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'No peace, no future': In Turkey, HDP arrests fuel Kurdish discontent

HDP supporters believed the party could mediate between Ankara and the PKK. With its leaders in jail, where does the peace process go now?
A supporter holds a portrait of detained HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas during a meeting at the Turkish parliament (Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Supporters of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) fear the detention of the party’s co-leaders and several other MPs earlier this month may have closed the door to any possible resumption of the peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag and 10 more of the party’s 59 MPs were arrested on 4 November for what the government said was their failure to attend court to answer accusations about their alleged links to the banned PKK.

The accusations levelled against HDP lawmakers include attending the funerals of PKK militants, using municipality trucks to carry deceased fighters from the YPG (the Syrian offshoot of the PKK), as well as making statements in support of terrorism and funding “terrorist activities”.

The PKK has waged a decades-long guerrilla war against Turkey for greater Kurdish autonomy, primarily in the Kurdish-majority southeast of the country, and is considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the European Union and the US.

The HDP was founded in 2012 as the successor to a long line of pro-Kurdish parties such as the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which were both banned for alleged links to the PKK.

HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas (L) and Figen Yuksekdag celebrate the party's election gains in June 2015 (Reuters)
Under Demirtas’ leadership it had been successful in appealing to voters beyond the traditional support base or previous pro-Kurdish parties including liberal Turks, Alevis and an array of different minorities.

Some also saw its emergence as a consequence of the “Kurdish Opening”, an attempt by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now Turkey’s president, to end the conflict with the PKK by allowing greater freedom of expression for Kurdish citizens, through economic investment in the southeast and initiatives to promote human rights.

That initiative resulted in a peace deal between the government and the PKK in 2013. In elections in June 2015, the HDP achieved 13 percent of the national vote, the best ever showing by a pro-Kurdish party.

“Demirtas’ success is he wasn’t simply seen as a Kurd, but a socialist and a democrat at the same time,” Garo Paylan, an Armenian HDP parliamentarian, told Middle East Eye from a cafe in Istanbul.

Hamza Aktan is a journalist facing prosecution himself, having worked for the pro-Kurdish IMC TV before it was shut down last month for allegedly “spreading terrorist propaganda." He also sees Demirtas’ personality as key to the party’s rise.

“Demirtas successfully reached out to many Turks, and his background as a lawyer led many to see his as an honest, trustworthy man of principles,” Aktan told MEE.

However, the peace process broke down within weeks of the June elections, following a deadly bombing targeting mainly Kurdish activists in Suruc near the Syrian border. The attack was blamed on the Islamic State (IS) group, but some Kurds blamed the government for failing to tackle the IS threat.

On 22 July the PKK killed two off-duty police officers at their homes in Sanliurfa in an attack which it claimed was “revenge” for the Suruc bombing. Turkey soon afterwards resumed bombing PKK camps in the mountains of northern Iraq,

'Dark day for democracy'

In snap elections in November 2015 the HDP retained just 10 per cent of the national vote. It enabled the AKP, which in June had lost its majority for the first time since gaining power in 2002, to regain control of parliament.

Earlier this year, parliament voted to strip HDP deputies of immunity from prosecution, setting in motion a series of criminal charges filed against HDP MPs.

READ: The end of democracy in Turkey?

The HDP accuses the AKP government of pressing those charges in an attempt to introduce a presidential system in Turkey.

“This is a dark day for our party and democracy in Turkey,” the HDP said in a statement following the latest arrests. “The reason is our seats in parliament are the biggest obstacles to the necessary constitution changes for a presidential system.”

'Turkey is a nation of laws; nobody has preferential treatment before the law. What has been done is within the rule of law'
- Binali Yildirim, Turkish Prime Minister

Neither the Turkish government nor the ruling AKP responded to requests for comment for this article at the time of publication.

The government, however, claimed that the arrests were a result of HDP deputies’ refusal to attend court proceedings after prosecutors called them to testify in ongoing terror investigations.

“Those who come to power by elections but prefer to embrace terrorism will of course be held accountable,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters.

“Turkey is a nation of laws; nobody has preferential treatment before the law. What has been done is within the rule of law.”

A major point of contention is the fact that many HDP deputies - including arrested Diyarbakir mayor Gultan Kısanak and party co-leader Figen Yuksekdag - have attended the funerals of PKK fighters during the last year, which the government asserts is tantamount to support for terrorism.

Furthermore, one of the primary charges levelled against Demirtas concerns comments he made late last year in support of “Kurdish autonomy” in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish-majority region.

He is also accused of calling for people to take to the streets in southeastern Turkey before the October 2014 Kobane riots, after Turkey had refused to allow the Syrian YPG to send arms to Kobane, the Syrian border town then besieged by IS, via Turkish territory.

The call for autonomy came after months of operations against the PKK in cities across the southeast.

'Trench politics'

For the first time during the history of the conflict, thousands of civilians were directly affected after the PKK decided to launch urban clashes by taking over certain neighbourhoods in Kurdish-majority cities and declaring autonomy from the state.

Widely known as the Hendek politikası (from “trench politics” describing how militants dug trenches to stop Turkish security forces entering their neighbourhoods), the PKK were criticised by many in the region after thousands consequently lost their homes in the clashes.

