On November 20, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment in the case of Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). The Turkish government, the ECHR insisted, should release Demirtaş immediately.
Less than two weeks later, a Turkish appeals court rebuffed the ECHR, unanimously upholding Demirtaş’s conviction for disseminating “terror propaganda.”
Turkey’s recalcitrant move was the latest blow to progressive forces in the country. The HDP has distinguished itself as a dogged opponent of the Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s autocratic government, uniting a mish-mash of leftists under the banner of peace and democracy.
Demirtaş was first arrested in November 2016 for his alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. While the ECHR accepted that the initial arrest and detention of Demirtaş were in accordance with Turkish law, it objected to his continued incarceration in “pre-trial detention.”
The ECHR joined other prominent actors in lining up behind the HDP leader: European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and members of Turkey’s largest opposition party, the centrist Republican People’s Party, have also called for his release (the latter somewhat ironically, considering it supported the 2015 measures that made Demirtaş’s prosecution possible).
Yet even if Demirtaş were freed from jail, he would not be out of the woods. He is facing dozens of terrorism-related charges, and has already been convicted of spreading “terrorist propaganda” for his remarks at Kurdish New Year celebrations in 2013. (The apparently verboten comments: a reference to the assassination of three Kurdish activists in Paris in 2013 and an assertion that the Turkish military wouldn’t be able to eliminate the PKK’s bases on Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq.)
If there’s little doubt Erdoğan wants to keep Demirtaş behind bars, there’s also little doubt the accusations against the HDP leader are politically motivated. His imprisonment, the ECHR noted in characteristically formal language, “had pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate.” Demirtaş puts it more plainly: “I am a political hostage.”
Turkey’s accelerated slide into repression and one-man rule can be traced back to a failed coup against Erdoğan in the summer of 2016. After the would-be putsch, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and launched a capacious crackdown that still hasn’t ended. Thousands of people have been purged from state institutions in the last couple years and hundreds of journalists have been imprisoned (including Jacobin contributor Max Zirngast).
Often those swept up stand accused of having links to the American-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkish authorities claim was behind the 2016 coup. Others have been targeted for supporting Kurdish rights, which the government invariably equates with supporting the PKK. Several individuals have been accused of being supporters of both the Islamist Gülen movement and the leftist PKK — a charge that seems implausible at best considering the ideological gulf between the two. Thousands of Turks, meanwhile, have been forced to leave the country.
The attacks on the HDP have been unsparing. In addition to Demirtaş’s incarceration, HDP former co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ has been imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, the party’s parliamentary caucus has been persecuted, and hundreds of local government officials across Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast have been dismissed and replaced with Erdoğan-friendly officials.
Erdoğan’s iron-fist approach to the “Kurdish question” represents a return to the militarized policy of previous administrations. Prior to 2015, Erdoğan’s government had gone further than any administration in the republic’s history in recognizing — albeit in a controlled and limited fashion — Kurdish cultural rights. The government had even engaged in talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK and a figure universally reviled in Turkish nationalist circles.
But after the HDP’s surprising finish in the June 2015 election — which helped deny Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002 — Erdoğan began to take an increasingly hard line in order to shore up support among Turkish nationalists, who were never comfortable with the peace process. The winter of 2015–16 witnessed some of the most intense fighting in the country’s southeast since the height of the PKK insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. Curfews and detentions became the norm as Erdoğan unleashed a wave of repression and voided the June 2015 election results.
Military operations against the Kurds spread outside of Turkey’s borders. Erdoğan launched bombing and assassination campaigns in Iraqi Kurdistan and, most dramatically, ordered an unprovoked invasion of the Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin earlier this year. Many worry another Turkish incursion, this time into Kurdish-dominated northeastern Syria, is imminent.
Against this backdrop, the continuing incarceration of Demirtaş, a human rights lawyer who has tirelessly advocated a peaceful end to the Kurdish conflict, is a major setback for those hoping for a just resolution.
Demirtaş and the HDP trials hold significance beyond Turkey’s Kurdish community as well. Between 2002 and 2015, the AKP dominated the country’s political landscape, winning not just a commanding plurality of the national vote but increasing its share in three consecutive elections (jumping from 34.28 percent in 2002 to 46.58 percent in 2007 to 49.83 percent in 2011).
The HDP’s impressive showing in the summer 2015 elections, in which it won 12 percent of the national vote, threatened to undermine the AKP’s dominance and scuttle Erdoğan’s plans to transform the largely ceremonial presidency (a position he assumed in 2014 after twelve years as prime minister) into the heart of the Turkish political system. Even before the dramatic events of July 2016, the Erdoğan government was moving against HDP members, stripping them of their parliamentary immunity. In this respect, the suppression of the HDP was a critical step in establishing one-man rule in Turkey.
Under the co-leadership of Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, the party had been able to move beyond its Kurdish base and become the center of the Turkish left — bringing in trade unionists, Turkish socialists, LGBTQ activists, environmentalists, and other progressive groups across the country. To use a perhaps glib analogy, the HDP managed to transform itself from a Kurdish Sinn Fein into a broad-based left formation more akin to Podemos or even Corbyn’s Labour Party. And in doing so, it imperiled Erdogan’s rule.
This transformation is all the more striking considering mainstream pundits’ often-pessimistic appraisal of progressive politics in Muslim-majority countries. As Demirtaş himself wrote in a 2016 article published in Le Monde:
In the Middle East, where nation-states were created on paper a century ago, 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.
There are vast differences between Erdoğan, Donald Trump, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, and Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Yet it would be foolish to overlook the obvious global patterns in “market authoritarian” leadership and their left opponents. Just as the removal of Lula has paved the way for the rise of a neofascist in Brazil, the crushing of the HDP — which had injected life into Turkey’s ineffective opposition in the summer of 2015 — was a necessary progression in Erdoğan’s ongoing efforts to transform himself into a modern-day Sultan.
Demirtaş and the HDP are the best hope, electorally, for Turkish and Kurdish leftists. They are critical figures in the global counteroffensive against “market authoritarianism” and neofascism. And their elimination from the Turkish political scene would embolden not only Turkey’s autocratic president but tyrants from Manila to Mar-a-Lago.
They must be defended.