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Erdoğan Silences the Opposition in Turkey

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Turkish politics took another step towards the abyss on 20 May when the immunity of several dozen MPs was retroactively lifted by a temporary amendment to the constitution (1). The article adopted by the parliament is itself in violation of the constitution, and contrary to the universal principles of law and democracy.

The amendment, tabled at the behest of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, mainly targeted the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentary group of 59 MPs (2), who embody the most dynamic opposition in the Turkish parliament (3); 417 allegations have been filed against 53 HDP MPs for their speeches at public gatherings — they are indicted solely because they have exercised their rights to freedom of thought and speech. Erdoğan has thus taken one more step in his attempt to exclude the HDP from parliament and from democratic politics.

Erdoğan sees the HDP as an obstacle on his march towards autocracy (4). Because our party is the main voice and platform of popular and democratic forces in Turkey, in particular of the Kurdish political movement, Erdoğan wishes to silence it. His goal is to obstruct democratic opposition, and silence speeches in parliament denouncing the violations of human rights inflicted on the Kurdish-majority regions.

We will not give in to these attempts to drag our MPs before courts transformed into war machines serving the Justice and Development Party (AKP). We will continue our struggle for justice and equality, hand in hand with other forces of democracy in Turkey, while opposing the attempts to put our MPs on trial and the arrests of our local government councillors (5). The sound of arms in Kurdish towns, and the proclamations of Erdoğan, who thinks he can gain legitimacy by shouting ever louder from his Ankara palace, are deafening Turkey, which was not long ago discussing, if only formally, harmonisation with the democratic norms of the European Union.

A de facto war, with dreadful consequences, is once again wreaking havoc on Kurdish cities, threatening to destroy social unity; it is waged with heavy artillery and tanks, shelling people’s homes. Hundreds of civilians and Turkish security forces personnel, and an unknown number of Kurdish militia, have died since July 2015 as part of Erdoğan’s effort to win more votes and ensure the move to a presidential system, at the cost of setting the country on the path to destruction.

In the face of all this, people have expressed their fears of going back to the dark days of the 1990s. But what is happening today is worse. In the city of Cizre, hundreds of young people were burned to death in basements and Diyarbakır’s Sur district has been razed. There is growing anxiety and distress as people see their day-to-day security threatened. The space for democratic politics is shrinking as opposition voices are silenced. Those in power are establishing an ever more authoritarian regime to tighten their stranglehold on power and perpetuate their rule. This is the reality in Turkey today.

Europe looks the other way

What are EU institutions doing? While we wait for them firmly and audibly to condemn what is happening, they are not just ignoring the destruction but openly rejecting pleas for action that might prevent the abuse. International organisations are doing little better: after three months, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on the Turkish government to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the killings in Cizre. There has been no concrete action to urge Turkey to respect the international treaties it has signed (6).

Europe, worried about the refugee crisis, looks the other way while Turkey tramples human rights and democratic values. The US is mainly concerned with the war against ISIS. Both issues are certainly significant. But it is hard to understand why Europe and the wider world overlook the situation of the Kurds in Turkey, which is directly related. It is even harder to understand their silence over the severe violations of fundamental human rights committed by Erdoğan and the AKP, who use those fleeing the war in Syria as a tool of blackmail (7).

The peace process that began at the end of 2012 was a breath of fresh air for all (8). There was a long way to go, but progress was being made towards a lasting peace between the Turkish and Kurdish peoples. But in April 2015, the Turkish regime decided to toughen the conditions of solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan, historical leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and an architect of the peace process, imprisoned on Imralı island, stopping visits and contact with the outside world. This strategy of tension led, in summer 2015, to the military offensive in the Kurdish region of Turkey.

Erdoğan does not want dialogue to resume; he refuses to return to peace talks or stop the war he started, and without which he could lose his throne. It has come to a point where calling for peace is seen as a crime: four academics have been dismissed from their posts and put on trial for ‘terrorist propaganda’ for publicly reading out a declaration demanding an end to military operations in the cities of southeastern Turkey (9).

And Erdoğan does not shy from setting his sights on the Syrian Kurds, who have been fighting heroically against ISIS, gaining significant ground with support from the international coalition. Turkey has sealed all border crossings likely to be used by the Democratic Union Party (PYD, affiliated to the PKK in Syria), despite the fact that Syrian Kurds have not fired a single bullet in the direction of Turkey.

We [the HDP] demand that the martial lockdowns in Kurdish towns be lifted before it is too late and violence escalates to uncontrollable levels. We call on both sides to stop the war. For as long as the guns speak, the democratic sphere will continue to shrink, allowing Erdoğan to present himself as the only guarantor of national stability.

