News & Politics

Turkish President Erdogan Accuses Kurdish Leader of Treason Over Autonomy Call

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes the Rabia (Muslim Broterhood) sign. Source: Evrim Aydın - Anadolu Ajansı, Wikimedia Commons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today accused the co-chair of the main Kurdish party Selahattin Demirtaş of treason over his call for more autonomy for the Kurdish population of Turkey.

In a speech over the weekend, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairman Demirtaş said that Kurds have to choose: they can either live in autonomy “or under one man’s tyranny.” With the latter, the Kurdish politician obviously referred to the president who has created quite a reputation for himself by cracking down on critical journalists, and by imposing extremely restrictive curfews on cities with large Kurdish communities.

In the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Demirtaş said the following:

This resistance will end with victory, and everybody will respect the people’s will. Kurds will, from now on, be the political will in their own region. During these days when a historical breaking point is emerging, our people will decide whether [to live in] a dictatorship or freedom and whether to live under one man’s tyranny or in autonomy.

Tensions between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurdish population have existed for decades. Ankara fears that the Kurds want to create their own nation state — consisting of parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey — while many Kurds say the government is oppressing them and is trying to erase their culture. In 1978 these tensions gave rise to the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization originally calling for an independent and communist Kurdish state. The terrorist group officially declared war on Turkey in 1984. According to Ankara, more than 40.000 people have been killed as a result of that war.

Although Demirtaş’ party pretends to look “beyond the traditional ‘Turkish or Kurdish’ dichotomy,” it has participated in talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. For this and other reasons — its focus on Kurdish issues for instance — many Turks believe it to be simply yet another Kurdish-nationalist organization.

If Demirtaş is half as brilliant as many believe him to be, he’d understand that and make sure he doesn’t make any statements that provoke an angry reaction from nationalist Turks… and give President Erdoğan the excuse he needs to take down the HDP.

That’s why it’s so surprising that Demirtaş is now openly calling for autonomy for Kurds. The result is as predictable as it is worrisome: President Erdoğan has not only accused Demirtaş of “treason,” but more specifically of violating the 14th article of the Turkish constitution. That article says:

None of the rights and freedoms embodied in the constitution shall be exercised in the form of activities aiming to violate the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation.

You don’t have to be a Turkish constitutional scholar to conclude that Demirtaş has come dangerously close to violating this article.

No wonder then that President Erdoğan minced no words today when he was asked about Demirtaş’ statements:

What the co-leader has done is clearly provocation, treason. This is the time when the masks have been taken off and the real faces exposed. How dare you talk about establishing a state in the southeast and in the east within Turkey’s existing unitary structure.

He added rather ominously:

You cannot take such a step. Neither the national will, nor our security forces, armed forces, police, village guards will allow such a thing.

Although Erdoğan can normally only count on the support of approximately 50% of Turkish voters, supporters of the nationalist MHP party and the secular CHP party are just as wary about Kurdish nationalist aspirations as the president.

In other words, it’s politically perfectly safe for him to use Demirtaş’ statements to destroy the HDP, one of the few opposition parties left in Turkey with the courage to take a stand against the Islamist plans of the ruling AKP. And that would be a terrible shame; not only for Kurds in Turkey — who sincerely hoped that the rise of the HDP would mean they’d get more rights — but also for secular Turks. Sadly, it seems like Demirtaş has given Erdoğan everything he needed to rid himself of yet another critical group.