By Jim Carey
After years of waiting for fair elections, the provinces of Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van have been stripped of their voice as newly-elected Kurdish mayors are replaced by AKP lackeys (again).
The Turkish Ministry of the Interior has recently removed 3 Kurdish mayors in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van. According to the ministry, the Kurdish mayors are accused of “spreading propaganda” and “terrorism.”
To make things worse, these three newly-elected mayors, who had just come to power after Turkey’s municipal elections in March (and another in Istanbul in July), all took offices that had previously been stripped from mayors from the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) for charges of “supporting terrorism.” These mayors were replaced by lackeys of President Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2016 and the remained until this year’s election.
This latest removal of the three regions’ mayors is yet another blow for the southeastern predominantly-Kurdish regions of Turkey. Despite finally being allowed to vote for their own mayors after nearly 3 years after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan put a state of emergency in place (and then the emergency powers enshrined in the constitution via a 2017 referendum), the AKP’s crackdown on democracy, despite some setbacks, is still going strong.
If there is one lesson that can be learned from the Turkish municipal elections earlier this year, it is that Erdogan only actually likes democracy when he’s getting votes. This attitude towards elections was on full display when it came to the race for mayor of Istanbul.
Istanbul, being Turkey’s largest city, and where Erdogan first came to prominence as Mayor, was home to large patronage networks connecting the President, his family, and close associates to lucrative business dealings that enriched those loyal to the AKP. While cities like Istanbul and Ankara were originally AKP strongholds when Turkey had a massive flow of cheap credit and Erdogan was known for huge infrastructure projects that improved the metropolitan areas, the more radically Islamist the AKP has become, the more support they’ve lost.
This waning support in the cities resulted in the AKP taking painful losses in both Ankara and Istanbul despite the party’s best efforts at voter intimidation and the mass arrests of political opponents (which hasn’t slowed since 2016). Erdogan refused to settle for the outcome of the ballot in Istanbul which resulted in the AKP candidate’s loss to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and then tried to run a second election in the city which the AKP lost again.
Istanbul is truly illustrative of Erdogan’s despisal of democracy when it isn’t working in his favor. Fortunately for Istanbul, two votes later, the city is now run by the CHP, an opposition party that is likely too strong for Erdogan to just muscle out of their newly-won offices. However, the mayoral positions won in the southeast of Turkey were taken by the smaller (and more politically repressed) Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
This political repression of the Kurds is just the latest in the hundred years that modern Turkey has existed but the assault on democracy in southeast Turkey has ramped into overdrive since 2016. As stated above, following the failed coup in 2016, 92 members of the DBP were removed from their jobs in government and replaced with trustees chosen by the national government.
This remained the state of affairs in the intervening years until this last election in 2019 when the positions held by trustees would be on a ballot again. Against all odds came the HDP, whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas has been in jail since 2016, winning back the offices that had been seized by Ankara.
Early in the days of the AKP, some of these areas voted for Erdogan in national elections and it seemed that the President was trying to make overtures to Kurdish voters (in the face of waning support from their coalition partner Nationalist Movement Party) by mercifully holding back on launching a new operation in northern Syria and allowing lawyers to speak with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan even issued a statement during the election urging the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to avoid causing conflict in northern Syria.
Obviously, after years of conflict between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria and what basically amounts to a lower-intensity civil war within Turkey itself, all of these ploys by the AKP to seem softer on the Kurdish question failed miserably. The AKP ended up losing all the appointed seats in the southeast in fair votes against the HDP just as the AKP had previously lost these positions to the DBP.
Now, this vote has once again been reversed by the AKP subverting democracy to remove the three Kurdish mayors. While the HDP has tried to broker peace between Turkey and the PKK they have denied all these charges and vowed to continue fighting but it seems that the situation in southeast Turkey is likely to get worse before it gets better.
There have already been more dismissals after the three mayors when four neighborhood officials (mukhtars) were also removed from their positions by the Mayor’s office in the Batman region. Erdogan himself also signaled more purges may be on the way when he asked/told reporters on a flight back from Russia that “Do you believe there won’t be prosecutions against mayors? There will be. These are not sentimental decisions taken by us. The judiciary will decide.”
The main opposition CHP, for their part (and despite their anti-Kurdish history), has condemned these moves by the government and even sent Istanbul Mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, to visit with ousted Kurdish officials. Imamoglu condemned the anti-democratic means used to remove the three Kurdish mayors, saying that “In a place where elected officials do not leave offices via elections, there can be neither democracy nor the rule of law. The will of the people reflected in ballot boxes is not something that some in power can declare valid or invalid according to their own wishes.”
Once again, the ousted Kurdish mayors are being replaced by government lackeys. This time it is not trustees replacing the mayors, but instead the provincial governors (who are also appointed in Ankara). Unfortunately for everyone else, there isn’t much that can be done to stop the AKP. These latest moves by Erdogan show that even though the actual electorate may be turning on the AKP if the results in the polls don’t please the government they will still seek a way to change the outcome.
Whether it is staging a fraudulent second round of voting in Istanbul or just straight up removing mayors in Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van the AKP is not going to relinquish power without a fight.