Turkey’s Kurdish movement not going away, despite crackdown

Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party represents a powerful social movement and, barring an outright ban, is likely to remain a force in Turkish politics, despite the government dismissing dozens of its elected politicians and sending thousands of its members to prison on questionable charges in recent years.  

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) issued a report earlier this month detailing the scale of the crackdown it has faced. More than 15,000 members have been detained since the party first won seats in parliament in 2015, including 6,000 jailed.

In 2019 alone, some 1,674 HDP members were detained and 200 jailed, the report said. These totals are already out of date; three district mayors from Muş province were arrested in early morning raids on their homes last week and dismissed from their posts. 

The report also said former party co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were being “held hostage” in jail since the state detained HDP parliamentarians in a series of raids in November 2016. 

The state charges the detained and jailed HDP figures with terrorist propaganda in connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an armed insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all label the PKK a terrorist group. 

But Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at rights watchdog Freedom House, argues that the government crackdown has done little to dent the HDP’s popularity and political prospects.

“The HDP will continue to be a force in Turkish politics as long as it is not completely legally banned, and it does seem the authorities aren’t taking that step,” he told Ahval in a podcast. 

Schenkkan expects government aggression toward the HDP, particularly its mayors and parliamentarians, to continue, leaving the party in a sort of grey zone. He saw this policy as fitting within a broader pattern over the past few decades, in which the Turkish government uses different tactics to erode the capabilities and influence of the main Kurdish party. 

The government has learned to avoid a total ban, he explained, because such a move tends to generate sympathy for the Kurdish cause and the party usually finds a way to return anyway. 

“I assume what the Turkish government is doing is making some kind of calculation that a ban simply isn’t worth it, that the trouble that would cause, in terms of violence, in terms of reputation, especially internationally, isn’t worth doing,” said Schenkkan.

Yet the government has apparently deemed a broad crackdown worth doing, particularly in the wake of the AKP losing the mayoralties of most of Turkey’s largest cities this year. 

The HDP, which decided not to field candidates in major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara where there are sizeable Kurdish populations, was seen as playing a key role in the victories of main opposition candidates Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, respectively. 

Since August, the government has dismissed 30 recently elected HDP mayors, and replaced them with appointees. This is in addition to the more than 90 HDP mayors dismissed in 2016, in the wake of renewed violence between the state and the PKK. 

On top of all this, a strong nationalist sentiment has taken hold in Turkey since the launch of its northeast Syria offensive, and part of that energy is anti-Kurdish. “The AKP feels that in order for them to survive they have to go back to this Turkish nationalist way of ruling,” independent Kurdish analyst Abdulla Hawez told Ahval

But Hawez also said Turkey’s Syria offensive, which critics have said is an attempt to ethnically cleanse the area’s Kurdish population, had created a sense of global solidarity with Kurds that could help boost their cause. In addition, the HDP likely has four years to recover before Turkey’s next election, which is scheduled for late 2023.

“Right now there is a deep recession among the Kurdish movement in Turkey, but I would say that this is just temporary,” he said. “The Kurds in Turkey are very creative and they will find new ways to continue their struggle.” 

Schenkkan acknowledged that the ongoing crackdown had been a problem for the HDP, but said it was not close to breaking up the party or defeating its supporters. 

“The HDP is the latest manifestation of a big social movement, especially in the southeast, and that social movement doesn’t disappear, no matter what the Turkish government does,” he said. “There’s still a lot of repression, and the repression doesn’t seem to prevent the movement from being successful, including in political expression.”