May 3, 2016 | Policy Brief

Turkey Moves to Strip Kurdish Deputies’ Immunity

May 3, 2016 | Policy Brief

Turkey Moves to Strip Kurdish Deputies’ Immunity

Turkey set the stage for stripping Kurdish parliamentarians of their immunity Monday, when a parliamentary committee approved the motion after a contentious debate. Should the legislation pass, Kurdish deputies could be prosecuted for having ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a proscribed terrorist organization. Impeaching Kurdish deputies – including even the party chair – would undo the Kurds’ historic political achievements over the last year, and could lead to a new election that would likely see the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) strengthen its parliamentary majority.

Turkey’s Kurds marked a milestone in June’s general elections, when the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) became the first predominantly-Kurdish party to pass the nationwide voting threshold and enter parliament. The party adopted a pluralistic platform, embracing not just Kurdish nationalists but all factions of Turkish society – including Turks, Armenians, Yazidis, and Arabs. Occupying 59 of the 550 seats, the HDP is the second-largest opposition party in parliament.

Since Turkey’s decades-long war with the PKK resumed in July, however, the AKP has led an effort to delegitimize the party by portraying it as the group’s political wing. In order to revoke HDP deputies’ immunity and pave the way for their prosecution, the government needs to amend the constitution, which requires a three-fifths majority vote in parliament. The AKP is 13 seats short of that majority, but leaders of the two other opposition parties have both voiced support for the effort. After a fist fight broke out during the committee debate on Monday, HDP deputies resigned from the panel in protest, and remaining members unanimously voted to pass the bill.

After his electoral success last summer, HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas was internationally celebrated for making Turkey’s Kurdish politics into a more inclusive movement that could resonate with other minorities and liberal non-Kurds. Less than a year later, he may soon face trial and even imprisonment.

Looming over the immunity debate are images from the 1990s of Kurdish politicians, who had just been elected for the first time, being dragged out of parliament in handcuffs, and the extrajudicial killings of Kurds that ensued. With the fate of HDP deputies looking the same, Turkey’s Kurds are left questioning the merits of partaking in the country’s parliamentary democracy. Their political achievements of the past year now appear hollow.

Conversely, prosecuting Kurdish deputies could benefit the AKP. If over five percent of parliamentarians are impeached, the government could call for a by-election to fill the vacant seats. Or, it could call for an early general election. In such a vote, polls indicate that the HDP could fall below the nationwide threshold. The AKP could pick up those seats, strengthening its dominance in parliament. Should it garner a supermajority, it could even unilaterally amend the constitution to realize its long-standing goal of creating an all-powerful presidency at the expense of parliament.

Impeaching Kurdish lawmakers would threaten not only the HDP but Turkish democracy itself.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu


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