The mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis with almost 15 million inhabitants, stepped down from office last month. Since then, five other mayors from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) followed suit, responding to their party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s command to resign, nearly a year and a half before their mandates were to end. President Erdogan had presented the purge as a move to remedy the “fatigue” within the AKP, an accusation the ousted mayors rejected. Despite some initial resistance by these mayors, Erdogan succeeded in unseating all six officeholders swiftly, demonstrating that his desire of one-man rule is just as great at the municipal level as the national one.
The six AKP mayors who had to bow to Erdogan’s pressure include those of Istanbul, Ankara, and Bursa, Turkey’s first, second, and fourth most populous metropolises, respectively. In total, the six municipalities governed by the ex-mayors are home to 25 million of Turkey’s 80 million citizens. The Turkish president, who has already monopolized executive, legislative, and judicial powers as part of his post-coup power grab, will now also usurp municipal prerogatives by appointing caretakers to replace these ex-mayors.
There were initial rumors that some of the AKP mayors would fight back against Erdogan’s calls for their resignation. Melih Gokcek, mayor of Ankara since 1994, stated that although he is neither tired nor unsuccessful, he was resigning simply to obey Erdogan’s request. Another mayor, who resisted Erdogan’s call to step down for 38 days, claimed that he had received threats for not resigning. The national government’s spokesperson denied that the AKP officials had threatened anyone, and said that if there was a threat the mayor could go to court.
Erdogan’s reshuffle of AKP mayors is a continuation of his municipal power grab that started with the spurious charges against, and systematic purge of, mayors of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) – an affiliate of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Using emergency powers, Erdogan has already removed 93 DBP mayors from office and replaced them with trustees that he handpicked. Seventy one of the ousted mayors are still in jail.
Erdogan’s crackdown on the municipalities continues to undermine local governance capacity in Turkey. Erdogan-appointed trustees have now replaced elected mayors and rule 101 municipalities. Additionally, 14 DBP mayors who are still in office no longer have the authority to run their own affairs without the approval of state-appointed governors. Following the ouster of the six AKP mayors, more than a third of the Turkish electorate are now ruled by mayors they have not elected.
Analysts warn that mayors of Turkey’s secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) might be Erdogan’s next target. Last month, the government sent inspectors to more than 20 CHP municipalities, in what appears to be a preparation to oust further mayors through the use of spurious charges and emergency powers.
With his ongoing and planned purges against local governments, Turkey’s strongman is eliminating one of the last havens of democratic governance in the country. As Erdogan’s insatiable quest for political power and economic spoils turns from the central government to local authorities, elected AKP officials join opposition politicians as victims of one-man rule. Now that they are getting a taste of the authoritarian regime they helped build, with neither independent media nor courts to hear their grievances, they do not appear to like it.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
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