Council of Europe calls on Turkey to restore dismissed pro-Kurdish mayors

The Council of Europe’s advisory Venice Commission of legal experts on Friday called on the Turkish government to repeal decisions to sack pro-Kurdish mayors, which it said had undermined democratic self-government in southeast Turkey. 

The CoE said in a press release that the decision to remove mayors from cities such as Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van following local elections in March 2019 and their replacement with government appointees was inconsistent with international norms and standards and should be reversed.

“It is crucial for the proper functioning of democracy that the candidates who received the highest number of votes are deemed elected, and not second placed candidates from other political parties,” the CoE said.

The commission said it recognised Turkey has been fighting a longstanding battle against terrorists in the southeast of the country, and also that in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016 certain extraordinary measures may have been required in Turkey since the country was confronted with an armed conspiracy.

But the CoE said that the state of emergency ended in 2018 and the removal of the mayors was unjustified. “They undermine the very nature of local self-government and also should be repealed,” it said.

The commission said that the moves to ban some candidates from running by virtue of emergency decree law and to remove others are “incompatible with basic principles of democracy - the respect for the free expression of the will of the voters and the rights of elected officials - and of the rule of law - including legality and legal certainty”.

The Venice Commission formed the opinion following a request from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

A total of 40 out of 65 municipalities won by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) are now under the control of government-appointed trustees. 

The government has accused the HDP of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Ankara previously removed 95 HDP mayors after the party won 102 municipalities in 2014. 

A 2018 report showed that almost one-third of the HDP’s members had been detained since a peace process between Turkey and the PKK collapsed in 2015, and thousands of HDP members remain in prisons - making up a significant portion of Turkey’s 50,000 prisoners who face terrorism charges.

Turkey director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Emma Sinclair-Webb told AFP in April that the government's aim was to "collapse any distinction between the HDP, a legal party playing by the rules of the game in parliament and democratically-elected representatives from this party, and an armed organisation.”

"When it comes to the HDP, just slapping trumped-up terror charges is the easiest way to go and it's just a political attempt to destroy their legitimacy," she said.