A return to palace rule as Turkey marks its parliament’s centennial?

On April 23, 2020, Turkey will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its Grand National Assembly, a body that not only symbolises the Turkish national identity that its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, sought to instil among the Anatolian people in the aftermath of the First World War, but that was also instrumental in the creation of the Turkish state that was forged out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Over the past century, Turkey has struggled to establish itself as a full-fledged democracy. While the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 brought renewed hope that Turkey would accelerate its democratic evolution, once the party established itself as a hegemonic power, its commitment to democratisation dissipated. Over time the historic weaknesses in Turkey’s democracy not only re-emerged, but intensified.

The consolidation of power within Turkey’s executive branch has allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take unprecedented steps to undermine the nation’s democratic institutions. In particular, the return of the trustee system after the March 31, 2019 elections provides strong evidence that Erdoğan is not only committed to dismantling local democracy, but is also unchecked in these efforts.

The brief ceasefire between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) ended after the June 2015 elections, and the two sides resumed their decades long conflict - this time in the form of urban guerrilla warfare. Since then, more than 4,000 people have been killed, neighbourhoods in many Kurdish towns and cities have been decimated, and over 350,000 civilians have been displaced.

The significant decline in independent media outlets and journalists, along with increased state censorship and the implementation of widespread military curfews in the Kurdish-majority southeast of the country has meant that much of the violence has been hidden from public view.

Erdoğan has remained steadfast in his anti-Kurdish nationalist platform, declaring in early 2016 that: “Turkey has no Kurdish problem, but a terror problem.” In May 2016, his controversial constitutional amendment stripping MPs of their immunity from prosecution passed in parliament.

With the help of the state of emergency he imposed after the coup attempt in July 2016, Erdoğan began targeting MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Between November 2016 and April 2017, 19 HDP MPs and some 300 HDP officials were arrested on charges of alleged links with the PKK or for participating in protests against Operation Euphrates Shield, a military campaign in Syria targeting both Kurdish-led forces and Islamic State. Both HDP co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, were also jailed at this time.

The Turkish government has used the state of emergency as an instrument of authoritarian repression against not only the press and individual rights and freedoms, but also against judicial and electoral institutions.

Particularly noteworthy has been the disenfranchisement of millions of voters via Decree Law No. 674, which was implemented during the state of emergency. This law amended an existing municipal law (No. 5393) authorising the government to replace duly elected municipal officials dismissed or arrested for membership in or ties to terrorist organisations with their own appointed trustees.

It also gave the authority to provincial governors to seize municipal properties and dismiss municipal employees. As a result of this law, mayors in nearly all municipalities governed by the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) – the HDP’s sister-party in local governments at the time - including four metropolitan and ten provincial municipalities in the Kurdish region, were removed and replaced with trustees between September 2016 and February 2018. Ninety-three co-mayors and hundreds more municipal assembly members were imprisoned for varying terms. In the run-up to the March 2019 municipal elections, 50 Kurdish co-mayors were still in prison.

The appointment of trustees had a number of deleterious effects on the HDP and Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. For starters, the removal of HDP mayors not only undermined a fundamental democratic right of Kurdish citizens, but also decimated the co-mayor system - an institution created by the HDP to ensure the equal representation of women in local government.

In addition, based on audits conducted in municipalities retaken by the HDP after the 2019 local elections, there is evidence of widespread financial mismanagement and waste that put many of the municipalities governed by the AKP appointed trustees into serious debt.

As the March 2019 local elections approached, the state of emergency was no longer in place, but the targeting of HDP co-mayors continued. This time, the government blocked 14 winning HDP co-mayors from taking office, allowing second place AKP candidates in six municipalities and appointed AKP trustees in the other eight municipalities to take office instead.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.