Report

Erdogan’s Last-Ditch Power Play

Turkey’s president cracks down on a major pro-Kurdish opposition party.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he holds a press conference following a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Feb. 1.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he holds a press conference following a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Feb. 1. Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey is moving to close its second-largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in what is widely seen as perhaps the last bolt for a government that has exhausted all other options as its public support craters and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces an uphill battle in the next national elections.

Accusing the HDP of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has arrested thousands of party officials in recent years, including more than 700 in the last month, and almost all elected HDP mayors and a number of members of parliament have been removed from their posts. The latest crackdown on the HDP was sparked by a clash last month in Kurdish-run northern Iraq, in which 13 abducted Turkish soldiers and police officers were killed in an operation meant to free them. (The PKK—which has battled the Turkish government since the 1980s and is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States—says the hostages were killed in Turkish airstrikes.) 

Since the incident, calls for the full closure of the HDP, which has been around since 2012, have gathered pace. Last week, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is part of a governing coalition with Erdogan’s AKP, reiterated his call for the HDP’s “urgent” closure and advised that there be measures to prevent it reestablishing under a different name. 

Erdogan’s assault on the HDP shows just how much his government is struggling with an economic crisis, declining vote share, party defections, heightened tensions with the United States, and an increasingly edgy maritime confrontation with fellow NATO members in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s shaky economy—with the currency plunging, inflation rising, and unemployment rocketing—has particularly weakened Erdogan and his party, which have, in one form or another, ruled the country since 2002. 

“Stoking racial prejudice against Kurds and their elected representatives appears to be [the ruling coalition’s] last refuge.”

“Stoking racial prejudice against Kurds and their elected representatives appears to be the last refuge of a ruling coalition that has exhausted all other options,” said Aykan Erdemir, the Turkey program senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “The growing pressure on the HDP is a reflection of the dismal state of the Turkish economy, as the dramatic rise in unemployment and poverty erodes the ruling bloc’s voter support.” In a poll by the Turkish research center Avrasya last October, only 32.5 percent of voters said they would support the AKP if elections were held immediately, an all-time low, while support for the CHP had increased to 28 percent.

If Erdogan’s current beef with the HDP has a lot to do with the state of the economy, his dispute with the party dates back to 2015, when the HDP delivered a painful blow to the AKP by breaking through the 10 percent election threshold to secure representation in parliament, thereby wrecking the party’s parliamentary majority. In response, the government pulled out of peace talks with the PKK, stirring up violence in the majority Kurdish southeast of the country. The following year, Turkey arrested Selahattin Demirtas, then the HDP’s co-chair. Despite a binding order last year from the European Court of Human Rights that he must be freed, Demirtas faces up to 142 years in jail if ultimately convicted of terrorism-related offenses stemming from his alleged involvement in violent protests in 2014.

Previously, Erdogan could count on some cover from former U.S. President Donald Trump, who often went out of his way to help the Turkish leader and who even pulled U.S. troops out of Syria to facilitate a Turkish invasion meant to drive armed Kurdish forces—key U.S. partners on the ground—away from the Turkish border. Now, with Trump gone, Erdogan is exposed to the full fury of an irate U.S. Congress, economic sanctions, and an eroding relationship with Washington.

“With Trump in the White House, Erdogan could still secure deals from the administration and balance the pressure put on Turkey by Congress. But with [President Joe] Biden elected, it will be impossible for Erdogan to balance that,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University.

“We are watching the slow death of Erdogan’s regime. It is not going to come down as a result of one large blow—it will die as the result of a thousand cuts,” he said. 

Neither the Turkish president’s office nor government communications officials responded to requests for comment.

“We are watching the slow death of Erdogan’s regime.”

Turkey’s next general elections are scheduled for 2023, but some believe they may be called as early as next year. In preparation for the coming vote, Esen said, the Turkish government is trying to divide the opposition vote by tarring the HDP with a terrorist brush. At the same time, the crackdown on the HDP bolsters Erdogan’s position with Turkish nationalists, and especially the MHP, which he needs to govern since an outright majority seems out of the question. Although Erdogan is likely to review other options before totally shutting down the HDP, he and his party are “approaching the nuclear option,” Esen said. 

For Hisyar Ozsoy, a member of parliament for the HDP in the Kurdish southeast and foreign affairs spokesperson for the party, the government’s hard-line approach is a last-ditch appeal to nationalist sentiment.

“Because the government cannot respond to the Kurdish movement politically, they do it with the judiciary,” he said. “If those in power use such means of repression, it shows weakness as they are not able to rule by securing the consent of people—it’s now by force.” Ozsoy, who says he has some 10 cases pending against him for alleged terrorist propaganda, said the moves to silence Kurdish voices may only sow the seeds of more political violence. Members of his party are exploring ways to run if the HDP is shut down, but with a new election law in the works, they don’t even know what the rules of the game will be.

Erdogan recently announced plans to again change the country’s constitution after previously winning a 2017 referendum to move the country to a presidential system. Now he is calling for an entirely new constitution, which could include changes to the political framework and the electoral system. 

But even such acrobatics may not be enough to save Erdogan and the AKP, said Esen of Sabanci University. 

“It’s like cancer at a terminal stage—you can only make sure you live for another six months,” he said. “The government can come up with strategies to lengthen its time in power by a few months, or even a few years, but ultimately this cannot be reversed.”

Liz Cookman is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul covering Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East.

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