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Kurdish Political representation

Kurds in Turkey are diverse in terms of political affiliation, language and cultural and religious identity. Of current political parties in Turkey that are perceived as predominantly Kurdish, the largest is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its affiliate the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), which competes only in local elections. The HDP is often described as “left wing”, and the HDP and DBP are widely seen as influenced to some degree by the anti-capitalist ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the principal Kurdish armed insurgent group in Turkey, the PKK.

The HDP espouses liberal policies on equalities, and according to BBC Monitoring, describes its party programme as for “labour, equality, freedom, peace and justice”, on its official Turkish language website.

However, Kurds in Turkey hold diverse political views, and do not only support political parties said to represent Kurdish interests. Large numbers of Kurds support the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP). The Guardian reported in December 2020 that a recent Metropoll survey found that 29% of Kurds would vote for the AKP, compared with 32% for HDP. Kurdish politicians have served in the Cabinets of AKP Governments.

Parties representing Kurdish interests have often been accused by the Turkish state of having links to and standing as proxies for armed insurgent groups such as the PKK. This has led to many of them being banned, which the Balkans Insight news site describes as “the routine fate of Kurdish parties in Turkey” and “until now, 23 Kurdish parties have been closed on various allegations, such as terrorism and ethnic separatism”.

For example, the HDP’s predecessor, the Democratic Society Party, DTP, was closed in 2009 by order of Turkey’s Constitutional Court. It ruled that the DTP had become “the focal point of activities against the indivisible unity of the state, the country and the nation”.

The HDP now also faces the threat of legal closure. In June 2021, the Constitutional Court accepted an indictment by Bekir Şahin, the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, which called for the closure of the HDP and also demands that 451 party members be banned from politics.

The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and violence

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought a long war with the Turkish state for independence or autonomy of the Kurdish region of Turkey. The leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, launched the guerrilla campaign in 1984, but was captured in Kenya in 1999 and imprisoned in Turkey. Shortly afterwards he announced from prison an end to the armed campaign against the Turkish Government.

Subsequently, the PKK introduced a five-year unilateral ceasefire and took a number of steps to try to change its image, calling on the Government to involve it in the country’s political process, allow more cultural rights for Kurds and release imprisoned PKK members including Öcalan. But these demands were not met to the PKK’s satisfaction and the ceasefire ended in 2004. During the ceasefire most PKK operatives moved to the Kandil Mountains in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

The PKK is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK, the European Union, and the United States.

In 2005, the Kurdish DTP, called on the PKK to restore its ceasefire, without success. In December 2009 the DTP was outlawed, leading most of its Members of Parliament to transfer to another Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

In 2007, Turkey carried out airstrikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq but attacks continued. The Turkish Government and the PKK continued to pursue a political settlement in the following few years but without dramatic progress. Another Kurdish group, the DTK, or Democratic Society Congress, started a campaign of civil disobedience.

After its victory at the 2011 election the ruling AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, far from addressing Kurdish claims, increased his nationalist rhetoric, in line with its generally more authoritarian and conservative Islamist tone. A two-and-a-half-year ceasefire collapsed in July 2015, with the PKK resuming its insurgency. There have been no significant peace talks since then, and the conflict entered a new more violent phase, with almost 3,000 lives lost between July 2015 and July 2017.

Kurdish independence or autonomy?

The Foreign Office submitted evidence to a 2018 Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on ‘Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK’, that included observations on how views on Kurdish independence have developed:

[…] While the PKK’s original objective was to achieve Kurdish independence from Turkey, since the 1990s this objective has changed. Öcalan now claims to advocate ‘democratic autonomy’ for Kurds, with a focus on equal cultural and political rights within the Turkish state rather than secession. The HDP / BDP have supported the “democratic autonomy” vision, with a particular declared focus on respect for minority rights.

Crackdown on the HDP 2015-16

BBC Monitoring also submitted evidence to the inquiry, in which it stated that both the HDP and BDP quickly became popular in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast before peace talks collapsed between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish state, after which heavy armed clashes followed in the Kurdish cities for several months in 2015 and 2016.

