm the Kurds politically by trying to undermine the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Recent clashes between PKK militants and Turkish security forces have resulted in casualties on both sides. The Turkish government has also begun attacking the PKK outside of Turkey’s borders. Beginning on July 24, Turkish security forces have carried out airstrikes against PKK camps in Northern Iraq, and Turkish media reports that more than 190 PKK fighters have died as a result of Turkish airstrikes.

While Erdoğan insisted that, with the spike in PKK violence, the peace process is now “impossible,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said he had not given up on seeking a solution. “I am determined to take it forward, as rapidly as I am able, to its logical conclusion once a new government is in place in Turkey,” he wrote in The Washington Post.

However, the Turkish government seems to be using renewed conflict with the PKK to discredit the Kurds politically, primarily by accusing the HDP of being in league with the outlawed PKK. Erdoğan has set his sights on HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, blaming him for the current state of the settlement process and telling reporters that “Demirtaş would go to the mountains if he gets the chance”—implying that he would join the PKK, who are based in the mountains.

HDP co-chairs Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ have found been accused of incitement to violence and promoting a terrorist organization during the Kobani protests in Turkey in 2014, and they may find themselves stripped of their parliamentary immunity and sentenced to up to 24 years in prison. A separate claim against Demirtaş, brought forward by an AKP deputy, accuses him of violating limits of freedom of expression by repeating warnings from a Turkish whistleblower that the AKP planned to carry out widespread electoral fraud on June 7. The timing of these investigations is suspect, as the incidents in question all occurred prior to the June 7 elections, yet the reviews were launched after the polls when it was more politically advantageous for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdoğan, before departing on a state visit to China, went even further than antagonizing the HDP’s leaders, suggesting that all deputies with suspected links to terrorist organizations—meaning HDP deputies—have their immunity stripped.

In response to the AKP’s accusations, Demirtaş has offered that all 80 HDP parliamentarians would give up their immunity, presumably to clear their names. “We have committed no unforgivable crimes,” Demirtaş said. “Our only crime was winning 13 percent of [the] vote.”

AKP officials have suggested that the HDP could be closed for being linked to a terrorist organization, meaning that the party would be disbanded and many of its deputies barred from participating in politics for 5 years. Demirtaş himself repeated concerns that the AKP could close the party, saying “they have the state, they have the judiciary.” If the AKP were to attempt to close the HDP, it would be employing the very tactics that the AKP itself has been victim to—the party came one vote away from closure in 2008, accused of anti-secular activities. Erdoğan introduced a bill in March that would give parliament final say on party closures and has spoken out against the practice, saying “when you close the party you punish the entirety of its supporters, which is not just.”

As the charismatic leader of the HDP, Demirtaş proved in 2014 that the party could win votes in a nationwide presidential election, and in 2015 that his party could represent more than just Kurdish ethnic interests. Expanding the HDP’s reach from Diyarbakır to Istanbul and Ankara, the HDP passed the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in the June 7 parliamentary elections, drawing much of its increased support from disillusioned Kurdish voters that had previously supported the AKP.

For Erdoğan and the AKP, which lost its parliamentary majority during the June 7 elections, beheading the HDP serves a political purpose. With talks to form a coalition government floundering, Turkey seems poised for early elections. If the HDP fails to pass the 10 percent threshold, the AKP will almost definitely pick up the 18 seats necessary to secure a majority government. According to a recent survey by the Turkish Objective Research Center, the HDP’s support has already decreased to 10.6 percent from the 13 percent it received on June 7, putting it dangerously close to falling out of parliament altogether, should the election be held again.

Resurgent Kurdish tensions have also revitalized coalition talks with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which may render early elections unnecessary. While the MHP initially seemed opposed to partnering with the AKP, the collapse of the peace process has the ultra-nationalist party changing its tune. “If the peace process is terminated and our other conditions are met, we would make whatever sacrifice is necessary,” MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli told reporters. And, even if coalition talks fall through and early elections are held, Erdoğan’s strongman stance towards the Kurds may court nationalist voters back to the AKP.

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