ISTANBUL - The future of Turkey's second-largest opposition party is hanging in the balance, with mass arrests and growing calls for its closure. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish HDP of militant links, but the party says it's a victim of increasing government authoritarianism.
The HDP claims it's facing an unprecedented legal crackdown with 16,000 members detained and dozens of deputies ousted from parliament and jailed under Turkey's anti-terror legislation.
Erdogan routinely refers to the HDP as the "pro-PKK party." The PKK is a Kurdish insurgent group waging a decades-long war for minority rights in Turkey and is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
The progressive left pro-Kurdish HDP, which denies PKK links, secured six million votes in the 2018 election and 67 parliamentary deputies, making it Turkey's second-largest party.
The HDP local elected representatives are facing the brunt of the legal crackdown. Sixty out of the 65 mayors have been jailed or replaced by trustees appointed by the Interior Ministry under anti-terror legislation.
"When you can't see ahead clearly, this affects your work in a negative way,” said Adalet Fidan, HDP mayor for Silopi in Turkey's predominant Kurdish southeast, "because you are continuously thinking that at any moment there can be a trustee appointed to take over."
But the HDP's existence is now in question. "Opposing the closure of the HDP means undermining justice and the fight against terrorism," said Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, and Erdogan's parliamentary coalition partner.
Bahceli, a hardline Turkish nationalist, is widely seen as the driving force behind the crackdown against the HDP. Erdogan has in the past voiced reluctance in supporting calls to ban the pro-Kurdish party.
But last month's launching of a far-reaching prosecution against key members of the HDP is being interpreted by some observers as preparing the ground for the party's closure.
Turkey's chief prosecutor's office indicted 108 people for initiating fatal protests in 2014. The unrest was sparked by Ankara's failure to offer support to Kurdish fighters besieged by the so-called Islamic State group, in the Syrian town of Kobane, on Turkey's border.
Prominent and former senior members of the HDP face life imprisonment without parole.
"What we see in the indictment is a lot of tweets and politicians' speeches which are then used to suggest and hold politicians responsible for the murder of 37 people during violent protests in 2014," said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"Bottom line, through tweets, they committed murder, which is extraordinary," she added.
Sinclair Webb also voiced concern about HDP politicians being indicted with leading PKK members.
"It shows the government sees the HDP party as no different from an armed organization, the PKK, and that is completely unacceptable as a way at looking at a democratic party which is playing by the rules of democratic elections."
Strained relations with EU
The indictment threatens to exacerbate already strained Ankara-European Union relations. Among the accused is former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who has been held in pre-trial detention since November 2016 on anti-terror charges.
The European Court of Human Rights in December ruled for Demirtas's immediate release, saying his imprisonment was for an "ulterior political purpose."
"The Turkish prosecutorial authorities with this latest indictment are flouting the ECHR decisions which calls for the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtas from jail," said Sinclair Webb.
While Turkey is beholden to comply with European Court decisions, Erdogan in December dismissed the Demirtas ruling as "politically motivated" and "hypocritical."
But the escalating HDP crackdown comes at an inopportune time for Erdogan, as he is seeking to improve ties with the EU, promising a new chapter in relations.
Later this month, Erdogan is scheduled to announce a raft of democratic and legal reforms. Analysts warn Brussels views Erdogan with deep skepticism.
"The Turkish president's reputation is at stake; this is the problem," warned Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute. "The Europeans expect from Turkey no more words, but deeds; Turkey should act."
With Erdogan's ruling AKP slipping in opinion polls, observers say he is becoming increasingly reliant on the support of his nationalist MHP coalition partner, which is pressing for a tougher stance against the HDP.
Electoral calculations have added importance with growing speculation that the 2023 vote could be called as early as the end of the year.
Analysts point out that if the HDP were to be closed down, Erdogan could secure an electoral advantage, given the vote in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast is traditionally split between the HDP and the AKP.
Fidan acknowledges she could well be living on borrowed time as HDP mayor for Silopi.
"Most of the people I campaigned with during the local elections, who became mayors, some were even lawyers themselves, were taken from their post for nonsense reasons," said Fidan. "And I fear the same thing can happen here as well, but all you can do is keep working."