By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - 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 HDP called it a "political coup".
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 deny millions of Turkish citizens of their chosen representatives and "further undermine democracy in Turkey", while an EU official said Turkey was moving "unapologetically 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.
European Council President Charles Michel is scheduled to hold a video conference with Erdogan and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen on Friday. EU leaders are then due to discuss their strained ties with Turkey at a March 25-26 summit.
The foreign ministry criticised external interference in Turkey's domestic affairs, without naming any countries, and urged everyone to await the Constitutional Court's verdict.
In the 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 links to the militants.
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.
'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.
HDP co-leader Mithat Sancar told a news conference the court case showed the ruling AK Party's "hopelessness and incompetence" and that it was a manoeuvre aimed at extending the government's lifespan. He said the HDP will continue on its path.
"The point this political coup operation has reached after various stages is fascism," he said. "Our opportunities to continue in democratic politics are plenty, our power is mighty, the support of our people is our biggest treasure."
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.
The HDP won 11.7% support with nearly 6 million votes in a 2018 parliamentary election. It has 55 seats in the 600-member parliament.
Some political analysts linked the prosecutor's move to falling public support for the AK Party 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.
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."
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans, Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood)