Crackdown intensifies in Turkey: darker days ahead

It took no more than two weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s voluminous “Human Rights Action Plan” was thoroughly tested and ended up in the garbage can.

The plan was announced on March 2. Yesterday, on March 17, two seemingly coordinated steps underscored the continuing free fall of human rights standards in Turkey.

Dr. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a prominent legislator of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a staunch human rights defender, was stripped of his parliamentary seat and lost his immunity from prosecution. His “crime”, recently ratified by the Court of Cassation, was his retweeting of news in 2016 that included a statement by Murat Karayılan, a top figure of the outlawed Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) calling for peace talks with the Turkish government. Gergerlioğlu was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

Calling the move a “coup”, Gergerlioğlu refused to accept the decision, and declared that he would not leave the parliament building until the Constitutional Court issued a final verdict on the matter. He was shielded from members of the ruling party by his political colleagues.

It is worth noting that, remarkably, during the dramatic scenes at the assembly in Ankara, Turkey’s two other opposition parties refused to defend him physically in the Grand Chamber. This demonstrates clearly how disarrayed, confused and weak the elected opposition bloc is in Turkey.

The scandalous episode was almost immediately followed by another major political move. The top prosecutor in Ankara filed a case with Turkeys highest court seeking to disband the HDP. Alleging that the party was the political wing of the PKK, the 600-page indictment included a call to ban more than 650 HDP politicians from political activities for five years and to cut off state-supported funding for the party.

Turkey’s rulers have long been exposed for their extreme and irreconcilable contradictions between word and deed. To put it more clearly, they consistently “said one thing, and continued doing the opposite”.

Wednesday’s developments underscore, for good, how dedicated Erdoğan and his ultra-nationalist partner Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), are in striving to cement their power and the system it is built on.

It is now highly likely that, in finally deciding to open a closure case against the HDP, the third-largest party in parliament, the political duo will deepen their efforts to keep a fragile centrist opposition bloc estranged from pro-Kurdish representatives ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023. Furthermore, they seem to have decided to burn all bridges with the European Union, the Council of Europe, and, more dramatically, the United States. The message, hidden behind their actions, is “our way, or the highway”.

There can be no doubt that these episodes will cast a dark shadow over this month’s EU summit.

Political opinion in Brussels, Strasbourg and Washington has thus far been divided over how to deal with troubled relations with Turkey under Erdoğan. It has been split between the appeasers who prefer to turn a blind eye to massive human rights violations and the collapsed rule of law, and those who advocate a tough stance.

Clearly, the arguments of Turkey’s appeasers have now been severely weakened. But there still seems to be a big question mark hanging over how the EU and the United States will act from now on. Decision-makers face a long-overdue task of coordinating their counter moves and, with a higher moral ground, abandoning pragmatism and cheap tactical steps.

Appeasement of Erdoğan is now the last thing that should be on Western politicians’ minds should they want to convince him to behave rationally. This approach only serves to enable him to continue pursuing his path to total one-man rule. If nothing else, it is this lesson that must be learnt from the political moves against Gergerlioğlu and the HDP, which render Turkey’s parliament redundant.