The big question in the Kurdish-majority municipalities in the south-east of Turkey was whether the candidates for the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won the most votes in the local elections on 13 March 2019, would be acknowledged as the winners. Now that most of them have received their mazbata (official certificate) and assumed their positions as mayors, another story has emerged: the crippling public debts the mayors have discovered in their towns. In the background, another issue lingers: will the Kurdish mayors actually get the chance to fulfill their five-year terms?
With most of the post-election focus on the results in Istanbul, where the marginal victory by the Republican People Party’s opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu is contested by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the situation in the Kurdish south-east has slipped most media’s attention. The HDP won in most provinces and larger municipalities. However, it took days and, in some cases, weeks before the winners actually received their mazbata. The AKP contested the Kurdish victories on assorted grounds.
The AKP’s most successful strategy was to appeal to the election board on the ground that a winning HDP candidate had been fired from a previous job by government decree. This is connected to the coup attempt in the summer of 2016, after which the government declared a state of emergency and fired tens of thousands of public servants with alleged ties to ‘coup plotters’ and ‘terrorists’. In particular, the AKP targeted those with alleged ties to the Gülenist movement that was, according to the AKP, behind the coup attempt, as well as Kurds. Some of those who lost their jobs ran for mayor in Kurdish towns and won.
The election board, which is, like most state institutions in Turkey, under the control of and susceptible to pressure from the AKP, accepted the AKP’s appeal. The fact that the same board had approved these people as candidates and that there is no law supporting the AKP’s appeal did not matter. As a result, in six municipalities, the mazbata was handed to the runners-up, all AKP candidates.
Most notable of these six municipalities was Baglar, a district in Diyarbakir city, where HDP candidate Zeyyat Ceylan – who worked as a teacher before he was fired in 2016 – won 70 per cent of the votes. His AKP opponent, who eventually got the job, won 25 per cent of the votes.
The other municipalities where this happened were Tuspa, Edremit and Caldiran (all in Van province), Tekman (Erzurum) and Dagpınar (Kars).
The AKP tried a different strategy in Mardin, where veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk convincingly beat his AKP opponent. The AKP objected to his appointment on the grounds that he was ‘old and sick’ and ‘not capable’ of carrying out his tasks. In this case, the election board rejected the AKP’s claim. Turk (76) responded: “I may have aged, but I feel young. I look at the future with hope, I will always believe in peace and democracy and I still have things to say.”
It should be noted that the HDP has a system of co-mayorship, with every mayoral position being held by one woman and one man. Since this has no basis in Turkish law, only one of the two mayors is officially appointed.
Tipping the balance
Despite the HDP’s election success, particularly considering that thousands of its members are in jail and its campaign was, more than the campaigns of any other opposition parties, neglected by Turkish media, the electoral map has significantly changed. One of the strongholds of the Kurdish political movement, the province of Sirnak on the Iraqi border, has switched from HDP (purple) to AKP (orange). How could this happen?
A check of voter registrations is telling. In all of the traditional HDP municipalities where the AKP won – including the province of Hakkari, adjacent to Sirnak – the number of registered voters has skyrocketed since the previous local elections in 2014. This was especially noticeable in sparsely populated districts, where registering a few hundred voters extra was enough to tip the balance.
In Sirnak’s Uludere, for example, the number of voters increased 80 per cent, from 3,851 in 2014 to 6,922 this year. In 2014, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the HDP’s predecessor, won with 79 per cent of the votes, with the AKP as runner-up with 16 per cent. In 2019, the AKP won with 59 per cent of the votes and the HDP was the runner-up with 33 per cent.
The same pattern was seen in Guclukonak (where the AKP won with a small margin in 2014 and with a big margin in 2019) and Beytussebap (2014 and 2019). The more densely populated districts (Silopi, Idil and Cizre), where too many voters would have had to be added to change the outcome, remained firmly in HDP’s hands.
The provincial capital, also called Sirnak, is yet another story. The number of voters increased by 20 per cent. The DBP won here in 2014 with 60 per cent of the votes. This year, the AKP won with 60 per cent. It is unlikely that this outcome is the result of registering new voters alone. However, this picture changes when one knows that in late 2015 and early 2016, thousands of residents left the city due to a war between the Turkish government and the YPJ youth group affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This war raged mainly in the neighbourhoods where support for the HDP is strong and where the residents who had been displaced could not return to their homes after the war because their neighbourhoods had been razed to the ground.
So, who were these new voters? Soldiers. On election day, social media was awash with photos and videos of military vehicles delivering the newly registered voters to the polling stations and of military personnel in uniform casting their votes.
The HDP considers its election result a victory. After the 2016 coup attempt, the AKP replaced the Kurdish mayors of most municipalities in the south-east with appointed ‘trustees’ and arrested and jailed the elected mayors on assorted terrorism charges (usually for speeches they had given). The HDP won all these municipalities back, as it had vowed to do, with the exception of Sirnak.
This was only to find, in many cases, that the municipal coffers were empty. A video recorded in Diyarbakir’s municipality building and posted on social media is telling. Diyarbakir’s new mayor, Selcuk Mizrakli, is shown walking through the building. He is initially silent when he steps into a central room and sees nothing but bling: a huge shiny wooden table with luxurious chairs, expensive light fixtures, gold detailing. One of the adjacent rooms was his predecessor’s ‘private bathroom’, which used to be a depot and now has marble walls. “They [the AKP] have never been to the poor areas of Diyarbakir,” Mizrakli can be heard saying. “They can’t understand the situation of the poor.”
Concrete examples include the province of Van, which was taken over by government-appointed ‘trustees’ in 2016. In three years, Van’s debt exploded from 380 million Turkish lira ($62.5 million) to 1,240 billion Turkish lira ($208 million). Derik municipality in Mardin province has a debt of 15 million Turkish lira ($2.5 million) after three years of AKP rule, leaving the new HDP administration unable to use the 200,000 Turkish lira left in its budget.
It remains to be seen if the AKP will again replace the HDP mayors with its own men (never women). The state of emergency and associated extraordinary powers for the ruling party is over, but if the AKP needs a law to get rid of its opposition, especially when they are Kurds, it will not hesitate to rush one through parliament. Or it can, as it has done so often before, simply use the broad anti-terrorism law to remove elected HDP officials from their seats and send them to jail. Time will tell.