The last time I met Demirtaş, in September, it was at a tea shop in the trendy neighborhood of Taksim. He was surrounded by bodyguards. Things were going badly for him—not because he had given up on democratic politics but because he had succeeded so well; in 2015, the H.D.P. captured an astounding eighty seats in the Turkish parliament. The Party had even begun to attract non-Kurdish voters. Soon, however, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, began cracking down on the Kurds. Thousands of members of the H.D.P. were detained. In November, two months after our last meeting, Demirtaş, who is forty-three years old, was arrested and jailed. Now, facing what appear to be preposterous charges—supporting an armed terrorist organization—he is facing a prison sentence of as long as a hundred and forty-two years.
If you follow Turkish politics, you know that Demirtaş’s case is not unique—in fact, in the Erdoğan era, it is unremarkable. Erdoğan, who came to power following nationwide elections in 2002, has spent the past decade doing his best to strangle Turkey’s democratic order. It now seems clear that Erdoğan, who is sixty-three, intends to arrogate dictatorial powers to himself, have them ratified by a subservient political order, and stay in power for years to come.
This hardly seemed possible as recently as three years ago. In late 2013, Erdoğan seemed to be on the ropes, entangled in a corruption scandal that appeared to implicate both him and his son Bilal. (In a series of taped conversations that were made public, Erdoğan could be heard telling Bilal, “Eighteen people’s homes are being searched right now with this big corruption operation . . . So I’m saying, whatever you have at home, take it out. O.K.?” Later, Bilal responded, “So there’s something like thirty million euros left that we haven’t been able to liquidate.”)
But Erdoğan is a master at self-preservation. He beat back his accusers and then, last July, in what must be regarded as a political gift from the heavens, elements inside the Turkish military tried to overthrow his government. Erdoğan—not without some justification—blamed the attempted coup on the movement of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher who lives in exile in the United States. After successfully putting down the attempted putsch, Erdoğan launched a sweeping, and still ongoing, campaign to destroy the country’s democratic opposition. Since July, more than forty thousand people have been arrested, and a hundred thousand government employees—including judges, prosecutors, and academics—have been fired. Tens of thousands remain in prison, including more than a hundred and fifty journalists and media workers. The government has closed a hundred and seventy-nine newspapers, television stations, and Web sites. Turkey is now the most prolific jailer of journalists in the world.
That bring us to a constitutional referendum scheduled for next month, and to Demirtaş. On April 16th, Turkish voters will be asked to approve a series of changes to the constitution that would—you guessed it—grant extraordinary powers to the job that Erdoğan now holds. On paper, Turkey still has a parliamentary system, with significant powers reserved for the Prime Minister, parliament, and the judiciary. The referendum proposes to radically alter that system, eliminating the position of Prime Minister, drastically curtailing the powers of parliament, scaling back the independence of the judiciary, and vesting sweeping powers in the Presidency. What’s more, the new constitution would give Erdoğan the right to run for two more five-year terms, potentially giving him another decade in power.
What the referendum amounts to, essentially, is an attempt to overturn Turkish democracy, and to rubber-stamp the authoritarian powers that Erdoğan has been pursuing for the past decade. (You won’t hear any criticism of Erdoğan from Europe, by the way. Erdoğan, having agreed last year to hold back the tide of refugees from the Middle East, has the continent’s political leaders over a barrel.)
Yet for all of Erdoğan’s bullying, it’s not at all clear that Turkish voters will approve the referendum. Erdoğan, sensing how high the stakes are, has been trying to flatten his opposition in the run-up to the vote. This is where Demirtaş and his colleagues fit into the picture. After the failed coup last summer, Erdoğan began moving to crush the H.D.P.’s leadership—he knew, given the history of the relationship between Kurds and the central government, that they would never endorse an expansion of the President’s powers. Along with Demirtaş, twelve other H.D.P. members of parliament have recently been jailed. According to Human Rights Watch, which released a new report on Turkey’s deteriorating situation this week, more than five thousand members of the H.D.P. and another locally based Kurdish party, the B.D.P., are currently behind bars, and the mayors of eighty-two Kurdish towns have been summarily sacked and replaced by Erdoğan’s agents. “Erdoğan knew that he couldn’t count on the H.D.P., so he just took them out of the picture,’’ Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director, told me.
Polls show that the referendum has the support of only around fifty per cent of likely Turkish voters. A “no” vote would be a crushing rebuke to the Turkish President, and, in the short-term, could provoke a violent reaction from him. But, if the Turkish people are serious about stemming Erdoğan’s drive to dictatorship, this may be their last chance.
Author: Dexter Filkins