HDP supporters - © Alexandros Michailidis/ Shutterstock

HDP supporters - © Alexandros Michailidis/ Shutterstock

The murder of a young woman, Deniz Poyraz, is the latest violent attack against the pro-Kurdish HDP party. Its success is inconvenient for many in Turkey, and today the party struggles to avoid being banned by the judicial authorities

30/06/2021 -  Filippo Cicciù Istanbul

The large black banner commemorating the tragedy of femicides in Turkey still hangs on the broken window of the room where young Deniz Poyraz was killed. The sign had been posted at the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish HDP party in Izmir in recent months, to contest the choice of President Erdogan to withdraw Turkey's signature from the Istanbul Convention, the most important international treaty to combat violence against women.

Deniz would never have imagined becoming one of the victims of male violence. But in the late morning of June 17, while cleaning the HDP headquarters – replacing her mother who was not feeling well – she found herself vainly trying to escape from a man who suddenly arrived in the building, shooting around wildly.

Onur Gencer opened fire after entering the party's provincial headquarters where he also attempted to start a fire before fleeing. He was quickly arrested and while the officers were taking him to the barracks he stated that he wanted to attack the HDP headquarters because he hates the PKK.

The explanation is in line with the rhetoric of many Turkish media and politicians who regularly associate the HDP – the third political force in parliament – with the armed and outlawed Kurdish party at war with Ankara for over 40 years. Not much is known about Deniz Poyraz's killer, except that he was a 27-year-old Turkish nationalist, a former healthcare worker who had spent periods in Turkish military bases in northern Syria, as we learn from some photos of him armed shared on his own social profiles.

An inconvenient success

Deniz Poyraz was a Kurdish woman supporter of the HDP and her murder is part of a very long list of attacks suffered by this political group. Being part of an opposition political group like the HDP in Turkey means you can never really sleep soundly. Since the party's founding in 2012, there have been attacks on its rallies and demonstrations, regular attacks on HDP headquarters in various parts of Turkey, replacement of dozens of HDP-elected mayors by government-appointed administrators, and hundreds arrests of its members, including deputies deprived of parliamentary immunity.

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the party in prison since 2016 and accused of terrorist propaganda, also remains in jail. The European Court of Human Rights had asked for his immediate release as early as December 2020, but the sentence was deemed "meaningless" by Turkey and Demirtas has stayed in prison for over four years.

HDP's is not only a story of problems, but also of success. Born as an expression of the Kurdish political movement, it has managed to build an identity as the party of all minorities of Turkey. Located in the area of the libertarian left, it has managed to gain consensus throughout the country, and not only in the Anatolian southeast with a Kurdish majority.

Unlike the Kurdish political formations of the past, the HDP has chosen to distance itself from the violence of the PKK by taking the path of democratic politics, collecting one electoral success after another. The party entered the Ankara National Assembly three times, becoming the only pro-Kurdish formation since the founding of the Republic in 1923 to be able to overcome the 10% threshold to enter parliament.

The result has profoundly influenced recent Turkish political history, making the HDP the third force in the Turkish parliament and forcing the other parties, including President Erdogan's AKP, to count on fewer deputies than usual. A very inconvenient success for the HDP, which has been accompanied by regular attacks and sanctions while support for the party remains substantially unchanged.

The battle in court

Three days after the killing of Deniz Poyraz, the Constitutional Court upheld the indictment against the HDP, presented by the prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, asking for the party to be closed. The call to ban the HDP also includes a ban on politics for 451 party members.

In recent months, the High Court had already received the indictment from the Supreme Court, but had deemed it invalid due to formal errors in the dossiers presented in support of the request for closure of the party and freezing of HDP funds, including those coming from the Treasury as public funding to parties.

On June 21, the request was instead accepted and a procedure was opened regarding the closure of the HDP. The pro-Kurdish party will now have the opportunity to present its defense on the basis of which the Constitutional Court will subsequently rule. The HDP can only be closed with the favourable vote of at least 10 out of 15 members of the High Court and it is estimated that the decision will be taken after the summer or in any case by the end of the year.

The party representatives reacted by talking about a political decision, arguing that the request of the Supreme Court is actually an expression of the extreme right-wing nationalist component within the alliance that the AKP government has formed in parliament, and before the 2018 elections, with the party of the nationalist movement of Turkey, the MHP.

Historical (re)occurrences

The demand to close the HDP is not an isolated case in Turkish history. Since the Republic was founded in 1923, 58 political parties have been outlawed, 26 by decisions of the Constitutional Court and 18 by order of military courts. Many of these parties were Kurdish, while others were religiously inspired formations in which current President Erdogan was active in his youth and grew up politically.

For this reason the idea of building a Turkey where the widespread practice of banning political parties should have disappeared accompanied the founding of the AKP in 2001 and has been part of the government rhetoric since the party came to power next year. Also in this way, the party founded by Erdogan tried at that moment to position itself in the Turkish political spectrum, marking a distance from politics influenced by the military apparatus that closed political parties typical of previous decades.

Indeed, no party has ever been banned during the nearly twenty years in power of Erdogan's AKP. If this happens in the coming months with the HDP, the Turkish president's party could face credibility problems with its own political history and, according to some polls, the key support of the conservative Kurds for the AKP – a slice of consensus that has always been necessary to Erdogan to win the election – would drop from 25% to 20% at least.

Many Kurdish AKP voters have already disliked the alliance with the nationalist right in recent years and the procedure for closing the HDP goes once again in that direction.

The prospects for the elections

At the moment, the HDP is consulting to understand which tactic to adopt if the Constitutional Court accepts the request for a ban on the party. For the moment there is the idea of founding a new formation, but the possibility of a boycott of the elections in protest has also been mentioned.

The next electoral appointment in Turkey is scheduled for 2023 and coincides with the anniversary of the first century since the founding of the Turkish Republic. If Erdogan succeeds again, the victory could definitively consolidate his political supremacy in a highly symbolic moment, 100 years after the founding of Turkey as a secular state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

We cannot predict now what the decision of the Constitutional Court will be, but the banning of the party could be seen as a sort of beginning of a long electoral campaign until 2023 unless there are conditions for an early vote.

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