Diyarbakır mayoral candidates set for crucial local election contest

Turkey’s March 31 local elections have sparked a vicious campaign by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has strived to paint the vote as a matter of existential importance for Turkey that outweighs the municipal seats at stake.

The ruling party has accused the alliance of opposition parties standing against it of joining forces with terrorists, referring to the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which AKP officials call an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984 and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Contests in the HDP’s heartlands in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, and especially in the region’s largest city, Diyarbakır, are therefore among the most crucial to watch in the country.

The AKP government has already stripped more than 80 HDP mayors and many councillors in Diyarbakır and elsewhere of their offices, replacing them with government appointees, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to do the same again this time around if the electorate returns more candidates from the Kurdish party to office.

“Where government appointees have taken over from elected politicians, that’s a coup by the state against the will of the people. I don’t even say they’ve been robbed: it’s virtually a coup,” said Selçuk Mızraklı, one of the HDP’s two joint mayoral candidates for Diyarbakır, alongside Hülya Alökmen Uyanık. 

The HDP candidate has already been subject to a media campaign alleging links to the PKK. The allegations, Mızraklı said, were an attempt to sling mud hoping some sticks, and he added that with time such efforts could backfire.

HDP rallies have been marked by a police presence that is at times intimidatingly large, but Mızraklı seemed untroubled.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell how many in the crowds are police officers and how many are our people. Since they’re following us so closely, it means we can expect a few votes from them," he joked.

Mızraklı believes the AKP government’s tight hold over the country will likely lead to attempts to manipulate the election results. But, he said, his party was determined to stand guard over every ballot box, and he believes the people of Diyarbakır will come out for the HDP in force on March 31.

“I believe our votes will be through the roof. These are going to be very different elections to the last - the first to be held since the period of one-man rule began,” said Mızraklı. Erdoğan became the first to lead Turkey under the new executive presidential system after winning the June 24 election last year.

A supporter of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reacts as a special forces police officer stands on top of a roof during a rally for the upcoming local elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
A supporter of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reacts as a special forces police officer stands on top of a roof during a rally for the upcoming local elections in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

While eyes are focussed on the HDP and AKP, the parties considered frontrunners in the March 31 race in Diyarbakır, independent mayoral candidate Sebgetullah Seydaoğlu believes he can grab voters’ attention by offering a rare alternative.

“In Mesopotamia everything’s black and white. You’re either on the side of the state or you engage in politics formed to protest against a history of suffering. I want to show people a third way,” said Seydaoğlu.

In the case of Diyarbakır, Seydaoğlu reports that the state has left little doubt that it has cast off the principle of impartiality to support the ruling party.

“Every week the governor is providing breakfasts for neighbourhood heads, and the government-appointed officials give out free food. I see the governor, provincial governors, police chiefs, gendarmerie commanders at every funeral reception I attend. Provincial governors are asking people for votes. The state has come out in full force,” he said.

As well as the formidable force of the state arrayed against him, Seydaoğlu is also up against the HDP, by far the most popular opposition party in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish regions.

But Seydaoğlu can draw from long experience in politics in the city, where he served as a deputy for the liberal conservative Motherland Party from 1996-2002, before standing as the AKP’s mayoral candidate for the city’s Yenişehir district in 2014, losing to the HDP’s candidates.

In this election, Seydaoğlu is drawing on history that goes even further back. His ideal vision, he said, is to complete the revolution begun in 1978 when socialist politician Mehdi Zana was elected as mayor of Diyarbakır. Zana’s administration was cut short in 1980 when a right-wing military junta overthrew the government in a coup-d’état and threw the independent socialist mayor and hundreds of thousands of others in jail.

Veysi Aghan, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s mayoral candidate for Diyarbakır, has been a resident of the municipality since Zana’s time, though his ambitions are far more modest than Seydaoğlu’s.

“If we can get more than the 20,000 votes we won in the last elections that’s a success for us,” said Aghan. The CHP commanded the second-highest number of votes nationwide in the last parliamentary elections, but still came a distant second to the AKP and has a voter base mostly concentrated in Turkey’s western provinces.

“Our greatest problem here is that the people’s will is not being represented,” said Aghan, voicing his opposition to the government’s move to replace officials elected by the public in the 2014 elections.

The AKP’s candidate, Cumali Atilla, did not respond to questions from Ahval.