Appointing trustees contradicts AKP's founding principles

As you surely know by now, Turkey’s Interior Ministry on Monday dismissed the mayors of Turkey’s three largest Kurdish majority cities, Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, and replaced them with appointees. 

Essentially, the state has declared these three politicians, all of whom were elected in March with sizeable majorities for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), guilty without trial, a stark contrast to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) supposed governance policy. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long opposed the central government’s power over municipalities, likely because he suffered considerably from the misuse of this power during his time as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s. 

When his party came to power, one of its first key initiatives was a law that would hand more power to municipalities. But it was vetoed by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. 

Several theories have been proposed to explain the motives of the last week’s removal of mayors. Some analysts believe it is the fulfilment of a warning made by Erdoğan before the March 31 vote, when he said any mayors found to have links to outlawed Kurdish militants would be removed from office. 

Others see the move as a threat toward other opposition mayors, urging them to behave and refrain from doing things that would anger the government. A third group believes the dismissals are meant to reshuffle the political arena, so there is now a slightly different realignment in Turkish politics. 

Another message may be directed to those who are trying to establish new political parties, such as former economy minister Ali Babacan, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former health minister Rıfat Serdaroğlu, and those thinking about quitting the AKP. The message to them is that the AKP is in control and nothing can be done without its consent.  

Returning to the ousted mayors, all three were cleared to stand as candidates in the elections less than five months ago. As of March 31, according to the state, they had done nothing that would draw criminal charges. 

Yet almost all of the accusations made in connection to their dismissal this week pertain to acts committed before the March vote. If they were already guilty of an unlawful act back then, they should not have been allowed to run for office. 

In a state of law, offences for which a legal procedure has already been initiated will follow their course and, if found guilty, officials might be removed from their post. If found not guilty, they will remain. If, on the other hand, they commit a new offence after they assume their post, a new legal action will be initiated against them.

According to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), if a person is found eligible to stand as a candidate, he cannot be declared unfit after the election, because it is assumed that citizens voted for him thinking the state had made sure of his qualifications. The ousted Kurdish mayors will probably apply to the ECHR after exhausting their domestic legal alternatives, though it should be pointed out that leading Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş remains in prison nine months after the ECHR called for his release. 

The reaction of other political parties has been varied. The HDP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) stood against the move, with the former organising protests. The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supported the dismissals, while smaller parties have been divided.

Prominent pro-government columnist Abdülkadir Selvi shared a joke that has been spreading in these three provinces, which says locals don’t mind the appointment of trustees, because thanks to them the central authorities will provide generous subsidies. If the elected mayors had remained in their posts, on the other hand, the central authorities would do everything to cut their funding.   

It is not easy to tell how this move will unfold, but even if nothing concrete comes out of it, the AKP has shown once again that it is the principal actor in the country.