Turkey Descends Into Political Turmoil after Detention of Kurdish MPs

Photo: AFP

When the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, one of the party’s promises was to open a new chapter in country’s decades-old Kurdish conflict through adopting political and peaceful solution by rejecting deeply rooted security-first approach that framed the problem solely in security terms.

During the first decade of its rule, the AKP government mostly lived up to its promise and displayed an unwavering commitment to expanding and enriching rights of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds in groundbreaking reforms. It was under the AKP rule that restrictions on Kurdish language were lifted, the ban on media was removed by allowing Kurdish TV broadcasting, airing radio stations and publishing newspapers, and Kurds saw significant progress on every field of their lives. 

It was a promising story indeed. Far-reaching beyond any of his predecessors in granting rights to Kurds, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took steps unimaginable decades ago, left his mark in hallmark reforms despite the revival of armed clashes between the Turkish security forces and separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 2004, after a five-year hiatus in the fighting. Only a decade before that, prominent Kurdish lawmakers, including iconic figure Leyla Zana, had been dishonorably arrested by the Turkish police, an incident that only fueled violence in the Southeast in the early 1990s. 

To the astonishment of Turkey observers outside and to the fury of nationalists at home, Erdogan even launched a negotiation process with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2013 to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict, which sapped country’s billions of dollars, condemned Southeast to perpetual underdevelopment in contrast to other parts of the country, and claimed lives of tens of thousands. The time came for a trailblazing change that could offer a bloodless solution to the intractable problem dragged on for decades, so said the government leaders then.

But the dream for a historic peace settlement dramatically ended last year with the collapse of a two-year truce. With that came the old bloody days back, continuing to haunt region’s ordinary people, this time closer to home than previous clashes as a number of cities turned into virtual war zones in the new episode of fighting.

Erdogan remained committed to peace efforts as long as it served to his political aspirations, many critics argued. When it became an obstacle to his political bid — presidential dream — he never hesitated to abandon the whole process. That was what happened last year, when pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas curtailed Erdogan’s presidential dream by depriving AKP of parliamentary majority in June 7 elections, first time since 2002. HDP’s historic election triumph came at the expense of AKP and Erdogan, as he warned before, preferred to renew war to peace efforts to sink HDP in a snap election.

While his political strategy fell short of pushing HDP under notorious 10 percent electoral threshold, his party was able to regain the majority of seats in Parliament with nearly 50 percent of votes in Nov. 1 elections, enough to form a single-party government. But Erdogan never forgot and forgave Demirtas for his challenge to his presidential bid. 

Subsequently, the government launched twin assaults on HDP, both on political and military fronts. In Parliament, the government worked hard to depict HDP as a political wing of PKK militants, and, with the backing of opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), enacted an amendment to the Turkish constitution to strip HDP lawmakers of their immunity. On the military front, the Turkish security forces intensified counter-insurgency operations against PKK militants in cities, leveling many cities on ground, in a strategy designed to undermine HDP’s popularity in the eyes of people by near collective punishment. That strategy paid off to some extent as HDP faced a loss of support after PKK’s decision to bring the war to urban areas. But the public mood also turned against the government and the Turkish state, which they hold responsible for the destruction of cities.

Friday’s detention of Kurdish lawmakers represents a significant setback and reversal in dealing with the Kurdish conflict. It has brought the country back to 1990s when politics and political solution has been sidelined, even marginalized, amid unprecedented state crackdown and escalating violence across the region.

If history is a guide to predict what would happen next, it is safe to say that more violence could follow political repression and exclusion of Kurdish political actors from the political scene. 

Turkey relapsed into political turmoil after authorities detained Kurdish lawmakers, plunging Parliament into uncertainty and laying the ground for President Erdogan’s long-sought bid to bring the presidential system. 

With now 13 Kurdish deputies behind bars, the future of Turkish politics hangs in the air, with the government already sending signs of an eagerness to tap on the current crisis to push forward its own agenda: possible snap elections or a referendum for an executive presidency with the backing of the nationalist opposition party.

