Turkey launched a massive crackdown on Kurdish politicians, journalists, lawyers and activists on Tuesday, detaining at least 110 people across 21 provinces in an alleged counter-terrorism operation. The raids came less than three weeks before the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections, which could determine the fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-decade rule.
The state-run news agency reported that the operation targeted members and supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a bloody war against the Turkish state for greater autonomy for the Kurdish minority since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
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Those detained included the organizers of dozens of public demonstrations since 2017 as well as those alleged to have provided financial and propaganda support to the PKK. Some of the suspects were also accused of transferring money to the PKK from municipalities controlled by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is currently Turkey’s second-largest opposition party in parliament.
The HDP, which has seen thousands of its members, mayors and lawmakers jailed or removed from office over the last eight years, denounced the operation as a “detention frenzy” aimed at “stealing the ballot box and the will of the people.” It said in a statement that the arrests were “a clear intimidation and threat to society and its political preferences.”
The HDP also said that it was “no coincidence” that lawyers who would protect the election ballot boxes, journalists who would inform the public and politicians who would compete with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the field were targeted simultaneously.
Human rights groups also condemned the operation as an abuse of power and an intimidation tactic before the election.
Turkey: Pre-election crackdown on Kurdish journalists, lawyers, political party officials – @hrw and 17 media freedom and freedom of expression groups condemn the latest detentions days before the elections and call for their immediate release https://t.co/CR28vrLDfG pic.twitter.com/HujU6E6K8q
— Emma Sinclair-Webb (@esinclairwebb) April 25, 2023
The HDP faces legal pressure in an ongoing case seeking its closure and a political ban on hundreds of its members over alleged links to the PKK, which the party denies. The HDP said last month that it would not field a presidential candidate in the May 14 elections, giving tacit support to Erdogan’s main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The latest opinion polls show a tight race between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, with both candidates hovering around 40 percent of the vote. The HDP’s support could be crucial for Kilicdaroglu to win a possible second-round run-off against Erdogan.
The May 14 elections are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, which has been marked by a crackdown on dissent, a weakening of democratic institutions and a deterioration of human rights and press freedom. Erdogan has also faced criticism for handling the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that has left millions of Turks struggling with inflation, unemployment and poverty.