To serve as a mayor from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party these days is to fear arrest at any moment and govern in circumstances that hover between stifling and absurd, said Ayhan Bilgen, one of the few who has kept his office during an unrelenting government purge.
Turkey’s clampdown on opposition parties, civil society groups and dissidents intensified after a failed coup in 2016. But the removal of so many elected mayors — representing the will of millions of voters — has been a singularly stark illustration of the dangers facing the country’s democracy, according to human rights groups, analysts and members of the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which promotes Kurdish rights to cultural expression and greater autonomy.
The targeting of municipalities held by the party is becoming a feature of Turkey’s politics, rather than an aberration. In 2016, the authorities also removed elected HDP mayors en masse.
As a result, elected officials have been left in an anxious limbo.
“Every night when we go to bed, we think of the possibility that we might be taken in the morning,” said Bilgen, who is mayor of Kars, in eastern Turkey. “We all carry the concern that it might happen at any moment. But we have not received any signal that it will happen. This is very risky situation for a state of law.”
The government’s pursuit of the pro-Kurdish mayors is largely tactical. The HDP has long been a political nuisance for Erdogan, able to peel away voters who had formed a part of his base, analysts said. Erdogan’s anti-HDP rhetoric sharpened after he made an alliance with an ultranationalist party, but even that partnership had not stopped the president’s popularity from slipping, said Gönül Tol, the director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“He’s in big trouble. He has nowhere else to turn,” she said, referring to the crackdown on the mayors.
Turkish officials deny their actions against the HDP are political and say they are simply a matter of law. The officials have regularly accused members of the party, which remains legal, of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a banned militant group that has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Kurds make up roughly a fifth of Turkey’s population but still struggle for recognition in a nation that privileges Turkish ethnicity.
Last week, another HDP mayor lost her position, according to state media. Police on July 13 detained the mayor, Betul Yasar, on charges that included membership in a terrorist organization, a reference to the PKK, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. By the next day, her office, in the eastern Agri province, had been placed under the supervision of an acting mayor appointed by the central government.
As the mayors vanish, those who remain in office speak together frequently, sharing tips and black humor to get through their days, said Bilgen, in a video interview from Kars.
“Of course, we joke with one another, wondering whose turn is next,” he said. “There is constantly pressure on us.”
As a province-level mayor, Bilgen is perhaps the most prominent HDP mayor still in office. He hails from Sarikamis, a town surrounded by pine forests about 30 miles from the city of Kars, the provincial capital. After attending university in Ankara, he served in a variety of posts with Mazlumder, an Islamic human rights organization, including as its chairman.
He wrote columns for several newspapers and served as a member of parliament, as well as a spokesman, for the HDP. He is not Kurdish but rather a member of the Turkmen ethnic minority, he said. In 2017, he spent more than six months in jail on charges of belonging to the PKK.
“Right now, there are eight cases against me. And none of these are regarding the municipality. Meaning, none of these have to do with work I have done as a mayor. They are regarding a tweet I posted five years ago, or a press statement I partook in,” he said.
“These are things that make it difficult,” he said, adding that he faced considerable challenges as a mayor in Kars even without the threat of prosecution.
The province, in northeastern Turkey bordering Armenia, is heavily dependent on construction, tourism and agriculture and has suffered because of an economic downturn in Turkey that worsened after the coronavirus pandemic. When Bilgen took office, youth unemployment hovered near 30 percent, he said.
Adding to those difficulties was what he said was “constant” government pressure that included investigations and audits, “as if we are engaging in criminal activity,” he said. The pressure also came from pro-government media, which in the last few months had accused him of diverting public funds to families of PKK militants — referring, he said, to an initiative aimed at channeling charitable donations to low-income families who were suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.
An article in April in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper accusing him of helping militants declared: “The terrorism file of HDP’s Kars Mayor Ayhan Bilgen is thick.”
Before Bilgen and the other mayors were elected last year, Erdogan had issued a warning to the HDP, suggesting its candidates would not be allowed to serve.
“If you send the resources given to municipalities by the state to Kandil or use them in terrorism, then immediately, instantly, without waiting, we will appoint our trustees again,” he said in February 2019, referring to the PKK’s headquarters in the mountains of Iraq.
When the election was held the next month, it delivered stunning setbacks for Erdogan’s party, which lost mayoral contests in some of Turkey’s largest cities. Most unnerving for Erdogan were the losses of Istanbul and Ankara, to candidates from the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the country’s largest opposition party.
By August, the government had indicted three mayors from the HDP who had won landslide victories over candidates from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van were replaced with state officials.
Some of the newly elected HDP mayors — including Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, the mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southeast region — had promised to investigate the financial dealings of ruling-party members who had previously held the posts.
By February, 32 HDP mayors had been removed from their office, according to a report by Human Rights Watch that month. The group, citing an examination of 18 court cases, said the mayors’ detentions relied on “vague and generalized allegations against the mayors by witnesses, some secret, and on details of their political activities and social media postings, which fail to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that would justify detention.”
In Turkey’s big cities, the election and its aftermath highlighted the extent to which “mayors have become the real threat to Erdogan,” said Tol of the Middle East Institute. The main challengers came from the CHP, including some who have distinguished themselves with their response to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
But the story in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority areas is different. There, the stillborn elections have reinforced feelings of marginalization. “The government’s replacement of elected HDP mayors with appointed trustees has fundamentally altered the nature of local government in this region at the expense of voters’ rights and interests,” Nicholas Danforth, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, wrote in a recent briefing about the election results.
Recent polls have indicated “that Kurdish young people feel more distant, and don’t feel like they are part of Turkey anymore,” Tol said. “Kurdish youth avoid talking about politics with Turkish friends.”
Bilgen fretted that the sense of estrangement made it harder for the party to compete for support with the militants.
“People who give their votes to the HDP, who are mostly Kurdish voters, who are constantly being pushed and being othered, don’t feel like they are part of the collective future of this country.”