“With the worsening of the Kurdish conflict, Erdogan will have legitimate reasons to extend the emergency law indefinitely,” Omer Taspinar, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution told the New York Times. For him, the crackdown on Kurdish politicians will solidify Erdogan’s alignment with nationalists and would help him “secure the parliamentary majority he needs for constitutional changes in the direction of a presidential system.”

Early on Friday, police stormed houses of co-chairs of HDP, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, while police also raided HDP headquarters in Ankara at the same night. The government says HDP deputies were detained for not appearing in court to testify in terrorism-related investigations.

For security reasons, detained HDP deputies were transferred to different cities to avoid social backlash in Diyarbakir, the province that is seen as the heartland of Kurdish political movement, including HDP. Demirtas was sent to a highly-guarded, well-protected prison in the western province of Kocaeli while others were placed in numerous prisons across the country.

In his first reaction to his detention, Demirtas denounced the whole legal process as farce and said he does not recognize the investigation given that judiciary is under the firm control of the government and there is no guarantee for a fair trial under such repression. 

Across Turkey, authorities blocked access to popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Periscope in an operation aimed at preventing gatherings to protest arrests.

Hours after detentions on Friday, a huge explosion wreak havoc in Diyarbakir, killing 10 and wounding more than 100 people. The scale of devastation was vividly on display as TV channels showed shuttered buildings nearby. The Turkish authorities placed blame on separatist PKK, but Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing attack through its Amaq news agency, U.S.-based S.I.T.E Intelligence Group said. Another attack took place in Sirnak on Saturday, killing two children and wounding four.

Turkey’s Western allies expressed outmost anxiety and uneasiness over Turkish authorities’ detention of pro-Kurdish politicians in an expanding crackdown on opposition and critics, only to be rebuked in clear terms by Ankara which savors the move as an “effective way to fight terrorism.”

The clear-cut difference in approach to the matter has revealed the deepening rift between the EU, U.S. and Turkey, which recently cozies up to Russia in a sign of major shift in its foreign policy in the region.

Both White House and State Department expressed dismay over the development. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the government was deeply disturbed by the arrests and warned that suppressing fundamental freedoms was not an antidote to terrorism. 

State Department Spokesperson John Kirby expressed deep concern over the detentions. “When democracies pursue legal action against elected representatives, they must do so in a manner that reinforces the public’s confidence in the rule of law,” he said. 

“The kind of detentions of democratically elected members of parliament we are seeing in Turkey today is an assault on the right to political representation and participation for millions of voters and defies fundamental principles of any country that claims to be democratic and based on rule of law and human rights,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director, told Associated Press.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the actions “call into question the basis for a sustainable relationship between the EU and Turkey.” Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark summoned Turkish ambassadors, seeking for an explanation about the detentions. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed EU criticism as unacceptable and accused EU members of abetting and supporting PKK terrorism.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) slammed the detentions. CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu argued that “those who came with elections should go with elections.” But Prime Minister Binali Yildirim shrugged off criticism, saying that “if they go hand in hand with terrorism, then they must be held accountable for that,” referring to the Kurdish politicians 

“There is no free judiciary, that is why we don’t want to go,” Garo Paylan told Associated Press. “They say if you don’t obey Tayyip Erdogan, if you don’t obey the ideology that is going on, a fascist ideology, you are a terrorist,” he said while explaining why HDP lawmakers do not want to appear in courts for giving testimony. HDP categorically denies government charges about having any link to the PKK group which is waging a bloody war against the Turkish state for autonomy in the southeast.

The detention of deputies coincided with a larger political crackdown by the government on opponents and critics of all sorts, in an escalating fashion since July 15 abortive coup. More than 110,000 public officials have been dismissed in a sweeping purge.  At least 170 media outlets, including newspapers, magazines and TV channels, have been shut down in the crackdown, leaving more than 2,500 journalists jobless, according to Turkey’s Journalists’ Association. 

On Saturday, an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of editor-in-chief and eight top staff members of opposition Cumhuriyet daily in Istanbul. Only a week before that, the government shut down mostly 15 Kurdish media outlets, expanded the scope of its targeting of critical and independent media with an emergency decree.