Government appointees leave new mayors in Turkey’s southeast with crippling debt

The results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast were a vindication for the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – the pro-Kurdish party won back control of many of the municipalities from which the government had dismissed its previously elected mayors and councillors and replaced them with state administrators.

As Ahval reported last month, government-appointed administrators refused to hand municipalities to the newly elected mayors without taking nearly everything they could. The result is a mountain of debt so vast that HDP politicians suspect a plot to prevent them from running the municipalities. The party won three metropolitan municipalities, majorities in eight provinces and regained dozens of districts that had been taken over by administrators, usually loyalists of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Authorities took control of 95 of the 102 municipalities the HDP won in 2014, alleging the party’s mayors, who were replaced with appointees, had links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed group that has waged an armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.

Van province in eastern of Turkey was one of the HDP administrations taken over by government appointees in 2016 after fighting broke out between Kurdish militias and security forces. In three years of control by government appointees, HDP officials said debt in Van had ballooned from around 380 million lira to 1,240 billion lira ($208 million).

The HDP’s new co-mayor for Van, Bedia Özgökçe Ertan, said the new administration had been forced to make debt repayments its priority and would have to carefully evaluate the budget to make sure it provided a bare minimum of services.

Likewise, HDP officials said Derik district municipality in the southeastern province of Mardin had been left with 15 million lira ($2.5 million) of unpaid debt, meaning that the new administration was unable to use the 200,000 lira left in its coffers.

“We don’t even have money to print the documents needed to officiate a wedding,” Derik co-chair Mülkiye Esmez said.

The debt in the larger Mardin Metropolitan Municipality is so high that the city’s new co-chair, Ahmet Türk, believes it was accrued intentionally as an obstacle for the incoming HDP administration.

“They’ve left the municipality in such a state it’s as if they wanted to leave us unable to do anything, and to provoke a reaction from the public,” Türk said.

The HDP faces similar situations in other provinces and districts it won back on March 31, and many of the new administrations say they have discovered large amounts had been simply given away.

Diyarbakır, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, was handed over to the new HDP administration with 83 million lira ($13.9 million) of debt, as well as 27 million lira due to contractors on public tender projects and another 28 million lira in credit taken out by the government appointed mayor.

Of that debt, 7 million lira ($1.17 million) was spent on the family and social policy ministry, and 3 million lira on the opening of a huge religious complex, the new co-chair, Belgin Diken, said. Almost 800,000 lira of municipal money was spent on AKP electoral propaganda, she said.

HDP officials said in Sur district in central Diyarbakır, the government-appointed administrator had given an army corps command furniture worth 44,500 lira ($7,469), and in the southeastern province of Cizre, municipal money paid for the district governor’s stationery, furniture and cleaning expenses and even went towards expenses for the local police barber.