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Erdoğan’s Latest: Lifting of Parliamentary Immunity

Move seen as effort to force new election and eliminate key rival faction

ISTANBUL — A draft proposal of a constitutional amendment lifting the legal immunity of parliamentarians facing probes, widely seen as targeting the ruling party’s arch-rivals, has been submitted to the Turkish Parliament.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) submitted the proposal, which many believe is aimed at the leftist, pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

AKP members and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had previously urged the prosecution of five of the top HDP politicians on terrorism-related charges.

“The draft seems to be designed as ‘The Sword of Damocles’ over the HDP politicians,” Professor Mustafa Gürbüz, an expert on the Kurds at George Mason University, wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line. “Turkish politics used to be the graveyard of Kurdish parties, so no one should be surprised if this is going to happen.”

Gürbüz thinks the AKP’s main target is HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, “who has achieved an unprecedented level of influence and charisma in the past two years.”

In late December, investigations were opened against Demirtaş and the HDP’s other co-chair, Figen Yüksekdağ, for comments they made about self-rule. The party supports decentralization and regional autonomy, but not actual independence.

“The AKP is looking forward to relieving itself of the HDP opposition and their seats in parliament,” Ertuğrul Kürkçü, MP and honorary president of the HDP, told The Media Line. “This is the final target. The immunity debate is an irrelevant justification for this aim.”

Kürkçü, one of the deputies targeted for prosecution, says Erdoğan’s intention is to remove enough HDP politicians to call for a by-election in order to gain more seats for the AKP, or possibly a new national election in which the HDP may not surpass the 10 per cent threshold required for a party to enter parliament.

Erdoğan’s ultimate goal, supported by many in his old party, the AKP, is creating a new constitution transforming the government into an “executive presidency,” though experts say it would give him dictator-like powers. However, the AKP’s 317 seats in Parliament are 13 short of the 330 needed to call for a referendum, which is necessary for any constitutional change.

“This would ring the bell for the end of the parliamentary system in Turkey. That’s it,” Kürkçü says.

He says if the HDP is forced out of parliament, it will lead to more radicalism in the conflict-ridden Kurdish southeast, as Kurds lose faith in the political system.

“It’s going to fuel the ongoing conflict. Kurdish people who had invested a lot of hopes in the HDP’s presence in the Parliament are going to lose all their hopes in the system.”

A stunning election victory for the HDP last June took many seats from the AKP, but Erdoğan ordered another election for November, which resulted in a major AKP win.

Thousands of Kurdish activists have been arrested since then, and hundreds of civilians have been killed in renewed violence between the state and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which started again last July.

In February, HDP MP Tuğba Hezer caused an uproar by attending a mourning ceremony with the family of Abdülbaki Sömer, the suicide bomber from the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK, possibly connected to the PKK) who killed 29 people in Ankara on February 17. Shortly afterwards, the Justice Ministry submitted a request to Parliament to lift HDP members’ immunity.

Kürkçü said Hezer’s visit was “untimely and not carefully considered,” but pointed out that it was standard practice for politicians to visit their constituents during times of mourning.

“Our deputies and other deputies have joined condolence visits to many families who have lost their sons and daughters in conflicts.”

The government has arrested, detained, and dismissed many local Kurdish politicians from the HDP and its sister party in the southeast, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP).

According to documents provided to The Media Line from the HDP, since last August, 61 co-mayors and members of municipal and county councils have been arrested, and 56 have been removed from their posts, usually for charges related to terrorism or secessionism.

This doesn’t include the 17 local Kurdish politicians and a HDP finance director who have been detained, and four arrested, in the last week alone.

“All such legal battles started right after Erdoğan’s declaration of the end of the [peace] process last year,” Professor Gürbüz says. “Even AKP politicians see these attempts as politically motivated.”

Leyla İmret, Turkey’s youngest mayor, was dismissed from her post in Cizre last September for a mistranslated quote taken from the American magazine, Vice.

İmret said when locals set up ditches and barricades last summer to keep out state forces, she and the municipality tried to remove them.

“Despite this, they slandered us and started dismissing us from our posts,” she told The Media Line.

İmret says since the end of the peace process, violence has plagued the southeast.

“People in the region don’t feel safe anymore, so they move out of their homes.”