Pushed From Opposition, Turkey's Kurds Threaten Resistance

  • Turkey moves closer to putting Kurdish lawmakers on trial
  • Kurdish leader Demirtas warns of an autonomous parliament

People cheer Co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas, arriving for the first edition of the HDP provincial extraordinary congress in Istanbul on April 10, 2016.

Photographer: Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images

Brawling that’s disrupted Turkish parliamentary debates in recent weeks could be a precursor to a fiercer and more protracted fight.

The latest punches were thrown on Monday as a panel of lawmakers recommended stripping leading Kurdish politicians of the legal protections that allow them to function in opposition. In response, the targeted deputies are increasingly taking on the language of a resistance movement, rejecting the authority of the state and, for the first time, threatening to establish their own legislative body.

Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP, said none of his lawmakers would abide by calls to appear before police or courts where they may face terrorism charges, and threatened to establish a separate parliament as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed Tuesday to “touch” anyone supporting terrorism. Demirtas’ remarks were his strongest yet and raised the specter of autonomous Kurdish government, something that’s haunted the nation for more than three decades as it waged war against separatists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

“We won’t allow you to try us in the courts tied to you,” Demirtas, a co-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, also known by its Turkish initials HDP, told the legislature. “If the people wish, they can establish more than one parliament.”

Such a move would be “illegal, lack the authority to pass laws in the east and southeast and also lack representation,” and the comments are largely theoretical, Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said by e-mail. “What is clear, is that the bad blood between the AKP and the HDP, and between the AKP and the PKK, is continuing to accumulate.”

Erdogan’s War

The attempt to strip the lawmakers of their immunity is backed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants to see them expelled from the legislature and tried for terrorism. The measure needs to be approved by the full parliament to become law, after which trials could be opened against 50 members of the HDP with outstanding indictments.

Most of them are charged with having ties to or carrying out propaganda for the PKK, which Turkey and its allies, including the U.S. and European Union, classify as a terrorist organization.

“Erdogan declared war on two fronts,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “He regards the HDP as the political representatives of the PKK in the parliament, and the move to lift the legal shield of Kurds from prosecution is aimed at pressuring the HDP while appeasing nationalist sentiments.”

Parliament Fisticuffs

Three successive debates on the immunity issue in parliament’s constitutional committee have been interrupted by fighting, with members of the ruling AK Party and the HDP punching, kicking, insulting and throwing things at one another, and dousing each other with water. The HDP abandoned the talks after another brawl late Monday, and the measure was approved without them.

The threat of emboldened separatist aims has hit home in Turkey as it watches Kurds in neighboring Syria and Iraq gain power and territory. Its decades-old confrontation with the PKK reignited in July after a three-year lull, when peace talks between the government and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan collapsed.

5,000 Dead

The surge in violence followed the HDP winning parliamentary representation for the first time in June, briefly depriving the AK Party co-founded by Erdogan of its single-party majority. The government has since ruled out a return to talks and vowed to crush the PKK. It says the military has killed more than 5,000 militants in the renewed fighting, while 400 security personnel and some 200 civilians have also died.

The PKK killed at least one Turkish soldier and wounded six others in a car-bomb attack on an army outpost near the southeastern town of Derik in Mardin province early Wednesday, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

“Every day, we are attending funerals of the martyrs, and the people have been openly asking, ‘Why are you not lifting their immunity?’” Cemil Cicek, a senior member of the ruling AK Party and former parliament speaker, said in an interview hours before Monday’s vote. He added that it would be a mistake to arrest “those who shouldn’t be arrested,” calling on the courts to act responsibly in the trials of opposition politicians.

Two opposition parties, the MHP and CHP, backed the AK Party’s motion to lift the legislators’ immunity, amid a mounting nationalist backlash over the rekindled PKK violence. Kurdish lawmakers chanted support for Ocalan, the jailed PKK leader, as they left parliament and exchanged punches with AK Party members.

PKK Ties

The struggle with Kurdish separatists has left tens of thousands dead and cost Turkey about $400 billion since 1984, according to government estimates. The HDP doesn’t deny connections to the PKK, but rejects accusations that the party advocates armed conflict.

At least 367 of parliament’s 550 members must support the committee’s decision to formally strip the lawmakers of their immunity. If the government can’t muster enough backing, Erdogan can order a national referendum on the issue with the support of at least 330 deputies.

The AK Party plans to start the parliamentary debate on May 16 and hopes to wind up the voting two days later, lawmaker Bulent Turan told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday.

HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan, one of a handful of lawmakers of Armenian descent, warned that attempts to drive pro-Kurdish representatives out of parliament risked a deterioration in security.

“This issue has become an open political wound and it will most probably be infected,” Paylan said by phone on Tuesday.

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