Turkey’s Constitutional Court on June 21 accepted an indictment aiming to shutter the HDP, which remains the country’s second-largest opposition party. The Court rejected Chief Public Prosecutor Bekir Sahin’s first indictment in March, citing procedural flaws. In early June, Sahin submitted a revised indictment, and this time the Constitutional Court agreed to put the HDP on trial. The indictment seeks the party’s closure and the banishment of some 450 of its members from politics.
A verdict may take up to a year to arrive. Should the court rule in favor of shuttering the HDP, the party will dissolve just like its pro-Kurdish predecessors and some of its members will face five-year bans from party politics. Given mounting pressure by Turkey’s ruling coalition, it is difficult for the Constitutional Court to exonerate the HDP. In the meantime, there are new efforts in the Turkish parliament to lift parliamentary immunity for fifteen additional HDP lawmakers, which will likely pave the way for more arrests.
Turkey’s pro-Kurdish politicians are resilient and resourceful. HDP co-chair Sancar vowed to fight against the party’s disbandment tooth and nail, but the HDP might also choose to dissolve itself before the lawsuit takes shape and join forces with another opposition party. Pro-Kurdish activists also might establish yet another pro-Kurdish party, following a strategy that they have perfected since the 1990s.
Turkey’s democracy, however, may not survive this blow. Disenfranchising over 6 million pro-Kurdish voters and pushing some 40,000 party members out of democratic channels will hammer the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s struggling democracy. Pushing the HDP out of the political arena in the run-up to the presidential-cum-parliamentary elections of 2023 could give Erdogan just enough momentum to survive a ballot box challenge, which otherwise—if polls are accurate—could end the Erdogan era and mark a decisive turn back toward democratic politics.
Furthermore, militants who advocate for political violence on both sides of the Kurdish conflict will see the HDP’s ban as a victory, expecting armed action to replace peace talks and political deliberations. Erdogan appears willing to pay the human costs of such a violent escalation if it promises to turn the political tide by reversing the steady erosion of his voter support. But this may prove to be a grave miscalculation, bringing about not only further loss of votes for Turkey’s ruling bloc but also pointless loss of lives for its 85 million citizens, Turks and Kurds alike.
Alternatively, Erdogan might be hanging the forecast of a disbandment over the HDP’s head to prevent a united opposition from nabbing the presidency in the upcoming 2023 elections. The opposition’s ability to overcome factionalism and build an informal big-tent coalition in 2019 thwarted Erdogan’s plans. If the HDP joins the opposition’s Nation Alliance against Erdogan’s Islamist-ultranationalist People’s Alliance, a repeat of 2019 could cost the president his long-held grip on Turkish politics.
Given how strongly intertwined the HDP’s future is with the prospects of Turkey’s democratic restoration, the European Union and the United States should follow attempts to shutter and intimidate the party closely. The current muted response from Brussels and Washington not only discourages Turkey’s pro-democracy forces but also emboldens the Erdogan government to continue with its crackdown. Unless Turkish authorities know that there will be significant costs, including punitive action by the European Union and Global Magnitsky sanctions by the United States, for going after the country’s second-largest opposition party, they will show no restraint. There is a narrow window of opportunity to prevent further backsliding of Turkey’s flailing democracy, but so far Ankara’s allies in the West appear to have grasped neither the risks nor the rewards.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir
Sude Akgundogdu, a student at Williams College, is an intern at the Turkey Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.