November 6, 2016 | The Wall Street Journal

Erdogan’s Latest Crackdown–and How Turkey’s Chaos Plays to Extremists’ Strengths

The Turkish government’s arrest of dozen lawmakers, including the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on Friday made global headlines, many of which noted this was the latest step in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on the opposition. Over the weekend, Mr. Erdogan issued emergency decrees extending the time detainees can be held without counsel and allowing foreigners to be deported without a court order. Police also raided the country’s oldest independent daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet, and arrested two mayors of the largest majority-Kurdish province, Diyarbakir.

This is a bigger issue than Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power. The effects are pushing a NATO ally into chaos and toward civil war–ironically by playing into the hands of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s top security threat.

HDP is Turkey’s third-largest political party. Co-leader Selahattin Demirtas ran for president against Mr. Erdogan in 2014 and surprised observers by receiving 10% of the popular vote. His campaign, which appealed beyond his usual Kurdish voters to a broader constituency of progressives, paved the way for additional electoral success in 2015: It is the first pro-Kurdish party to enter parliament by passing the 10% electoral threshold. To many pundits, Mr. Demirtas and the HDP represented hope for a democratic resolution of Turkey’s longtime conflict with the Kurds, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the past three decades.

Such hopes have been dashed, however, and Mr. Demirtas is behind bars. President Erdogan recently reached a deal with the far-right Nationalist Action Party to crack down on Kurds in exchange for its votes on an Erdogan-backed initiative to amend Turkey’s constitution and centralize power in the presidency. An executive presidency is Mr. Erdogan’s ultimate goal. The president has also called for reintroducing the death penalty.

Political tensions have been escalating in Turkey since 2013. Erdogan supporters have chided some in the secular Republican People’s Party for voicing muted support for the HDP lawmakers, saying that such sentiments amount to backing the PKK. Such charges have consequences. A deputy leader of the Republican People’s Party was shot this week by an assailant who accused him of working with the PKK.

Mr. Erdogan knows that Turkey’s turmoil, including the arrest of pro-Kurdish lawmakers, will draw criticism. State Department officials have said that the U.S. is troubled by the detentions. European Union officials, including foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, condemned the actions. Kati Piri, the European parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey, called for suspending Turkey’s accession into the EU. Such criticism, however, stands to play to Mr. Erdogan’s advantage: It will boost xenophobia in Turkey and strengthen the president’s pact with the far right.

Mr. Erdogan’s latest assault against Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party is a dangerous political move. Arresting pro-Kurdish lawmakers undermines not only their party but also the Turkish parliament. Shutting off channels into democratic participation for Turkey’s Kurdish electorate plays to the PKK’s strength. The more Turkey’s Kurds are disenfranchised, the more they stand to be drawn toward violence and extremism. That adds an additional layer of volatility to a country also targeted by Islamist terrorists and weakened by Mr. Erdogan’s own efforts to dismantle representative democracy.

Aykan Erdemir was a member of the Turkish parliament in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 2011 to 2015. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is on Twitter:@Aykan_Erdemir.