Ankara’s false power over municipalities

Last week the Turkish government dismissed the mayors of the country’s three largest Kurdish-majority cities, not five months after they had been elected with sizable margins.

In that March 31 vote, Selçuk Mızraklı of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received 63 percent of the vote for Diyarbakır mayor. The very next day, before the new mayor had even taken office, the Diyarbakır Governor’s Office sent a request the Interior Ministry to have Mızraklı dismissed, according to a document leaked last week. 

This was likely a secret document and the fact that it was leaked shows the extent to which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is losing control over the bureaucracy. 

The removal decisions were made on the basis of Article 127 of the Turkish constitution. Article 127 says the loss of status for municipal officials is to be decided by the judiciary, but gives the Minister of Internal Affairs authority to remove them temporarily while awaiting a court verdict.

“The central administration has the power of administrative tutelage over the local administrations in the framework of principles and procedures set forth by law with the objective of ensuring the functioning of local services,” the article says. 

This shows that the removal decisions violated the law, as those mayors had been approved by the election council to run for office on March 31. Under normal circumstances, an administrative court would immediately reverse the dismissals. 

But these are not normal circumstances, so let’s leave aside the unlawfulness of the decision and discuss the concept of administrative tutelage instead. 

A state produces public services, thus, all functions of the state should be justified as a public service. Any act of the state that is not defined as a public service could be lawful, but it will not be legitimate. 

In Turkey, there are two main pillars of public services: the central administration in Ankara and local services carried out by municipalities. In exceptional cases, the constitution allows the government to establish bodies outside these categories, such as regional governors. 

Hence, the central administration and the local services represent all of the Turkish state's public services. It is impossible to define a hierarchical structure between public services. Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that the services of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are more important than those of your local fire department. 

Since the central and local administrations provide services that complement each other and have no internal hierarchy among themselves, the concept of administrative tutelage, which refers to the power the central administration has over local governments, is unlawful and can only be explained as an attempt to establish political domination. 

Yet the constitution allows the Ministry of Interior to temporarily remove local administrators. The Turkish government removed more than 90 HDP mayors for terror links after a coup attempt in 2016. The ongoing protests after last week’s dismissals show that such decisions do not contribute to social peace. Nor, in fact, do they alter voter preferences, but rather strengthen them. 

Every person in the world is capable of committing a crime. Thus, none of us can say that no municipal official should ever be removed from office for alleged criminal offences.

However, such decisions must be made very carefully, based on clear, objective criteria and decided by a transparent institutional body that includes elected officials. Such moves should not take advantage of administrative tutelage. Under universal principles and the rule of law, such decisions cannot be left to a single official, including the interior minister. 

This also applies to lawmakers in the Turkish parliament. A lawmaker can commit crime that requires his removal from office, but such decisions should be made by the vote of a representative body. 

Turkey needs to analyze this concept of administrative tutelage and develop alternatives that will prevent future unjust dismissals of elected officials. But of course in Turkey all issues are seen from a political perspective, and ensuring the rule of law is a secondary concern, at best.