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This bizarre fistfight in Turkey’s parliament actually tells us a lot about the country

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On Monday, the Turkish parliament erupted into a full-on brawl in what is just the latest in a series of fights that have roiled Turkey’s domestic politics in the past week. Here’s video of the fight between members of the ruling AK Party and the pro-Kurdish opposition party, HDP, in which several people were reportedly injured:


The fight itself is quite a spectacle, of course — one doesn’t often see politicians dressed in suits and ties leaping over desks to punch and kick their opponents — but it’s also a window into the deeper political and social tensions that have been on the rise in Turkey in recent years, including what many see as a growing trend toward authoritarianism within the government.

The brawl erupted over controversial legislation that could see some lawmakers investigated on terrorism charges

The lawmakers have come to blows over proposed legislation to strip just some members of parliament of their immunity from prosecution — which is something all Turkish parliamentarians enjoy while in office, according to Turkish law.

The ruling AK Party is pushing the proposal, which was introduced by the office of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It’s so controversial because it would strip several leading members of the opposition party, the HDP, of this immunity so that they can face charges of “openly instigating people to hatred and hostility” and “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.”

The HDP does not support the legislation, not only for the obvious reason that its members are the ones who would be stripped of their immunity, but also because the party believes it’s unfair that its members should be the only ones stripped of their immunity while AKP members who face allegations of corruption and theft would not be stripped of theirs.

The connection between the HDP and the PKK terrorist group

The allegations of the HDP members’ support for terrorism are based on statements the HDP members made in support of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist organization that Turkey (as well as the US and the EU) considers to be a terrorist group, and the HDP members’ refusal to sign multiple statements condemning acts of terrorism by the PKK.

Decades of bloody fighting between the PKK and the Turkish government that saw some 40,000 people killed ended temporarily in March 2013 after a ceasefire was called by the PKK’s jailed leader. But the fighting resumed in July 2015, due in large part to rising tensions caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria and the Kurds’ prominent role in that conflict. Thousands of PKK fighters, as well as hundreds of Turkish soldiers, have reportedly died in the renewed fighting, which also displaced tens of thousands of people and left some towns and districts in ruins.

The HDP has “roots in the violent Kurdish political movement dominated by the armed and illegal Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),” writes Al Monitor’s Mustafa Akyol, but “had recast itself as a left-liberal, inclusive peacenik movement and a bulwark against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.”

When the violence between the PKK and the Turkish government once again erupted in 2015, “the HDP could have played a helpful role by calling for peace and criticizing the violence on both sides,” writes Akyol. “Instead, the party chose to fully ally itself with the PKK, legitimize its violence and even advocate its maximalist goal of an independent Kurdistan.”

In doing so, the HDP not only severely damaged its claim of being a “peacenik” movement, hurting its appeal among its base of Turkish Kurds who reject the PKK’s violent tactics, it also essentially gave President Erdogan and his supporters in the AKP the perfect ammunition to challenge the HDP’s political ascendancy.

The legislation is seen by some as yet another sign of growing authoritarianism in Turkey

In recent years, Erdogan’s government has cracked down hard on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, arresting journalists on charges of terrorism and espionage for criticizing the government, issuing media blackouts in the wake of terror attacks, and frequently shutting down social media platforms like Twitter during times of political crisis, raising concerns over growing authoritarianism in the country.

“In the past year and a half, government prosecutors have opened almost 2,000 cases against Turks for insulting the Turkish president,” notes Uri Friedman in the Atlantic. “One Turkish man lodged a legal complaint against his wife for cursing Erdogan in their own home. Another went on trial for comparing Erdogan to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.”

Some analysts see the government’s latest moves against the pro-Kurdish opposition politicians as further evidence of a return to the authoritarian days of Turkey’s past, when pro-Kurdish political parties were frequently disbanded for allegedly advocating Kurdish secession.

“It will be a total disaster if the investigation ends in stripping [Selahattin] Demirtas [one of the HDP co-chairs] of legal immunity and jailing him, as happened to several Kurdish deputies in the 1990s,” writes Akyol. “It would mean Turkey forgetting about reforms on the Kurdish front and reverting to ‘Old Turkey’s’ authoritarianism, which will only intensify the armed conflict.”

“Just a few years ago, Turkey was hailed as an emerging liberal democracy,” writes Brookings’ Kemal Kirisci. “[N]ow, that label is in serious doubt.”

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