In another major crackdown on Kurds, last month Turkey removed three top Kurdish mayors who were elected earlier in the year. They were accused of “terrorist propaganda” and “financing terrorism”. Those detained were the mayors of Mardin, Van and Diyarbakir eastern Turkey provinces who are members of the opposition pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) but stand accused of having ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The three had won office with large majorities.
The accusations came with no evidence. Washington-based Turkish writer and executive-editor of Ahval News website Ilhan Tanir commented, saying: “[Recep Tayyip] Erdogan consolidated powers since the coup attempt in 2016. During the state of emergency period, he was able to put the referendum in front of people and changed the constitution. He now has powers of decree and controls all state institutions with executive power.”
In the June re-run of mayoral elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered defeats in Turkey’s major cities, losing control of Istanbul and Ankara. “Even before any kind of ruling, and even before any kind of indictment, the interior minister removes these democratically elected mayors by the order of Turkish president. This shows how much Turkey lost its democratic institutions and checks and balances in the system since the new presidential system was put in place,” Tanir told Al-Ahram Weekly.
MP Garo Paylan, who represents the HDP Istanbul, issued a warning on his Twitter account immediately after last month’s arrests of the three mayors: “Remaining silent will mean Ankara, Istanbul next.” He was right.
Last week, Turkey’s Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu threatened Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu over his support for the three ousted Kurdish mayors. Imamoglu went to visit two of them in Diyarbakir in solidarity.
“Ignorant. Know your place and your limits,” Soylu said of Imamoglu. “This country has been handling this terrorist organisation for 40 years ... If you meddle in things that are not your job, we will devastate you,” he said, speaking in the northeast province of Bursa. The minister’s threatening words came not only as a reaction to Imamoglu’s support for the ousted mayors but also after he announced that Istanbul Municipality cancelled the transfer of more than 350 million lira ($61 million) to some pro-AKP foundations, in one of Imamoglu’s first moves against President Erdogan.
Will Istanbul too lose its mayor soon? Although the interior minister said that this is out of question, Tanir commented: “He may lose as well. Currently he is very popular and the Turkish government did not dare to remove him even though they seriously thought about it,” adding that they could not “find” a viable excuse so far.
Imamoglu won the elections in March and June. In the first round, the AKP appealed against his victory and the Supreme Election Court ruled in favour of the appeal. In the re-run his victory rose from 13,000 to 800,000 votes.
In an opinion piece dated 6 September, published in The Washington Post, entitled “Voters chose me as their mayor. President Erdogan had other ideas” the ousted mayor of Mardin, Ahmed Turk, whose removal was not the first in the past five years, wrote: “Erdogan is now threatening Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu with the same treatment I have faced. His definition of ‘terrorism’ has expanded to include not only the state’s traditional victims but also all who dare to show solidarity with them. This development makes one truth clearer than it has ever been: Turkey cannot be a true democracy for any of its citizens until it becomes one for its Kurdish population.”
Last weekend, the European Parliament’s (EP) Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri warned the country against ousting Imamoglu. “If they remove [İmamoglu], this will have very serious consequences for EU-Turkey relations. Better think twice before acting,” said Piri.
According to Tanir, the Turkish government is losing political support fast and it will be harder for it to win elections going forward. “They need a constant state of emergency to rule the country with extraordinary powers. Otherwise, as seen during the re-run Istanbul elections, the ruling party’s chance of winning is getting dimmer, in addition to the dismal economic state,” Tanir commented.
Ankara has blacklisted the PKK as a terrorist organisation, launching several military operations against the group since 2015. Not only Ankara, but the US and the European Union as well designated the party a terrorist organisation.
Erdogan had warned before that the elected mayors would be removed if they were found to have connections with the PKK.
“This was no ordinary vote. We were running to retake positions from which we had been arbitrarily expelled. The three of us represent the third-largest political party in Turkey. The relevant authorities approved all of our mayoral candidacies before we ran. We won easy majorities, increasing the HDP’s vote shares in areas where it was already strong. But then came 19 August. And as on so many previous occasions before, when the government decided to choose between democracy and force, it picked the latter,” Turk, 70, wrote in his opinion piece.
Although the Turkish government has lost political support, it is still in control of state institutions. “Institutionally, they are the strongest, but the weakest politically,” Tanir told the Weekly.