ANKARA: The suspensions of elected mayors and the detainment of hundreds of people in eastern and southeastern Turkey has sparked harsh criticism and has raised questions as to why elections are being held in the country at all.
Regardless of the outcome of the March 31 elections, where all three cities increased their vote share, with 63, 54 and 56 percent respectively, the mayors of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin were suspended and replaced by trustees on Monday by Turkey’s Interior Ministry as part of a terrorism-related investigation.
The seats vacated by Kurdish mayors will now be filled by people selected by the metropolitan municipal assemblies whose majorities are held by pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) members in the three cities. The HDP denounced the decision as a “political coup.”
According to Berk Esen, a political analyst from Bilkent University in Ankara, the suspension of elected mayors is a travesty of justice and makes a mockery of the electoral process that has already come under heavy strain over the past few years.
“Although the election of opposition mayors in major cities across Turkey this spring raised hopes that the regime is still competitive, this decision demonstrates the government’s uneasiness about retaining even the semblance of an electoral system,” he told Arab News.
Esen said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deals with each opposition party separately: While Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayors are kept in place but their hands tied, those from the HDP are sometimes not even allowed to take their seats or keep them for long.
“The government has not offered any clear evidence linking the mayors to terrorist acts and has not declared why they were allowed to contest elections in the first place,” he added.
The decision has also drawn criticism from the EU.
“Dismissals and detentions of local politicians and appointment of trustees deprive voters of political representation at local level, and seriously risk damaging local democracy,” Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, stated.
Some experts say that such moves may trigger similar attempts in other big cities where the ruling party lost control in the previous elections. Istanbul’s new mayor and a secular challenger, Ekrem Imamoglu, was quick to protest the decision.
“It is impossible to associate the removal of Diyarbakir, Van and Mardin’s mayors with democratic practices. The three mayors who are replaced by state-appointed trustees were elected by popular vote in the March 31 local elections. Ignoring the will of the people is unacceptable,” he tweeted.
The justification of the Interior Ministry for appointing trustees is that the mayors are currently facing terror-linked legal proceedings about their speeches and political activities, although none of them have been formally charged.
Esen thinks that the government’s move will backfire.
“In all three cities the government had appointed caretakers in 2016 but still lost the election with a larger margin in 2019. The government, which until 2011 had the lion’s share of the Kurdish vote, is no longer able to win the hearts and minds of the people in the region and this move is going to make the situation worse,” he said.
According to Esen, with such undemocratic moves, the government is pushing main opposition parties to act together and may unintentionally help forge a common electoral front as we began to see in the 2019 local elections.