Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK) overturned the election of seven mayors from a pro-Kurdish opposition party yesterday, handing their offices to losing candidates from the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Coming ten days after a stunning upset of Erdogan’s party in local elections, the YSK’s decision bolsters Erdogan’s bid to tighten the noose on Turkey’s embattled Kurdish-majority provinces.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major setbacks on March 31, losing key provinces, including the capital of Ankara and economic hub of Istanbul, to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition. After several recounts confirmed the loss of Istanbul, Erdogan has begun to press for a re-run of the vote. While the YSK has rejected the AKP’s demand for a recount in Ankara, the board’s April 10 ouster of seven mayors shows its readiness to nullify results displeasing to Erdogan.
Technically, the YSK ruled that seven mayors-elect from the progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were not eligible to serve because they were public servants previously dismissed from office by presidential decree. Yet the YSK not only allowed these candidates to run in the March 31 elections despite their dismissal, but also ruled in 2018 that such candidates are eligible for membership in parliament.
The original dismissals of these and other public servants were also partisan acts. After re-launching Ankara’s war on Kurdish insurgents in 2015, Erdogan used the “state of emergency” powers he granted himself in 2016 to issue decrees suspending more than 150,000 public servants, including thousands of HDP members. All of the seven mayors barred from office were from four of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority provinces.
The YSK also helped Erdogan secure the Kurdish-majority province of Mus. After an election fraught with voter irregularities and 2,449 voided ballots, the HDP lost to the pro-Erdogan Islamist-ultranationalist alliance by 538 votes. In one district, the difference was as few as three ballots. Citing errors in 103 boxes and the towers of voided ballots, the HDP demanded a recount. Yet the YSK, which granted Erdogan’s request for a recount in Istanbul based on a 13,000-vote difference favoring the opposition, rejected all five of the HDP’s requests for a recount. On April 2, the Mus province outlawed all assemblies and public demonstrations for two weeks. The HDP vowed to appeal the YKS’s decision to Turkey’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The recent assaults on the HDP follow a concerted government-led effort to undermine the party. Although the HDP is Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, it faced the toughest obstacles in this election. The party’s elected officials were forcibly removed from office, its co-chairs and thousands of members are in jail under dubious charges, and Turkish media barely covered its campaign. In several Kurdish-dominated towns in the southeast, HDP candidates campaigned and voted under a heavy military presence.
Amidst Erdogan’s push to force a re-vote in Istanbul, the YSK has already upended election results elsewhere in Turkey, marking one of its worst assaults yet on Turkish democracy. Nullifying these electoral victories – won under the hardest circumstances – is a direct message to Turkey’s opposition and global observers alike: Despite the Turkish electorate’s resounding call for reform, the restoration of democracy in Turkey is nowhere near Erdogan’s sights. Turkey’s transatlantic allies must dial up their calls on Erdogan to respect the results of an already controversial election.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Merve on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.