The injustice wrought on Kurdish mayors

Turkey’s most successful Kurdish party is fighting to survive after 50 of its 65 elected mayors were unseated by government order
An HDP voter holds a photo of Selahattin Demirtaş, the former party leader imprisoned since 2016

The paradox of Turkey’s third-largest political party is that it is perfectly possible to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Many people, and not only supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, do precisely that: they say the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is falling from grace and doomed to fail whenever voters next head to the polls.

Electorally speaking, the claim is rubbish — millions of Turkish citizens have consistently voted for the HDP since it first started contesting elections in 2014 — but it would take a truly blind fanatic to deny the party is in trouble.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the 2019 local election, the HDP won 65 mayoralties in provinces across Turkey’s southeast. It was a sharp reduction from the 99 mayoralties won in 2014 by BDP, a predecessor faction that ran in those seats.

In maps and figures charts all the HDP mayors unseated since March 2019

A lack of media coverage is part of the problem: the HDP is the most consistently ignored of Turkey’s major parties. Most mainstream media outlets do not report on what it does and says; those that do tend to offer it less coverage even than smaller opposition parties, like Meral Akşener’s Good Party (İYİ).

This case, though, is about heavy discrimination, not light press coverage. As’s dedicated page shows, today’s HDP is the most persecuted political movement in Turkey today because the vast majority of its elected mayors have been removed.

The figures paint a grim picture:

  • Of the 65 cities, districts and villages that elected an HDP mayor on 31 March 2019, just 15 are still in place today;
  • Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish city in the region, elected 15 HDP mayors out of a possible 18 last year. Just three are in post today;
  • In Van, another large city, none of the 10 elected HDP mayors remain. The final ones were removed on 7 December, after barely eight months in office;
  • Just two provinces, Ağrı and Kars, retain all of their elected HDP mayors.
  • That means HDP candidates elected last year to run 50 cities and districts are no longer in their roles.

Six of them never actually took office at all because they were denied credentials on election night. In their cases, they were replaced by the second-placed candidate — usually from the governing AK Party.

It’s what happened to Gülcan Kaçmaz, who won 53.8% of the vote in Van’s Edremit district last March. She was one of 56 Ministry of Education employees removed from their jobs under controversial state of emergency powers on a single day in 2017.

The election authorities cited that order as the reason why she could not take office. Edremit’s mayor became the second-placed candidate in the election: the AK Party’s İsmail Say.

Then there are cases like Batman’s Mehmet Demir, who was removed from office just two months ago accused of saddling the council with debts of 90 million lira (€12.8 million at the time).

The AK Party’s İsmail Say didn’t win the election in Van’s Edremit district, but he became mayor anyway

Mr Demir denies this — and says he was never charged for any crime, despite Interior Ministry claims that he is the subject of three separate investigations. He now spends his days criticising his government-appointed successor on Twitter.

But the majority of the HDP’s fallen fify were removed over alleged ties to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey says is a terrorist organisation.

They include mayors like Fatih Taş, who was elected in Diyarbakır’s Kulp district and removed from office on 17 September 2019, and Nilüfer Elik Yılmaz in Mardin’s Kızıltepe district, ousted on 4 November. Both were subsequently arrested on terrorism charges and are being held in custody awaiting trial. Many others are in the same situation.

Irrespective of whether the allegations stack up, the injustice of their situation is plain to see. Running for office in Turkey requires clearance from the election authorities, a process that includes a criminal record check. Ms Kaçmaz, Mr Demir, Mr Taş and Ms Yılmaz were all cleared to run. It was only after they won the election that the authorities began criminal proceedings against them.

In place of the HDP’s fallen mayors have come government-appointed kayyum, or administrators.

The act itself is lawful — the Interior Ministry has used powers to replace elected mayors since late 2016, when the post-coup state of emergency made these things much easier — but Turkey’s local government laws say that whenever a mayor’s office becomes vacant, the elected council assembly must pick a replacement.

That’s what happened when, for example, Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek resigned in 2017. In Turkey’s lesser-trodden southeast, the kayyum can swerve around this obstacle simply by refusing to call a meeting of the council assembly. They will likely stay in post until the next election in 2024.

Appointing kayyum is akin to a coup, the HDP says

But despite its elected officials being picked away, the outlook is not necessarily grim for the most successful Kurdish political movement in Turkey’s history. The party still has 60 of the 67 seats it won in parliament — although the investigative journalist Ahmet Şık was a recent prominent resignation, citing unspecified differences with the party’s leadership.

More importantly, the party is far more influential than its detractors would have you believe. Its left-wing platform appeals not just to Kurdish-speaking voters in the southeast, but those in the west — and their sympathisers.

HDP support was veiled, but pivotal, in the election of several opposition mayors in 2019 — especially in Ekrem İmamoğlu’s landslide victory in Istanbul last summer. The party could easily be kingmakers in the next general election too.

That is why ignoring the HDP’s presence is a fool’s game and, contrary to what they may say, every other opposition leader knows it.

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