Turkey’s Erdoğan consolidates local control ahead of 2019 polls

The mayor of Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district, Murat Hazinedar, was dismissed from office by a Ministry of Interior decision last week. He’s the second district mayor representing the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to be removed.

Dismissing mayors from opposition parties is nothing new, however. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has removed from office more than 80 of the 103 elected mayors representing the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and replaced them with government-appointed administrators (kayyum).

Even mayors from Erdoğan’s own ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been targeted. Six AKP mayors representing major cities were forced to resign in 2017 in an attempt to increase intra-party cohesion and compliance ahead of the 2019 elections.

AKP-run municipalities and local AKP party organisations are intertwined and the control of municipal resources is used to deliver patronage and the party line come election time.

The removal of mayors is a preparation for local, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 and at the same time it lays the foundation for more administrative centralisation by the executive presidential system that will follow the polls.

For many Turks, removing HDP mayors from office is one thing – they have been accused of helping the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – but dismissing CHP mayors is quite another. The CHP is Turkey’s oldest party and was set up by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

The CHP is now a centre-left, secularist party, very much in the mainstream of Turkish politics. Many consider a move against the CHP a precursor of even more widespread suppression of the opposition.

The move against the CHP mayors also highlights the lack of consequences faced by the government when it disregards the popular will and democratic principles. Many acknowledge the faults of the mayors, but say it is up to the electorate to remove them, not the government.

I think, at this point, it is too late to show concern about repression and violation of democratic principles. That train has left the station. It is highly doubtful that Turkey’s citizens will be able to show their will in free and fair elections in the near future. 

The dismissal of elected mayors should not be seen as a blow to a non-existent democracy, but rather as the centralisation and expansion of the existing authoritarian power.

Erdoğan last week urged local party organizations to work towards securing the municipal elections in March next year as a prelude to the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held by November 2019.  

Facing weaker support in opinion polls and after winning by a very narrow margin in the April 2017 referendum to give the presidency more powers, Erdoğan is expecting a close-run campaign in the upcoming elections.

The president needs to have the resources of the AKP-run municipalities under his control and cannot afford any insubordination or inefficiencies from AKP mayors.

Erdoğan also aims to deprive opposition parties of municipal resources and patronage delivery networks the AKP enjoys leading up to 2019. In an attempt to make the playing field even more uneven than before the April 2017 referendum, Erdoğan would like the local vote generating machinery to work for his own party, not the opposition. His control over the judiciary and the ability to issue state of emergency decrees has enabled him to do that.

HDP municipalities have been penalised for putting up signs in both Kurdish and Turkish, but AKP municipalities are free to organise religious events to serve their conservative, Islamist supporters. Beşiktaş mayor Hazinedar should indeed be held to account for the corruption allegations against him, but the same accountability is not required for AKP mayors.  

Media reports have suggested that Erdoğan is considering eliminating local elections altogether if he is returned as president next year. He expressed content with the appointed mayors and is looking to legal changes that will have all mayors appointed by the centre.

Also under consideration is a plan to centralise local administrations and eliminate neighbourhood-level elections in 51 provinces. Legislation of this plan will curb local representation from bottom up while appointing mayors (or trustees) curbs local representation from above.  

Considering these developments together, it is clear that the ongoing authoritarianism at the national level is duplicated at the local level as well. The result will be total Erdoğan control in all aspects of national and local government after 2019. The Turks who are waking up to the political reality only after the removal of CHP mayors better understand where we are headed.