The Turkish government on Monday removed from office three mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) less than six months into their five-year terms. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who suffered an embarrassing defeat in last March’s local elections, continues to disregard the will of Turkey’s electorate by appointing trustees to replace opposition mayors.
Erdogan first introduced the practice of removing elected mayors from office in September 2016, taking advantage of the state of emergency declared shortly after Turkey’s abortive coup. Together with his ultranationalist allies, the Turkish leader first targeted pro-Kurdish officials, replacing 90 of the 102 HDP mayors with trustees. Shortly after the March 2019 elections, which provided many HDP mayors with a renewed mandate to assume office, Turkey’s High Election Board overturned the election of seven HDP mayors, handing their offices to losing candidates from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
There are signs that the Turkish president’s power grab will continue with other mayoralties. The HDP co-mayors of Kars, a province bordering Armenia, reported on Monday that police raided their houses and notified them via their lawyers that they would have to give depositions. Ayhan Bilgen, one of the co-mayors, tweeted that he was going to face charges for “establishing and managing an armed organization.” The day before, a pro-government columnist claimed that authorities could also remove from office up to 34 mayors from the pro-secular Republican People’s Party. This would include the Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who emerged victorious from a re-vote in June after Erdogan, with no plausible legal justification, annulled the city’s election.
Erdogan’s blatant disregard for election results has drawn increasing criticism from Europe, while the U.S. government has remained silent. Anders Knape, the president of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, warned, “the excessive use of legal proceedings against local elected representatives in Turkey … seriously undermines the proper functioning of local democracy.” While Maja Kocijancic, the European Union spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, called upon the Turkish government “to repeal measures inhibiting the functioning of local democracy,” the European Parliament’s Turkey Rapporteur Kati Piri protested that “the people’s will in Turkey is apparently only respected as long as it serves the ruling AKP.”
Erdogan’s power grab also spurred criticism from two of his closest colleagues, former President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who are both in the process of establishing splinter parties from the AKP. In a tweet that received over 50,000 likes, Gul said that Erdogan’s move “has not been right for our democracy.” Davutoglu, meanwhile, tweeted that the removal of mayors is “contrary to the spirit of the democratic system.”
Despite growing criticism at home and abroad, the Turkish president appears unmoved. The Turkish police used water cannons and batons on demonstrators protesting Erdogan’s latest power grab, arresting over 400 people and injuring three HDP lawmakers. As popular support for Turkey’s Islamist president continues to erode, he increasingly relies on strong-arm methods, destroying any remaining semblance of ballot box democracy in the country.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.