‘Our struggle was for everyone’

In the Middle East, where nation-states were created on paper a century ago (10), it seems impossible to break free from the deadly choice between ISIS and despotic rule. The only way out is a secular, pluralist, democratic model that holds different peoples and faith communities equal, with stronger, autonomous, local administrations and a broader range of collective and individual rights.

The HDP won 13% of the votes in the June 2015 election with a party programme that reflects this vision, both for Turkey and for the Middle East. We provided representation for Armenian, Yezidi, Arab and Assyrian citizens of Turkey, for workers, academics, young people and women, for Alevis, Sunnis, Turks and Kurds; Turkey in all its diversity entered parliament, arm in arm, singing songs of peace. Six million people voted for a common democratic future and the HDP became the focus for hopes of peace. The peoples of the country came to believe that together they could heal Turkey’s broken democracy.

We were the future of Turkey. But there was another part of Turkey that harked back to the oppressive past, which had failed to bring any benefit to the people. Our success in the 2015 election deprived the nationalist and sectarian AKP of single-party rule, and put a spanner in the works of Erdoğan, the wannabe sultan. As a result, Erdoğan declared our party an enemy to be crushed at any cost, denounced us as ‘terrorists’, terminated the peace process and plunged the country back into the civil war of the 1990s.

He is hostile towards the HDP because our commitment to ethnic and gender equality is the antithesis of AKP’s sectarian, male-dominated style. That was demonstrated during the peace negotiations, when Turkish officials continuously objected, asking ‘How can the women’s issue be relevant to the Kurdish peace process?’ They found it odd because our mentalities were completely different: our struggle was not only for Kurds, it was for everyone.

Perhaps the West still thinks it can do business with Erdoğan, but look at Ahmet Davutoğlu’s demise (11). The president has no sense of justice, democracy or human rights, but fancies himself as the one, all-knowing, man capable of shaping the future of the country and the region for the century ahead. Erdoğan is implementing a de facto Turkish-style presidential system, in violation of the constitution, which he aims to translate into law. That is why he has lifted MP immunity. But this will not be easy. The democratic opposition, in and out of parliament, will not give in to his coup de force.

Selahattin Demirtaş is co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and chair of its parliamentary group. He has been MP for Istanbul since June 2015 and represented Diyarbakır (2007-11) and Hakkari (2011-5).

Notes.

(All notes are by the editors)

(1) Passed in a secret ballot, by 376 votes out of 550. In theory, it allows the prosecution of 138 MPs; in practice, only leftwing MPs are being targeted.

(2) Founded in 2012, the HDP is made up of leftwing and ecologist organisations, many of which came out of the Kurdish movement. Two of its members were briefly part of the interim government of autumn 2015.

(3) The HDP won 10.7% of the vote and 59 seats in the parliamentary election of 1 November 2015. It came fourth, behind the conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP, 49.5%, 317 seats), Republican People’s Party (CHP, centre-left Kemalist, 25.3%, 134 seats) and National Movement Party (MHP, ultra-nationalist pan-Turkist, 11.9%, 41 seats).

(4) By winning 12.9% of the vote and 80 seats in the parliamentary election of 7 June 2015, the HDP thwarted Erdoğan’s ambition to establish a presidential regime instead of the current parliamentary system: without the support of 60% of MPs (330), he could not hold a referendum to amend the constitution. In November 2015 Erdoğan called another election in which the AKP won an absolute majority, but still not the qualified majority he needed.

(5) According to the International Representative of the Kurdish Women’s Movement, some 4,500 HDP officials and local government councillors have been detained since July 2015, when the ceasefire between Turkey and PKK collapsed; 950 were still in detention this April.

(6) Turkey ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1954 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2003.

(7) On 18 March the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which Turkey undertook to limit the flow of migrants (mainly Syrian refugees) to the EU.

(8) In December 2012 the Erdoğan government initiated direct negotiations with the PKK, its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan and a number of Kurdish figures, some now HDP MPs. A truce was agreed in 2013, and both sides said in 2014 that they were close to a general agreement.

(9) Esra Mungan of Boğaziçi University; Muzaffer Kaya of Nişantaşı University; Kıvanç Ersoy of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University; and Meral Camci of Yeni Yüzyil University.

(10) An allusion to the Sykes-Picot agreement. See Henry Laurens, ‘Ottoman Empire: the division of the spoils’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2003.

(11) Having been diplomatic adviser to Erdoğan (2003-9), foreign minister (2009-14) then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to resign this May; he is replaced by Binali Yıldırım, of unquestioned loyalty to Erdoğan.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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