BACKGROUND: On the morning of August 19, 2019, Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, Ahmet Türk and Bedia Özgökçe Ertan, the municipal mayors of the cities of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van respectively, were formally removed from their positions by the Interior Ministry and each replaced by the governor of the province concerned. In announcing the decision, the Interior Ministry stated that the three were all under investigation on terrorism charges, namely a connection to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and that it was exercising its rights under Article 127 of the Constitution and Article 47 of the Local Authority Law. All three mayors are members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In the local elections of March 31, 2019, Mızraklı, Türk and Ertan were elected with 63 per cent, 56 per cent and 54 per cent of the votes in their respective cities.
The Interior Ministry’s decision – which, given his almost total control over decision-making, will have been taken personally by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – triggered a furious reaction from the HDP and flurry of public protests, which were harshly suppressed by the Turkish security forces. It was also condemned by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is largely indebted for its victory in the June 23, 2019 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election to the votes of supporters of the HDP, which did not field a candidate of its own.
Many of the protests focused on the fact that, while all three mayors were under investigation, none had been convicted. This is true. However, regardless of whether they are compatible with Article 15 of the Constitution which states that no one should be considered guilty until they have been convicted by a court of law, both Article 127 of the Constitution and Article 47 of the Local Authority Law do empower the Interior Ministry to remove members of local authorities from their positions if judicial investigations are initiated against them in relation to their conduct in office. But both articles explicitly state this can only be a temporary measure pending the conclusion of judicial procedures. Article 47 of the Local Authority Law also states that the decision to suspend local authority officials must be reviewed every two months and that the officials must be immediately reinstated if they are acquitted of the charges against them. However, the public statements of both Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Justice and Development Party (AKP) Spokesperson Ömer Çelik have made it clear that they have already decided that the mayors are guilty and that the regime has no intention of allowing them to be reinstated.
Article 45 of the Local Authority Law states that “in the event of the position of mayor being vacated for any reason”, the local governor is required to facilitate a meeting of the council within ten days in order to choose a new mayor and that the meeting to choose the new mayor will be chaired by the deputy mayor. The HDP has a large majority on the municipal councils of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, meaning that if they were to meet to choose a new mayor – in practice, an acting mayor as the judicial processes against Mızraklı, Türk and Ertan are still continuing – they would elect another member of the HDP. However, Article 46 of the Local Authority Law states that, if the position of mayor is vacated and it is impossible for a new mayor to be chosen, the Interior Ministry is required to appoint someone to fulfill the responsibilities of mayor until elections are held, namely March 2024, when the current local authorities’ five-year terms are due to end.
However, during the two-year State of Emergency from July 2016 to July 2018, Erdoğan extensively amended Article 57 of the Local Authority Law to give governors the right to effectively take control of local authorities’ assets if the governor decided that they were being used to directly or indirectly to support terrorism. If this happens, a council cannot meet unless it is convened by the mayor. On August 21, 2019, Mehmet Emin Bilmez, the governor of Van who had been appointed to head the city’s council on August 19, 2019, sent a communique to members of the city council informing them that it would no longer meet. There has been no indication in any of the statements by AKP government officials that any of the members of the Van city council – which includes 38 members of the HDP and 20 members of the AKP – should be removed from their positions on terrorism charges. Bilmez’s sole motivation, in contravention of Article 45 of the Local Authority Law, appears to be to prevent the city council from meeting and electing a new HDP mayor. It is currently unclear whether the Erdoğan regime will apply the same tactic in Diyarbakır and Mardin.
IMPLICATIONS: That Erdoğan has decided to remove the mayors of three HDP strongholds is not a surprise in itself. In 2016-17, he used the powers he granted himself under the State of Emergency to dismiss virtually all of the mayors who had successfully stood for the HDP’s predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), in the March 2014 local elections. In the campaign for the March 2019 elections, Erdoğan warned that, regardless of the results, he would never allow “terrorists” to run local authorities. After the elections, the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK), which is staffed by Erdoğan appointees, ruled that seven successful HDP mayoral candidates were ineligible to hold office, even though it had previously ruled that they were eligible to run for office – and, instead of ordering a rerun, handed their positions to unsuccessful pro-Erdoğan candidates. On August 20, 2019, an apparently genuine internal Interior Ministry document appeared on the internet calling for Mızraklı to be removed from office. It was dated April 1, 2019, the day after Mızraklı had been elected.
