Dismissal of Kurdish mayors fuels opposition’s fears of new wave of repression in Turkey
ISTANBUL - Critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say the controversial dismissal of recently elected mayors of three large cities in Turkey’s Kurdish region could herald a new wave of repression against the opposition in general.
Less than five months after municipal elections, Turkey’s Interior Ministry removed Diyarbakir Mayor Selcuk Mizrakli, Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan from their posts over accusations that the Kurdish politicians had ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West.
Police detained 418 people in 29 provinces in a related investigation targeting people with suspected links to the PKK, the ministry said.
The opposition said the mayors’ removal was a response by the government to defeats in the municipal elections, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost power in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana and other key cities.
Turk, Mizrakli and Ertan, members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), were replaced with the governors of their respective provinces. In Turkey, provincial governors are not elected but named by the government in Ankara.
The move was condemned by the opposition and civil society representatives. More important for Erdogan, the dismissals and harsh police action against protesters in the Kurdish region and Istanbul following the ousters met with criticism in the AKP as well.
AKP lawmaker Mustafa Yeneroglu took to Twitter to condemn police beatings of a demonstrator in Van, a video of which was widely shared on social media. Yeneroglu called the police action “terrifying” and demanded officers involved be taken off duty and tried in court.
Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president from 2007-14, and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, former allies of Erdogan who have emerged as potential political opponents, said the dismissals were out of line with democracy.
Erdogan adviser Yigit Bulut responded by posting on Twitter that Gul’s and Davutoglu’s criticism was “treason.”
Some critics said the government might bring down opposition mayors in other parts of the country as well.
“The ultimate aim is to put pressure on democracy,” Nazmi Gur, a deputy HDP chairman, said by telephone. “Ankara, Adana and Istanbul could be next in line.”
Erdogan oversaw peace talks between the Turkish state and Kurdish representatives earlier this decade but the reconciliation attempt failed. Today, the AKP relies on the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) for its majority in parliament. The MHP is strictly opposed to any concession in the Kurdish question and welcomed the dismissal of the mayors.
Government critics in Turkey and abroad say the country has seen rising trends of autocracy since a coup attempt in 2016. Authorities have detained tens of thousands of suspects while more than 100,000 public sector employees, including police officers, judges and teachers, were fired over suspected links to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by the government of masterminding the takeover attempt.
The European Union said the move against the mayors carried the risk of damaging Turkish democracy further.
“Dismissals and detentions of local politicians and appointment of trustees deprive voters of political representation at the local level, and seriously risk damaging local democracy,” an EU spokesman said in a statement.
Veli Agbaba, deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), wrote on Twitter that the dismissals were tantamount to fascism and a blow against democracy. while Istanbul’s CHP mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, also slammed the move.
“Negating the will of the people is unacceptable,” he wrote on Twitter. Imamoglu was removed from office over alleged voting irregularities shortly after apparently being elected in March but won a rerun election in June.
Ersin Ramoglu, a columnist for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, suggested that CHP mayors such as Imamoglu could be “removed from office any minute” because of their alleged support for Gulen.
Metin Feyzioglu, the chairman of Turkey’s bar association, said the removal of elected officials by government decree was undemocratic. The Ankara office of Turkey’s Chamber of Architects said the decision was tantamount to “stealing the will of the people” because the three mayors had been cleared to run in the March elections.
The dismissals and detentions of alleged PKK supporters came amid preparations by Erdogan’s government for a military incursion into the Kurdish region in north-eastern Syria. The possible area of the operation borders Turkey’s Kurdish provinces; the city of Mardin lies 20km north of the Syrian border.
The government says it must defend the country against the PKK, which took up arms against Ankara in 1984. More than 40,000 people have died in related fighting and terrorist attacks since then.
Some observers said the aim of the government’s strike against Kurdish politicians and activists was to guarantee that Turkey’s Kurdish region would remain calm during a possible Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia on the Syrian side of the border. The Turkish military is also fighting the PKK in northern Iraq.
“If you are so deeply engaged in anti-terror fighting in northern Iraq and Syria, you cannot leave the interior [of Turkey] to its own devices,” Fahri Erenel, a former general, told the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.