Kurds in Turkey’s southeast defiant after mayoral dismissals

For most people in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır, the March 31 local elections represented an opportunity to express their defiance in the face of government policies toward the Kurdish political movement, yet months later they have been forced to take to the streets to defend their democratic rights. 

The Interior Ministry last week dismissed the mayors of Turkey’s three largest Kurdish majority cities -- all elected in March for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) -- for suspected terror links, and replaced them with appointees.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signalled such a move was on the cards ahead of the March 31 vote, saying mayors could be removed once again over terror links, as had been done after a coup attempt in 2016, when the government dismissed more than 90 HDP mayors in southeast Turkey. 

In Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s southeast and the centre of the Kurdish political movement, locals have been organising marches and sit-ins and making press announcements since the dismissals were announced. 

For Selçuk Mızraklı, the dismissed mayor of Diyarbakır, the job of protecting Turkish democracy falls on the shoulders of every citizen. 

“It is a duty for everyone, every group, every political party in Turkey that believes in democratic values and the rule of law,” he told Ahval. “Everybody should loudly protest the sinister practices of the existing system. And it is important to avoid a language that presents demonstrations on the streets as illegal. The streets are the source of democracy.”

Yet participation seemed lower than in previous years, which locals blamed on disproportionate police violence, protest fatigue, and psychological drift. Still, many take part in civil obedience at their homes in the evenings, while the streets of Diyarbakır are full of the armoured vehicles of Turkish security forces.

Murat Kılıç, who has been protesting in Diyarbakır every day, said the removal of mayors was the government’s way of taking revenge. “As Kurds, we will not sit at home. We will be on the streets everyday. We will defend our will no matter what, we will not surrender,” he said. 

Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, Turkey’s Kurdish problem has become a regional problem. The Turkish government sees the U.S.-allied, mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control some enclaves in northeast Syria, as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed insurgency inside Turkey for more than three decades. It also says the HDP, which has lawmakers in the Turkish parliament, is the political wing of the PKK. 

Fadıl Çelik, a protestor in Diyarbakır, thinks that the dismissal of mayors is related to Kurds’ territorial gains in northern Syria. “They will lose here each time, even if they hold elections every single day. They are committing theft. They are seizing the municipalities,” he said. “They tell people to struggle in civilian life. The people do it, but this time they do not accept it. They have no choice but to resist.” 

For many Kurds, the dismissals represent the ignoring of the people’s will. “We want to be ruled by people we voted for. We do not want people appointed from above,” said Muzaffer Akgün, another protestor.

Protester Ali Alkan, who was in police custody for four days after being detained on the day the dismissal were announced, agrees. “I am here to oppose my people’s will being stepped on, to own my will,” he said. “They have blocked politics, they want to kick us out of politics by blocking our way. They want to separate us, but we work for coexistence. Peace in this country is only possible by free politics. Kurds do not want to do it any other way.”

Some see the government’s decision as Erdoğan’s effort to consolidate his power despite weakening support. “He does not care about the people, his only purpose is to keep his power and palace,” said Meryem Soylu, one of many women protestors.

In the March 31 elections, the HDP followed a strategy meant to weaken President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). As a result, the party did not field candidates in many provinces in Turkey’s south and west, where Kurdish votes played a key role in victories for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in five of the country’s most populous provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara. 

Some protesters expressed their disappointment in the CHP’s decision to stay away from the protests, though it denounced the dismissals.  

“The CHP won major provinces, thanks to the HDP. It is not right for the CHP to remain silent on the dismissals of the mayors,” said Sabit Öztemel. “It is not acceptable. If this goes on like that, Erdoğan for sure will seize the municipalities in Istanbul and Ankara by appointing mayors. If they stay silent to this persecution, he can appoint mayors everywhere in Turkey.”

Mızraklı, the dismissed mayor, pointed out that it would now be difficult for Kurdish politicians to convince young people that their democratic participation would bear fruit, a situation that could encourage separatism. 

Indeed, Diyarbakır resident Abdulbaki Balaban did not join the protests, but he said elections meant nothing if the government were simply going to replace them.

“They should not hold elections then,” he said. “This is not only persecution of Kurds, it is also persecution of Turks.”