The United States and Europe criticised a move by NATO ally Turkey to ban the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), saying it undermined democracy, but a spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan said the HDP had ties to Kurdish militants.
A Turkish prosecutor filed a case with the Constitutional Court on Wednesday demanding a ban on the HDP, the culmination of a years-long crackdown against the third largest party in parliament.
The move marks the revival of a long history of Turkey banning political parties, including pro-Kurdish ones.
The U.S. State Department said dissolving the HDP "would unduly subvert the will of Turkish voters, further undermine democracy? in Turkey, and deny millions of Turkish citizens their chosen representation".
The prosecutor's announcement of the case came on the same day that Turkey's parliament stripped a prominent HDP deputy and human rights advocate of his parliamentary status.
"Unapologetically (moving) towards the end of pluralism. What reaction does Turkey expect now from the European Union? A positive agenda?" said Nacho Sanchez Amor, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, which is a candidate for EU membership though accession talks have been stalled for years.
EU leaders are due to discuss strained relations with Turkey at a summit on March 25-26.
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In a copy of the prosecutor's indictment seen by Reuters, the prosecutor said the HDP was no different from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and that it played an active role in recruiting members for the militant group. The HDP denies any links to the militants.
'PKK'S POLITICAL WING'
In the first government reaction to the indictment, Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun said it was "an indisputable fact that HDP has organic ties to the PKK".
"HDP's senior leaders and spokespeople, through their words and deeds, have repeatedly and consistently proved that they are the PKK's political wing," he said, noting that the United States and the EU also brand the PKK a terrorist organisation.
The PKK has fought an insurgency against the state in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984, and more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Turkey's foreign ministry criticised external interference in the country's domestic affairs, without naming any countries, and urged everyone to await the Constitutional Court's verdict.
Some political analysts linked the prosecutor's move to falling public support for the AKP and its nationalist allies as they battle the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, though elections are not scheduled until 2023.
"This shows the president's desperate attempt to arrest his declining popularity and bolster his core support at any cost --especially given Erdogan's (past) principled stance against party closures," said Emre Peker, a London-based director at Eurasia Group.
The HDP, which won 11.7% of the vote in a 2018 parliamentary election and has 55 seats in the 600-member parliament, accused the AKP of shaping politics through the courts.
The HDP has said it will regroup as a new party if banned, though the indictment said the prosecutor had demanded a five-year political ban for more than 600 HDP officials - a severe obstacle to any such move.
Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli, an Erdogan ally, hailed the prosecutor's move, saying: "The HDP is a criminal organisation disguised in a political cloak. It is a historic and moral duty for it to be shut and never to be reopened under another name."