According to BBC Monitoring, the government at the time accused local HDP politicians of collaborating with the PKK during the clashes, and that since then the “HDP and the BDP have since suffered from the effects of government measures taken on the basis of “anti-terrorism” legislation”. During this period HDP co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were imprisoned along with other party officials and thousands of HDP and DBP activists.

The Turkish embassy in London submitted evidence to the enquiry also, stating:

The main issue at hand is the threat posed by the PKK terrorism. In Turkey, Kurdish-origined citizens enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen with a different background. Kurds in Turkey are on integral part of society, and significantly contribute to the prosperity and diversity of the Turkish society. They can freely speak their language and enjoy Kurdish TV and radio broadcasts, both private and state-owned. However, the PKK not only poses a threat for the Turkish people, but also constitutes a malign force with its delusional worldview for the Kurdish people that it claims to represent. For decades, it caused an unimaginable human cost and suffering in Turkey.

The US State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report on Turkey states that “nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees”. Human Rights Watch, in its 2020 report on Turkey states that “the Erdoğan government refuses to distinguish between the PKK and the democratically elected Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)”.

HDP national political representation and electoral success

In the 2014 Presidential elections, won by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with around 52% of the vote, the HDP candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, took about 9% of the vote.

In the 2015 Parliamentary elections, the HDP managed to clear the high threshold required of parties to enter the Turkish Grand National Assembly (its unicameral parliament) – 10% of the vote. The HDP gained 80 seats, the first time it had won seats in a national election (in the 2011 elections it fielded independent candidates). It took part in the snap elections held in November of the same year and won 59 seats out of the 550.

Presidential and Parliamentary elections took place in June 2018, these elections were the first to be held under Turkey’s new constitutional arrangements, that turned Turkey’s Parliamentary system into a Presidential one.

The elections took place under a state of emergency that was originally imposed in July 2016 after a military coup was launched against President Erdoğan.

While polls indicated Mr Erdoğan might struggle to achieve the more than 50% of the vote required for a first-round victory, the President gained a majority of votes – 52.5%. Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP Presidential candidate, gained 8.4% of the vote, despite having been imprisoned by the state since November 2016.

Independent election observers from the OSCE the Council of Europe stated that the state of emergency did not allow a level playing field for opposition candidates. Opposition candidates complained of media blackouts of their campaigns, and questioned the integrity of the state body – the RTUK which is supposed enforce Turkey’s strict laws on fair media coverage during elections.

It wasn’t clear if the Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) would clear the 10% threshold, but despite curbs on their activities they performed relatively well, winning 11.7% of the vote, giving them 67 seats out of a total of 600.

Detention of Selahattin Demirtas and European Court of Human Rights rulings

Turkey, as a member of the Council of Europe and having ratified the European Convention of Human Rights, is subject to rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

In November 2018 the ECtHR heard the case of Selahattin Demirtas, former co-chairman of the Kurdish HDP party, who was imprisoned two years previously on “terrorism-related” charges, which he denied, after his immunity as member of parliament was removed. Mr Demirtas has still not faced trial.

The ECHR found that that multiple extensions of the pre-trial detention of the former leader had “served a political agenda”. The court ruled that decisions to keep Mr Demirtas behind bars during two “crucial” elections had “pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. The ECtHR demanded that Turkey “take all necessary measures to put an end to [Mr Demirtas’s] pre-trial detention”.

Some two-weeks later a Turkish court rejected an appeal to release Mr Demirtas, despite the ECtHR ruling. The ECtHR then referred the case to its Grand Chamber.

In June 2020, the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Turkey, issued a judgment finding unanimously that the period of time Mr Demirtaş had been in pre-trial detention violated the Turkish Constitution. Prosecutors responded by launching a new investigation into the politician and requested his arrest once again before he could be freed.

In December 2020, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR ruled Turkey must immediately release Mr Demirtas, saying his pre-trial detention since November 2016 had sent “a dangerous message to the entire population” that sharply narrowed free democratic debate.

This ruling has also been ignored and Selahattin Demirtas remains behind bars.

