Arrest of opposition MPs in Turkey is a big mistake

Arrest of opposition MPs in Turkey is a big mistake

Eleven members of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were taken into police custody from their homes in the early hours of Nov. 4, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, who were arrested by courts later in the day.

In other words, the co-chairs of an opposition party, the third biggest party in the Turkish Parliament, were arrested together with a number of other MPs after midnight police raids on their houses.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said the politicians were taken because they had turned down calls from the courts months ago to testify, shortly after their immunities were lifted in parliament. The HDP MPs are accused of aiding and abetting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which amounts to terrorism charges.

Also after the detentions, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said that “of course those who come in elections should go in elections,” but he also added that “those who come in elections and then get involved in terrorism should be held accountable.”

Those words were in response to the reaction of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who had said the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) is sending Turkey “down a dangerous path.”

The remaining HDP deputies not detained, (out of the HDP’s total of 59 in the 550-member parliament), gave a press conference in parliament, during which  HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen said the “synchronized action of four prosecutors in four provinces” showed the move was not legal but political. He vowed that the HDP “would not be deterred and would not surrender.” 

HDP deputy Sırri Süreyya Önder, who was released after being interrogated by the prosecutor, said the move was a “coup against the political will of the people.” Önder was among the HDP team who assisted the contacts between the AK Parti government and the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan during the peace process between December 2012 and July 2015, when the PKK’s acts of terror and the Turkish military operations in response brought it to an end.  

The HDP deputies later held a meeting with the ambassadors of EU member countries in Ankara, after Brussels had already expressed concern about the detentions and arrests.

The arrests of the HDP co-chairs and MPs are the latest chapter in Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem, but they go far beyond that. With the arrests, the leadership of an opposition party has been put in jail. These MPs stood together with other parties in parliament against the bloody coup attempt of July 15, but apparently this gives them no credit in the eyes of the government.

The government’s claim that it is the courts making the arrests, which are not politically motivated, is insufficient, as the head of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) is Justice Minister Bozdağ himself and the HSYK’s deputy is the minister’s undersecretary. 

The only dissenting voice from the AK Parti ranks came from Mehmet Ali Şahin, the party’s former parliamentary speaker and justice minister, who said the arrest of politicians without conviction is wrong.

But these days the arrest of opposition politicians is not an isolated regression in democratic life in Turkey. The detention of more journalists and writers, as in the case of the renowned opposition daily Cumhuriyet; the politically whipped up demands to reinstate the death penalty; and the snubbing of warnings that such moves may sever the already weak links with the EU, are all developments thickening the sense of pessimism in politics.

All these developments in the wake of the coup attempt take place under the shadow of the debates about shifting from a parliamentary political system to an executive presidential one through a new constitution, as has long been targeted by President Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is no coincidence that the shift to a presidential system and bringing back the death penalty were reportedly discussed in the one-on-one talk between Erdoğan and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli on Nov. 3. The MHP has long been lobbying both for the arrest of HDP deputies, accusing them of being legal extensions of the PKK, and for the reintroduction of capital punishment to Turkey.