'We have no links to the PKK. But we are a political party, and the voters we represent have memories'
- Garo Paylan, HDP MP

Sur, the old city of Diyarbakir, has been destroyed as a result, with Human Rights Watch claiming that more than 350,000 civilians have been displaced in the region.

The HDP vehemently denies links to the PKK but the problem it faces is that both organisations share elements of the same support base.

“We have no links to the PKK. But we are a political party, and the voters we represent have memories... Memories of horrendous cruelty at the hands of the Turkish state,” Paylan said when asked about links between his party and the Kurdish militants.

“When our deputies attend funerals, this does not mean they support the actions of the PKK militant. It is a show of respect for the families who have lost their son or daughter, and simply shows the emotional damage Kurds have endured as a result of the vicious conflict.”

Children walk among the rubble of damaged buildings in Cizre following heavy fighting between Turkish soldiers and PKK militants in March (AFP
Yet there are also more localised and informal links between the two groups - a natural consequence of both political actors working in the same region.

Most MPs working in the southeast will have a family member who joined the PKK. Such links may simply be impossible to avoid.

The DBP, an HDP sister party operating in the Kurdish-majority regions, often mirrored the PKK’s call for autonomy when the Hendek policy was being implemented by militants in the cities, suggesting overlapping ambitions.

The government claims that municipal resources were spent by DBP and HDP municipalities, both on digging trenches and providing direct support to the PKK.

Mediating role

Demirtas was a human rights lawyer prior to entering politics in 2007, but his brother joined the PKK after spending 12 years in prison.

Through his work, Demirtas brokered deals between the PKK and the Turkish military, and came to believe that the HDP could play a broader mediating role between the warring sides.

“We always said we were the party of peace, and offered the nation something, a link between the Kurds and the state,” Paylan explained. “But this war silences our work and silences the people.”

Yet Aktan believes the HDP has struggled to distance itself from the militants.

'The war between the PKK and Ankara led to the near total collapse of ‘civil politics’ within the HDP, and they failed to sustain a solid policy of opposition against both sides'

- Mehmet Sanri, a veteran Kurdish journalist

“The HDP certainly did criticise the PKK, but perhaps not so forcefully. What is clear is that, due to the clashes, the effect of the HDP as a party weakened dramatically,” Aktan said. “The Hendek politics was not a popular tactic for the Kurds, who saw their homes being destroyed as a result.”

That view is echoed by Mehmet Sanri, a veteran Kurdish journalist, who said the HDP had been weakened politically and was currently “under the shadow of Qandil”, referring to the PKK’s base in northern Iraq.

“The war between the PKK and Ankara led to the near total collapse of ‘civil politics’ within the HDP, and they failed to sustain a solid policy of opposition against both sides,” Sanri told MEE by email.

Paylan said the party had tried to act as mediators during the recent conflict but to no avail.

“We did our best by pleading with the people of Sur, Cizre, and Nusaybin, while also asking Ankara to stop the operations,” he said, referring to the Kurdish towns worse affected by the clashes. “But war is a dirty reality. Nobody listened and the fighting continued.”

'No hope for the future'

The war not only destroyed thousands of homes in the southeast but also inflicted considerable psychological damage on those who witnessed it.

One lawyer living and working in Mardin, a city in the southeast, believed that the breakdown in peace has created a kind of psychological hopelessness and fatigue among those living in the region.

'Of course there is intense anger at the government but there is also a certain frustration towards the PKK too'
- Mardin, lawyer

“Anger is palpable on both sides. Of course there is intense anger at the government but there is also a certain frustration towards the PKK too,” he told MEE by telephone while asking not to be named for fear of arrest.

“People believed the PKK wouldn’t let the people suffer as much as they have. This has damaged the Kurds psychologically, who have no hope for the future.”

Turkish police officers carry the coffin of one of two officers killed by the PKK in Sanliurfa in July 2015 (AFP)
With the arrest of Demirtas, it remains unclear whether the HDP will be able to continue to function as a political party, with many fearing that the region will become embroiled in more violence.

“The more you prosecute the parties that represent Kurds, the more people will look to the PKK as their only option,” the Mardin lawyer confided, admitting he feared the crackdown on HDP did not bode well for those in favour of a democratic solution.

Yet many agree that the HDP could have done little to prevent the current situation. “The HDP played no decision in PKK’s Hendek strategy, and the war meant there was suddenly no place for politics on the Kurdish issue,” said the lawyer.

Paylan believes that while the majority of Turks call for the continuation of the war against the PKK, the vast majority of Kurds want peace.

'Both the Turks and the Kurds are becoming more nationalist right now, and this is a hell for everybody in Turkey'

- Garo Paylan, Armenian HDP parliamentarian

He points to similarities with Colombia, where the overwhelming majority of people living in areas affected by the war voted in a recent referendum for a peace settlement with FARC militants, while those unaffected by the war voted against it.

Considering the lack of options, he fears that many Kurds are losing faith in democracy as a potential solution to the conflict.

“If you demolish Kurdish cities and arrest Kurdish politicians, you make Kurds bitter and feel more Kurdish. The war against the PKK poisons the democratic system,” Paylan concludes bitterly.

“If we have no peace process and the war continues, there is no future for the HDP. Both the Turks and the Kurds are becoming more nationalist right now, and this is a hell for everybody in Turkey."

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