Turkey’s authoritarian regime continued its crackdown on the opposition HDP party this week, seeking to prosecute more of its members of parliament. In recent years Turkey has waged a legal war on its opposition parties, trying to make it so that only the AK Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in power.
Ankara, the largest jailor of journalists, is also moving to be the largest jailor of opposition politicians. However, Western democracies that usually preach about human rights and democracy have largely been silent.
The betrayal of Turkey’s democratic activists has been a long, slow process. Years ago Turkey, a member of NATO, claimed that it was fighting “terrorism” in the form of the Kurdistan Workers Party. Most Western countries, including the United States, supported this “war on terror,” using the argument that every country in the world was not fighting “terrorism.” At the same time, the argument was that members of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, accused of supporting “terrorism,” could choose democratic politics instead of armed struggle.
The result was that the many Kurds and others in Turkey voted for the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, helping it pass the 10% threshold to enter parliament. In June 2015, the HDP made major inroads in Turkey, receiving up to 80 seats in the 550-member parliament. This threatened the AKP’s stranglehold on power.
The far-right party, led by Erdogan, had come to power in the early 2000s and has sought to transform Turkey into a one-party state modelled on Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Egypt. To accomplish this, Erdogan first had to silence all critical media and other critics. The court system was gutted and university departments were packed with AKP loyalists. Gay rights groups were crushed. Everything that was liberal or had women’s rights in Turkey was targeted.
IN THEORY, NATO members are supposed to be democratic and have a free press – which is part of what the alliance has stood for in its defense of the West from totalitarianism. But Turkey used its membership in NATO to demand impunity for a crackdown and for invasions of Syria and Iraq.
Ankara also demands that it be permitted to join the EU, but not embrace any of the democratic values of the European Union, such as human rights. Torture is widely used in Turkey, as are extrajudicial assassinations, kidnapping of opposition figures from foreign countries, and targeted killings of Kurds in other countries, such as the murder of activist Hevrin Khalaf in Syria in October 2019.
Once the HDP had entered parliament in June, Turkey’s ruling party had to find a way to remove this opposition party. It called new elections and then Turkey ended its ceasefire with the PKK. The concept here was to tarnish the HDP and create an excuse to remove its members from parliament by declaring war on the PKK and then claiming the HDP is linked to the PKK.
This is an example of a country creating a largely imaginary “terrorist” group to fight in order to silence its opposition. Turkey was at peace in 2015 and had no problems with neighboring countries. But the AK Party couldn’t allow that to continue.
In calling new elections in 2015 and attacking the PKK, Turkey unleashed its army to destroy Kurdish villages and cities in a war on PKK activists.
THE WAR helped reduce votes for the HDP, which went from 6,058,489 votes to 5,148,085 votes. Nevertheless the HDP still had the 10% necessary to enter parliament with 59 seats. Erdogan moved to the next stage, after having provoked a war against imaginary “terrorists” to reduce HDP voting.
His AKP Party removed parliamentary immunity from HDP members in 2016 and began arresting its leadership. In November 2016, Turkey arrested HDP head Selahatin Demirtas and other members of the party. Jailed after a trial in 2018, they will likely never be released.
A coup attempt in 2016, which Turkey blamed on a one-time former ally of Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen, led to a purge of some 150,000 people from government offices and other parts of society. The government used the coup attempt as an excuse to jail as many political enemies as it could, from academics and teachers to police, soldiers and others. Most had no connection to the “coup.”
Having jailed a large swath of the country and the opposition, the governing party then pushed a presidential referendum, a kind of “enabling act” to concentrate power in Erdogan’s hands. With support from the Trump administration for its crackdown, Turkey’s ruling party even attacked protesters in Washington in 2017.
The referendum passed. Turkey now needed to increase its wars in Syria and Iraq to claim it was “fighting terrorism” abroad, as an excuse to silence dissent at home. It launched an invasion of Syria in 2016 claiming it was stopping the “PKK.” It expanded the war in Syria in January 2018, ethnically-cleansing the Kurdish region of Afrin.
By 2019, Turkey had proposed at the UN a “safe zone” to ethnically cleanse all Kurdish border areas of Syria. The Trump administration, with pro-Turkish envoys at the State Department, agreed to a Turkish invasion in October 2019; some 200,000 Kurds fled.
Turkey now claimed that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria were “terrorists” and that it had to fight them, too. In the spring of 2020, Ankara launched an expanded invasion of northern Iraq, claiming again to be fighting “terrorism” even though there had been no terror attacks in Turkey for many years. Turkey bombed minority Yazidi areas, claiming Yazidis were now part of the “PKK.”
At each juncture when the Turkish ruling party needed to silence critics at home, a new war would result. Turkey shipped Syrians to fight in Libya in 2020 and provoked a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
THE LAST element of targeting the HDP began in February 2021 with a raid in Iraq where several Turkish hostages were killed. Turkey claimed this was evidence of more “terrorism” at home and arrested 718 HDP party members. Now the regime seeks to prosecute nine more parliament members of the HDP in connection with protests in 2014 in Kobane. The protests are now “terrorism.”
Turkey has also dismissed 60 of 65 HDP mayors, claiming they are “terrorists.” It has never provided any evidence of “terrorist” acts. Over the weekend a dismissed HDP female mayor, Dilek Hatipoglu, appeared in court with a black eye, having been beaten by police. Ankara also launched an investigation into parliament member Dilan Dirayet Tasdemir, another female politician from the HDP, based on critique of Turkey’s military operations.
Erdogan’s government also jailed HDP lawmaker Omer Gergerlioglu for retweeting an article in the Turkish press. Retweeting articles or calling for peace in Turkey can now result in jail for “terrorism.”
Turkey’s ruling party now wants to rewrite the constitution and is seeking to totally ban the HDP from politics. Pro-government officials have tweeted images of the jailed HDP leader in the crosshairs, as if he is to be targeted for killing. Turkey has mobilized its English language media, which is all pro-government, to claim its new constitution will be more “liberal” and will “unite society.” This in a country where any critical journalists are jailed and opposition party politicians are jailed for tweets.
It’s unclear why Turkey receives almost no critique from the UK, Germany, US or other countries that claim to stand for democracy. Its ruling party has recently incited against gay rights protests and student protesters at Bogazici University. Unsurprisingly, the government authorities call the protesters “terrorists.”
Ankara has systematically sought to make sure that voters who choose the opposition will be labelled terrorists – even when no actual terrorism exists, Turkey continues to launch more military raids and arrest mayors and politicians.
Western democracies have often told militant groups that if they lay down their arms and embrace democracy, as happened in Northern Ireland, they will receive support. People in Turkey did that: they sought a ceasefire and went to the polls, and then found that preaching peace would also be labelled “terrorism” so that Turkey’s ruling party can stay in power forever using “fighting terrorism” as an excuse.
Western media sometimes repeat Ankara’s regime narrative that Turkey has lost “40,000” people fighting terrorism. In fact, most of the 40,000 were killed by the government in attacks on “terrorists.” There have been no terror attacks on Turkey in recent years, and yet the “war on terror” continues. The member of NATO appears to have used its role with impunity and used the US “war on terror” as an excuse to launch a war against any opposition voices, the free press and student protesters.