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Turkey’s crackdown on mayors amounts to coup, says opposition party

The arrest last week of five mayors from the Peoples’ Democratic Party leaves it with control of just a fifth of the cities it won in an election last year.

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s second-biggest opposition party has accused the government of carrying out a “coup” against elected officials after another five of its mayors were sacked last week, part of a long-running clampdown that has crippled the pro-Kurdish party in local politics.

The Interior Ministry dismissed the mayors from the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on Friday, accusing them of ties with terrorists, and appointed state trustees in their place. All five are now in detention.

The latest move means the HDP has lost control of 51 of the 65 cities where it won local elections in March 2019. The mayors-elect of six towns and cities were blocked at the outset from even taking up their posts, and another 45 have been stripped of their offices since then. Human Rights Watch has said the government has “effectively canceled the results” of the election in the predominately Kurdish southeast.

“Not all coups are staged with guns,” HDP co-chair Pervin Buldun said on Saturday in a statement streamed live. “It is still a coup when a representative elected by the people is removed from duty and someone else is appointed in his place.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses the HDP of serving as the political arm of the illegal Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade armed campaign for autonomy. The HDP denies any outright links with the PKK.

Thousands of HDP party officials and activists have been jailed since the PKK revived its insurgency in 2015 and 2016. The party’s former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are among seven ex-lawmakers who have been in prison for nearly four years on charges stemming from their political speeches.

More than 25 mayors elected last year are also in prison. In March, a court sentenced Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, a 57-year-old medical doctor by training, to nearly 10 years in prison after he was removed from office in Diyarbakir, the southeast’s biggest city.

Opposition mayors have increasingly become a target since Turkey switched to a supercharged executive presidential system in 2018 that has largely sidelined parliament and given Erdogan extensive control over the judiciary. Criminal investigations were opened last month into the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, who are from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“Control of municipalities gives the HDP and other opposition parties access to state resources and, more importantly, the ability to connect directly with voters. It’s clear that there is an effort to undermine this,” said Mesut Yegen, a sociologist at Istanbul Sehir University.

Despite the grave accusations he has made, Erdogan has not moved to shut down the HDP, whose predecessors have almost all been banned over the years. The party serves as a convenient foil and offers the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a means to tarnish the broader opposition, Yegen told Al-Monitor.

Two political parties were formed over the past six months by erstwhile Erdogan allies that may draw support from disenchanted AKP supporters amid murmurings of a possible snap election. While opinion polls show their support is in the single digits, electoral alliances could prove decisive in the next general election, as they did in the local vote when the opposition captured a string of mayoral seats from the AKP.

On Monday Erdogan blasted the opposition’s cooperation and sought to link both the CHP and the HDP to a gun attack last week that killed two aid workers delivering assistance in eastern Van province that had been quarantined during the coronavirus outbreak. The PKK was blamed for the deadly attack, and police arrested 38 people, including an HDP mayor, according to press reports.

“May our people punish those who enter secret or overt alliances with terrorists and their extensions who have blood on their hands,” Erdogan said after a cabinet meeting. “We see the contempt to which they sink for a few parliamentary and mayoral seats.”

The European Union once again expressed its “deep concern” over the mayors’ removal. “The excessive use of legal proceedings against local elected representatives … seriously undermines the proper functioning of local democracy,” a spokesman for the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday.

Indeed, the crackdown has stymied local efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 151,000 people in Turkey, HDP vice-chair Salim Kaplan said in an interview earlier this month.

Many Kurds are wary of stay-at-home guidelines after the government imposed curfews on southeastern cities during operations against the PKK in 2015 and 2016. “That trauma lingers,” Kaplan said. “There is a lack of trust in the state when local administrations, elected with overwhelming majorities, are thrown out of office. The response would be the opposite when a mayor like Mizrakli asks residents to stay home.”

The crackdown has taken a toll on the HDP’s support, a survey of 5,200 people by MAK Consultancy released last week showed. Should an election be held tomorrow, just 8% of respondents would vote for the HDP, below the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. The AKP saw its support fall 10 percentage points from the last election to 32%, while other conservative parties all showed gains.

“All of this pressure results in people pulling back. But when it is time to cast their ballot, they always make their will known,” Ahmet Turk, who was ousted as mayor of Mardin in August, said in an interview earlier this year.

At age 77, Turk is the doyen of the Kurdish political movement, having first entered parliament in 1973 and was imprisoned and tortured after a 1980 military coup. He was kicked out of parliament and jailed again in 1994, during the height of the PKK insurgency. He now faces a litany of charges stemming from his last brief tenure as mayor.

Turk described the latest crackdown as among the worst he has witnessed. “This collective punishment for all Kurdish politicians is aimed at finishing off the political [movement],” he said. “We are living through a time when politics have become meaningless. Politicians no longer have an impact or a role to play. This is painful to admit.”

Among the most difficult tasks for the HDP has been countering the political rhetoric that has “created such widespread enmity toward all Kurds,” he said. “In the old days, a Turk would entrust his keys with his Kurdish neighbor when he left town. Today, he looks upon his neighbor with hate.”