Arrest of other HDP MPs

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, the global organization of national parliaments, looked at the detention of Turkish politicians, particularly those from the HDP in a 2021 briefing. It stated that since 2018, over 30 parliamentarians have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment, and that since 4 November 2016, “scores of parliamentarians have been detained and others have gone into exile”. Thirteen parliamentarians are currently in prison, including the former HDP co-chairs, Mr. Selahattin Demirtaş and Ms. Figen Yüksekdağ. 

Thirteen HDP members of parliament have lost their parliamentary mandates in recent years, largely due to the fact that their prison sentences became final, most recently in the cases of Ms. Leyla Güven and Mr. Musa Farisoğulları in June 2020.  Some of those detained should have been protected by Parliamentary immunity after they were elected in the 2018 Parliamentary elections, but the criminal cases against them were reportedly not suspended, “with the justification that they were prosecuted with terrorism-related charges”.

The IPU also presented evidence that had been supplied to them by the Turkish Government, that explained the actions they had taken against HDP politicians.

The Turkish authorities justified the legality of the measures taken against the HDP parliamentarians, invoking “the independence of the judiciary, the need to respond to security and terrorism threats, and legislation adopted under the state of emergency”.

The authorities asserted to the IPU that:

There is no “HDP witch-hunt” in Turkey; that women parliamentarians are not being specifically targeted; that there is no Kurdish issue in Turkey and no current conflict in south-eastern Turkey; that Turkey is facing a terrorism issue at multiple levels involving the PKK and its “extensions”; that the HDP has never publicly denounced the violent activities of the PKK; that HDP members, including members of parliament, have made many statements in support of the PKK and their “extensions”; that HDP members have attended funerals of PKK suicide bombers and called for people to take to the streets, which has resulted in violent incidents with civilian casualties; that this does not fall within the acceptable limits of freedom of expression; that the Constitutional Court has reached such conclusions in several cases and, in other cases, domestic remedies have not yet been exhausted; and that the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Turkey must be respected.

Removal of local mayors and members of municipal assemblies

In February 2017, the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report looking at the effect of the government’s security operations in Turkey’s South-East region between July 2015 to December 2016. The OHCHR state that in September 2016, using emergency powers adopted after the attempted coup, the Government adopted a decree permitting it to appoint “trustees” in lieu of elected mayors, deputy mayors or members of municipal councils suspended on charges of terrorism.

The report says that by the end of December 2016, reportedly 69 municipal co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) had been arrested, 58 had been dismissed and most had been replaced with “trustees”, in 50 municipalities or around 50 per cent of all municipalities held by DBP.

The removal of HDP Mayors continues. According to Human Rights Watch’s Events of 2020 report on Turkey since August 2019, the Interior Ministry has justified the removal of 48 elected Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayors on the basis that they face criminal investigations and prosecutions for links with the PKK, they were all replaced with “trustees”. The report said that at time, 19 mayors remained in pretrial detention.

A February 2020 HRW investigation, looked at 18 case studies of HDP Mayors who had been detained. The report states that the courts rely on three main kinds of “evidence” as grounds for pretrial detention: “vague testimony by witnesses; the mayors’ attendance at political meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and funerals of militants; and their social media postings, in some cases from several years earlier”.

In most cases, HRW report, the identity of the witnesses is protected.  Witnesses “allege that the mayors are associated with certain activist organizations that operated without hindrance for years but that the authorities now regard as PKK-linked”; or they “assert in a generalized and vague way that that the mayors undertook unspecified activities for the armed group”.

HRW state that in many cases, the courts simply accept that the prosecutor’s evidence meets the criteria for pretrial detention of reasonable suspicion of “membership of a terrorist organization.” This is a “catalogue offense” in Turkey’s Criminal Procedure Code, which means courts are automatically permitted to rule that suspects under investigation for this crime can be held in pretrial detention. 

Mayors are not the only local politicians targeted. According to the European Commission 2020 Turkey country report, the government further removed 68 HDP members of municipal assemblies in 2019, 15 of which were arrested. In metropolitan municipalities alone, 214 elected municipal assembly members were suspended. Some 1,870 HDP members were arrested and 206 imprisoned in 2019 alone.


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