By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan's nationalist ally said Turkey's pro-Kurdish HDP party, the country's third biggest, should be banned for separatism - a move the HDP's co-leader condemned on Thursday as a bid to silence six million voters.
Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli has long been a fierce critic of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and, like Erdogan, accuses it of ties to militants who have fought a 36-year-old insurgency in southeast Turkey.
"The HDP must be closed and not reopened. No tolerance should be shown to any party organisation that takes as its reference ethnic separatism and terrorism," Bahceli said in a tweet on Wednesday, attacking the HDP for not signing a cross-party parliament statement condemning U.S sanctions on Turkey.
Turkish courts have banned pro-Kurdish parties in the past on charges of militant ties, drawing criticism from Turkey's Western allies. But moves supported by Erdogan's AKP have since made closing parties down more difficult.
Bahceli, whose party is the fourth biggest in parliament and whose comments in the past have appeared to influence government policy, suggested a change in the constitution, political parties law or the penal code if necessary.
"The fight with poisonous vermin is a wonderful service to national dignity. The fight with separatism is honourable support for our independence," he said.
HDP co-leader Mithat Sancar responded on Thursday in an interview with Turkish broadcaster Fox TV, saying the HDP had the support of millions of people.
"Shutting the HDP means shutting down democracy in this country, it means silencing 6 million people," Sancar said.
"In the past, six of our parties were closed down and what happened? If our party is closed we will come back stronger."
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants have fought against the state in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.
Ankara, the European Union and the United States designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The HDP, parliament's third largest party, denies links to terrorism.
The HDP, founded in 2012, won 11.7% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary election. It has been targeted by authorities in a crackdown in recent years under which thousands of party officials and members have been arrested and dozens of its mayors and lawmakers unseated.
(Reporting by Daren Butler. Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Potter)