Turkey’s political roller coaster just took a deep dive.
Since the aborted July 15 coup attempt, there have been numerous instances in which the ruling AKP government has suppressed human rights and freedoms. Some of Turkey’s last remaining independent media outlets have been closed, including Cumhurriyet, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, as well as JINHA, an all-women media outlet focused on Kurdish issues. All heads of Turkish universities will also now be appointed by the government.
The elected co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region, have arrested and AKP politicians installed in their place. Two members of Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP, have been brutally attacked, though luckily both men survived. Because of the on-going violence, the U.S. Department of State has ordered all family members of diplomatic staff stationed in Istanbul to leave the country immediately.
But, perhaps the most staggering development came on the night of Thursday, November 3, when members of parliament representing Turkey’s Kurdish party, the HDP, were arrested in midnight raids.
Just over a year ago, the HDP’s charismatic co-chair Selahattin Demirtas was hailed as the great hope for democracy in Turkey after his party managed to briefly break the AKP’s majority hold on Turkey’s parliament. Now Demirtas and his co-chair are sitting in prison, after they refused to appear in court to testify in one of literally hundreds of court cases that have been opened against HDP parliamentarians. During the evening raids and throughout the following day, internet access, particularly to social media sites, was shut down or restricted across the country. In an unprecedented measure, the encrypted private messaging app Whatsapp, which is widely used in Turkey, was also blocked.
The arrest of key members of an opposition party marks a new low in the AKP’s destruction of Turkey’s remaining democratic elements. This development is even more frightening, however, for its potential impact on inter-ethnic and political violence, as well as stability, in the country. Just hours after the HDP MPs were taken into custody, the police headquarters in Diyarbakir was bombed. ISIS took responsibility for the attack, but the government initially blamed the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organization that has waged an on-off war with Turkey for more than thirty years. They had good reason to presume that the PKK would be behind such an attack.
Aliza Marcus, an expert on the PKK and Kurdish issue, as well as the author of Blood and Belief, told Muftah that the Turkish government’s campaign against Kurdish politicians and ordinary citizens has pushed the Kurds into a corner. “The arrest of the Kurdish parliamentarians comes after the government has formally taken over at least twenty-five Kurdish cities, appointing administrators in place of the legally elected mayors… Plus you have dozens of Kurdish journalists jailed and media outlets closed. In other words, at this point, Turkey has shut all Kurdish democratic political institutions. The only thing left is the PKK. Certainly, violence is likely to increase. So is support for the PKK,” she said.
Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist who is currently a correspondent in Iraqi Kurdistan, but was based in Diyarbakir for a number of years, worries that once the PKK begins to gain support for its violent actions, the cycle of violence will spin out of control. “This increased PKK violence will lead to more attacks on HDP offices and on Kurds at universities and in work places,” Geerdink told Muftah. She was also quick to emphasize, however, that neither the HDP nor ordinary supporters of the government wanted or were to blame for the violence. “I think most people in Turkey don’t want violence at all, they just want peace, whatever it means to them,” Geerdink observed, adding that this has given her some measure of hope.
While experts are wary to predict the consequences of destroying the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, violence is inevitable, at least in the short-term. Nick Danforth, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, believes that the AKP government has no intention of, and sees no reason to, de-escalate the situation anytime soon. “At the very least the current level of violence will continue for the foreseeable future, and could certainly get worse if this gives the PKK the confidence to escalate it… There will be more bombings, more violent clashes between protesters and police and a greater chance of a direct confrontation between Turkish forces and the YPG in Syria,” Danforth told Muftah.
In a little over a year, Turkey’s Kurds have seen their political power and hope for legal equality spike and then plunge to a level of repression unseen in decades. Even in the best case scenario, there is little hope that repression of Kurdish political rights and cultural expression will let up anytime soon.