In this context, a more difficult question to answer than why Erdoğan decided to dismiss the three mayors is why he waited so long. Although the explanation is currently unclear, the timing may be related to setbacks in Syria, including both the humiliating failure of Ankara’s policies in Idlib and Washington’s refusal to let Turkey occupy a swathe of northeast Syria. Although the full details of the “safe zone” in northeast Syria are still being negotiated, any final agreement is likely to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against Turkey rather than vice versa. By dismissing the three mayors – which occurred on the same day as 418 people were detained on PKK-related charges in police raids across Turkey -- Erdoğan was at least able to flex his muscles to his hardcore support by demonstrating his continued ability to crack down on Kurds inside the country.
Despite the public protests, the dismissals of the mayors are unlikely to lead to a sustained increase in civil unrest. Three years after the end of the urban warfare that ravaged large areas of Kurdish cities in 2015-16, there is little appetite in southeast Turkey for a return to similar levels of violence. Many Kurds still remain resentful of the PKK for bringing the war literally into people’s homes by trying to establish no-go areas in residential districts. This also extends to some PKK supporters, including some of the youths – often only 13-14 years old at the time – who fought in the urban clashes and who suspect that the PKK deliberately exposed them to what they must have known would have been a brutal response by the security forces in the belief that the resultant outrage would boost the organization’s support in the region and lead to international pressure on Ankara to make concessions to Kurdish demands. The latter did not happen. Meanwhile, the response of the “liberal Turks” in the west of the country to the social trauma in the southeast in 2015-2016 was, at best, muted. For Turkey’s Kurds, the result has been increased alienation from Ankara and a widespread sense of having been abandoned by both “liberal Turks” and the international community. This was hardly assuaged by the contrast between the outrage expressed both internationally and in western Turkey after Erdoğan tried to reverse the AKP’s defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election in March 2019 by forcing a rerun and the silence at the considerably more egregious violation of democratic principles in the southeast, not least the YSK’s refusal to allow the seven HDP mayors to take up their positions.
From this perspective, the dismissal of the three mayors is an opportunity for the CHP in particular to build on the experience of the Istanbul mayoral election and demonstrate that their willingness to engage with Kurds is motivated by more than self-interest. Whether or not the CHP leadership will have the ability or the courage to do so is still unclear – and CHP chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is very much aware that his party contains a large Turkish nationalist wing which could easily defect to the more explicitly Turkish nationalist Good Party (İP).
CONCLUSIONS: The PKK has long used violence to fight two parallel, albeit interlinked, wars -- one against the Turkish state and the other for leadership of the Kurdish nationalist movement. It is an open secret that there are links between some members of the HDP and the PKK, not least in the southeast itself. Some Kurds vote for the HDP because of these links, others despite them. But, much as it would undoubtedly like to, the PKK does not exercise complete control over the HDP and the degree of its influence has varied over time, falling when Ankara has allowed Kurdish nationalists more political space, rising when this space is restricted – when it becomes easier for the PKK to argue that its own chosen method is all that the Turkish state understands.
By responding crudely in kind – rather than adopting a more sophisticated, if Machiavellian, policy of opening the political space to potential Kurdish alternatives to the PKK – Erdoğan has, in the long-term, strengthened the PKK more than he has weakened it. Even if it does not lead to an imminent upsurge in violence, the dismissal of the three mayors is likely to consolidate Kurdish perceptions of the PKK – despite the lingering resentment over the trauma of 2015-16 – as being a limb of the Kurdish body under assault from an unrelentingly vicious Turkish state. Worryingly, Erdoğan still appears to be unaware that the Kurdish issue will ultimately be resolved not on the battlefield but in the minds of the Kurds -- particularly the younger generation, who are already much more adamant than their parents that their future lies in some form of separation from Ankara.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.